In Part 1 of this series, we took a look at some of the non-alcoholic beverages that the English-speaking world consumed during the Georgian Era. Here in Part 2, we are now going to take a look at some of the brewed and fermented alcoholic beverages consumed in England and her colonies. One problem with trying to look at alcoholic beverages consumed by the English in this period is that we are covering over 100 years (1714 – 1830). During that time many drinks went in and out of fashion, some of them almost lost to history. Another issue, when talking about ale and wine, is there are so many local variations that it would be impossible to cover them all. For this reason, I have chosen to take a more “general” approach to this article, discussing specific types, regions of origin, and only those whose popularity lasted throughout a significant part of the era.
Brewed and Fermented Beverages
First, what is cider? In the UK it is understood (and legally defined) to be a beverage made “wholly or partly from the fermented juice of apples”. Similar words – cidre, sidra – exist in France and Spain. In Germany and Switzerland, since they did not make cider there, there is no specific word and thus they use the term ‘Apfelwein’ (Apple wine) instead. In the USA and Canada, ‘cider’ commonly refers to a cloudy but unfermented ‘natural’ apple juice, unless qualified by the term ‘hard cider’ to denote that the natural juice is fermented.
Although many assume that the Norman Conquest was responsible for introducing cider to England, some researchers now believe it to have been in England long before that. However, it is true to say that, the Normans had the most positive effect on the history of cider making. Northern France was renowned for the volume and quality of its orchards and vineyards, as indeed was Southern England, but owing to climatic changes these areas became less suitable for the growing of grapes. Gradually cider began to replace wine. As a result, cider’s popularity grew steadily, it became the drink of the people, and production spread rapidly. By 1300, there were references to cider production in the counties now known as Buckinghamshire, Devonshire, Essex, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Kent, Norfolk, Somerset, Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex and other counties as far north as Yorkshire.
A traditional stone apple crusher, the start of the cider making process. The wheel was turned by a horse
English farms produced Cider in substantial quantities; every farm would have a few cider apple trees as well as cooking and dessert apple trees in the orchard, and it became customary in the 18th Century to pay part of a farm laborer’s wage in cider. A typical allowance on a farm would be 3 – 4 pints per day. Laborers were rated by the amount they drank and one comment was that a 2-gallon a day man was worth the extra he drank! In the western counties of England, a farm worker might receive as much as one-fifth of his wage in cider. (National Association of Cider Makers. Ltd., 2015)
Cider drinking was widely supposed to promote longevity as this chorus from a Devonshire cider drinking song shows:
I were brought up on cider
And I be a hundred and two
But still that be ‘nuthin when you come to think
Me father and mother be still in the pink
And they were brought up on cider
Of the rare old Tavistock brew
And me Granfer drinks quarts
For he’s one of the sports
That were brought up on cider too. (Breverton, 2015)
Other traditions are associated with cider, most notably the Wassail. Farmers and farm workers would salute the apple trees in a ceremony known as wassailing. Wassail or Wass Hal means “Be Thou of Good Health.” The time of the wassail varied from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night. Participants carried jugs of cider into the orchards, drank a health to the trees and next year’s anticipated crop, then poured cider around the tree roots. As a thanksgiving to the spirit of the apple tree, farmers placed small pieces of wheat flour cake, dipped in cider, in the forks of the trees. During the wassailing, participants created a great deal of noise by banging pots and pans
To give an idea of the quantities of cider produced and consumed in England, by the end of the 18th century, Worcestershire County alone shipped about 1.1 million gallons of cider a year throughout England.
America’s love affair with hard cider stretches back to the first English settlers. Upon finding only inedible crab apples upon arrival, the colonists quickly requested apple seeds from England and began cultivating orchards. While apple trees had little trouble taking to the New England soil, it was trickier to cultivate the barley and other grains required for producing beer. Therefore, cider became the beverage of choice on the early American dinner table. Even the children drank Ciderkin, sometimes called water-cider, a weaker alcoholic drink made from soaking apple pomace in water. Stagecoach and Tavern Days, written by Alice Morse Earle, describes a 16th Century New Hampshire settler proudly recounting “he made one barrel of cider, one barrel of water-cider, and one barrel of charming good drink” from his first apple crop of eight bushels. (Earle, 1900)
By the turn of the eighteenth century, New England was producing over 300,000 gallons of cider a year and, by mid-century, the average Massachusetts resident was consuming 35 gallons of cider a year. John Adams supposedly drank a tankard of cider every morning to settle his stomach.
Perry is an alcoholic beverage made from fermented pears, similar to the way cider is made from apples. It has been common for centuries in England, particularly in Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Worcestershire. It is also made in France, especially Normandy and Anjou.
The earliest known reference to fermented alcoholic drinks being made from pears is found in the works of the Roman writer Pliny, but Perry making seems to have become well established in what is today France after the collapse of the Roman empire. References to Perry making in England do not appear before the Norman Conquest. In the medieval period, France retained its association with pear growing, and the English imported most of the pears consumed from France. (Grafton, 2015) By the sixteenth and seventeenth century, however, Perry making was well established in the west of England, where the climate and soil was especially suitable for pear cultivation; it was found that Perry pears grew well in conditions where cider apple trees would not.
Perry may have grown in popularity after the English Civil War, when the large numbers of soldiers billeted in the region became acquainted with it. Perry drinking reached a zenith of popularity during the eighteenth century, when intermittent conflicts with France made the importing of wine difficult.
Although there seems to have been some interest in Perry in the United States today, it does not seem that it ever caught on as a drink in Colonial or Federal America.
Ale is a type of beer brewed from malted barley using a warm fermentation with a strain of brewers’ yeast. Ale typically has bittering agent(s) to balance the sweetness of the malt and to act as a preservative. Originally, Ale was “bittered” with gruit, a mixture of herbs (sometimes spices) which was boiled in the wort before fermentation. Later, hops replaced the gruit blend in common usage as the sole bittering agent. Compared to lager yeasts, ale yeast ferments more quickly, and often produces a sweeter, fuller-bodied and fruitier taste. Ale, along with bread, was an important source of nutrition, particularly small beer, also known as table beer or mild beer, which was highly nutritious, contained just enough alcohol to act as a preservative, and provided hydration without intoxicating effects. Almost everyone, including children consumed small beer daily, with higher-alcohol ales served for recreational purposes.
Types of Ale in the Georgian Era
Brown ale is a style of beer with a dark amber or brown color. The term was first used by London brewers in the late 17th century to describe their products, such as mild ale, though the term had a rather different meaning than it does today. (Sutula, 1999) 18th Century brown ales were lightly hopped and brewed from 100% brown malt. (Anonymous, The London and Country Brewer, 1737) These beers died out around 1800 as brewers moved away from using brown malt as a base. Pale malt, being cheaper because of its higher yield, was used as a base for all beers, including Porter and Stout. Today’s familiar Newcastle Brown Ale was developed and first marketed in 1927, probably as a nostalgic “tip of the hat” to the Brown Ales of the past.
Old ale was strong beer traditionally kept for about a year, gaining sharp, acetic flavors as it aged. One variety from the mid-18th century was October ale, a pale well-hopped brew popular among the landed classes, who brewed it domestically. Once brewed, it was intended to cellar for as much as two years.
Pale ale or Bitter was a term used for beers made from malt dried with coke. Brewers began using Coke for roasting malt in 1642, but it was not until around 1703 that the term pale ale first appears. The pale ales of the early 18th century were lightly hopped and quite different from today’s pale ales. India Pale ale, as we think of it today, did not exist during most of the Georgian era. By 1784, advertisements were appearing in the Calcutta Gazette for “light and excellent” pale ale. Among the first brewers known to export beer to India was the Bow Brewery, on the Middlesex-Essex border. Bow Brewery beers became popular among East India Company traders in the late 18th century because of the brewery’s location and their liberal 18-month line of credit. Ships transported Bow Brewery’s beers to India, among them their October Ale. This Ale especially benefited from the conditions of the voyage and was highly regarded among English consumers in India.
Early IPA, such as Burton brewers’ and Hodgson’s, was only slightly higher in alcohol than most beer brewed in his day and would not have been considered a strong ale; however, the Ale was well-fermented, leaving behind few residual sugars, and strongly hopped. The common story that early IPAs were stronger than other Ales of the time, however, is a myth. (Foster, 1999) While brewers formulated IPAs to survive long voyages by sea better than other styles of the time, porter was also shipped to India successfully. Demand for the export style of pale ale, known as India pale ale, developed in England around 1840 and India pale ale became a popular product in England
Porter is a dark style of beer developed in London from well-hopped beers made from brown malt. The name was first recorded as early as 1721, and it seems to be a more-aged development of the brown ales already made in London. (Cornell, 2011) Prior to 1700, London brewers sent out their beer very young and the publican or a dealer carried out any ageing. Porter was the first beer to be aged at the brewery and distributed in a condition fit to be drunk immediately. It was the first beer that could be made on any large scale, and the London porter brewers, such as Whitbread, Truman, Parsons and Thrale, achieved great success financially. Early London porters were strong beers by modern standards, around 6.6% Alcohol By Volume (ABV).
Scotch ale denotes a malty, strong ale amber-to-dark red in coloration. The malt may be slightly caramelized to impart toffee notes; generally, Scottish beers tend to be rather sweeter, darker and less hoppy than English ones. The classic styles are Light, Heavy and Export, dating back to 19th century method of invoicing beers according to their strength.
Brewing Ale 18th Century style. © 2014 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Stout is a dark beer made using roasted malt or roasted barley, hops, water and yeast. Stouts were traditionally the generic term for the strongest or stoutest porters, typically 7% or 8% ABV, produced by a brewery. The first known use of the word stout for beer was in a document dated 1677 found in the Egerton Manuscript, the sense being that a stout beer was a strong beer not a dark beer. (Lewis, 1998) The name porter was first used in 1721 to describe a dark brown beer made with roasted malts. (Cornell, 2011) Because of the huge popularity of porters, brewers made them in a variety of strengths. The beers with higher specific gravity were called “stout porters,” so the history and development of stout and porter are intertwined, and the term stout has since become firmly associated with dark beer, and not just strong beer.
Lager, the style of beer, that is today increasingly popular in England, America and elsewhere, was not made or sold in the UK or America during the Georgian era. The defining feature of lager beer is its maturation in cold storage, it is also distinguished by the use of bottom-fermenting lager yeast although top-fermenting yeast can be used to make some types of lager beer. Until the 19th century, the German word “Lagerbier” referred to all types of bottom-fermented, cool-conditioned beer, in normal strengths. According to many accounts, during the early nineteenth century, a new type of yeast emerged in Bavaria called Lager Beer Yeast. This yeast was active at the bottom of the fermenter and worked at cooler temperatures. The resulting beer, aged in caves or cellars, emerged with a much different character than ale. It was cleaner tasting and the flavor was not as “rough” as the warm fermented ales. Bavarian brewers began brewing with this yeast and their beer became popular with the Bavarian public. In England, pubs began offering continental lager in the late 19th century, but they remained a small part of the market for many decades.
In 1840, a Bavarian Brewmaster named John Wagner, risked punishment by removing the coveted lager yeast from Bavaria and brought it to America where he intended to start a new life and a new way of brewing in America. He brewed the nation’s first lager beer in Philadelphia on St. John Street, near Poplar in a “home brewery,” a small structure behind the house with a cellar for aging the beer. He produced batches of eight thirty-one gallon barrels, on a scale similar to that of brew pubs of today. (Master Brewer’s Association of the Americas, 2015)
Spruce beer is a beverage flavored with the buds, needles, or essence of spruce trees. Using evergreen needles to create beverages originated with the Indigenous people of North America who used the drink as a cure for scurvy during the winter months when fresh fruits were not available. It may have been brewed in Scandinavia before European contact with the Americas, but French and British explorers were ignorant of its use as a treatment for scurvy when they arrived in North America.
The British Royal Navy later picked up this method of treating scurvy, using evergreen-needle beverages, (Barton & Castle, 1837) and spruce was regularly added to ship-brewed beer during eighteenth century explorations of the West Coast of North America and the wider Pacific, including New Zealand. (Cook & King, 1784) Jane Austen, who had two brothers in the Royal Navy, refers to spruce beer in Chapter 40 of Emma.
In America, Spruce Beer was such an part of life that, in 1797, American Cookery, by Amelia Simmons, the first American cookbook ever printed contained a recipe for making Spruce Beer:
Take four ounces of hops, let them boil half an hour in one gallon of water, strain the hop water, then add 16 gallons of warm water, two gallons of molasses, eight ounces of essence of spruce, dissolved in one quart of water, put it in a clean cask, then shake it well together, add half a pint of emptins, then let it stand and work one week, if very warm weather less time will do, when it is drawn off to bottle, add one spoonful of molasses to every bottle.
Solidly establishing a date for when English-speaking people began making Ginger Beer is not easy. While there is a 1722 reference to brewing beer with ginger instead of hops, I do not really accept this as a reference to making Ginger Beer since hops are used as a bittering agent, rather than a flavoring agent in beers. Throughout history, and even today, brewers have added all sorts of spices, plants, roots, etc. to their beers to give unique flavors.
From the evidence that I was able to gather, Ginger Beer seems to appear around the end of the 18th Century as shown by a reference to “Ginger Beer carts” on the streets of London in the 1799 edition of Old Humphrey’s Walks in London. (Anonymous, Old Humphrey’s Walks in London, 1799) The earliest recipe that I could find for Ginger Beer comes from the Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Review in 1810:
Boil one ounce of ginger, bruised or grated, and the find of one lemon, in one gallon of water; then add the juice of the lemon, and one pound of lump sugar, and the white of one egg; give it a boil, scum it, and strain it, and pour off the clear liquor; let it stand 24 hours; then put it in a barrel, but not bung it tight; in 6 days, bottle it; and in 14 days, it will be fit for drinking.
Alcoholic birch beer, where the birch sap is fermented, has been known since at least the seventeenth century. The following recipe is from 1676:
To every Gallon whereof, add a pound of refined Sugar, and boil it about a quarter or half an hour; then set it to cool, and add a very little Yest to it, and it will ferment, and thereby purge itself from that little dross the Liquor and Sugar can yield: then put it in a Barrel, and add thereto a small proportion of Cinnamon and Mace bruised, about half an ounce of both to ten Gallons; then stop it very close, and about a month after bottle it; and in a few days you will have a most delicate brisk Wine of a flavor like unto Rhenish. Its Spirits are so volatile, that they are apt to break the Bottles, unless placed in a Refrigeratory, and when poured out, it gives a white head in the Glass. This Liquor is not of long duration, unless preserved very cool. Ale brewed of this Juice or Sap, is esteem’d very wholesome.
Birch beer seems to have been most popular in America, particularly New England, New York, and Pennsylvania where brewers used Black Birch sap, birch twigs, and honey.
Wine is old, ancient; and consumed throughout recorded history. Yet wine as we know it today is relatively new. In most ancient wine making cultures wine was something mystifying, a drink that came into being through a magical transformation, complete with bubbles, heat, and an invisible vapor that could make one dizzy. The ancient Greek author of the Cypria stated; “The Gods made wine as the best thing for mortal man to scatter cares.” (Evelyn-White, 2015) To today’s palates, many ancient wines would taste unpleasant due to oxidation of some of the wine to vinegar. Ancient vintners adulterated their wines with honey, salt, pepper, spices, and innumerable herbs and oils – anything to cover the taste of acrid juice.
When ready for consumption, these wines were usually diluted, with the proportions of water to wine leaning heavily toward the former. Plutarch recommended, as a general rule, using two to three parts water to one part of wine, a recommendation for improving the water as much as the wine. Thus, wine, full of additives, continued to be added to water to “sanitize” it for at least a thousand years.
Samuel Pepys by Sir Godfrey Kneller 1689
The birth of the cult of fine wine in England can be dated precisely. On April 10 1663, Samuel Pepys, diarist and man-about-London, noted that he had enjoyed “a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.” (Pepys & (ed), 1893)
What he drank at the Royall Oak Tavern in the heart of London is now called Château Haut Brion. The Royall Oak was one of many such establishments that had sprung up after the return from exile of King Charles II three years earlier and which offered such new delicacies as tea, coffee and classy wines. The hedonistic atmosphere of the Restoration was responsible for the introduction not only of “Ho Bryan” and the other great wines of Bordeaux, but also of port from the Douro Valley in Portugal, the sparkling wines of Champagne and the brandy from a little town called Cognac, north of Bordeaux. (The Economist, 2009)
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the various “varietals” of wine that we are familiar with today (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling, etc.) did not really exist. In the English-speaking world, wince tended to be identified by country of origin, or in some cases lumped together by color. While there were probably as many regional wines then, as there are today, from the English perspective, there were just a few “groupings.
Claret: Claret derives from the French “clairet”, a now uncommon dark rosé, which was the most common wine exported from Bordeaux until the 18th century. The name was anglicized to “claret” because of its widespread consumption in England during the 12th–15th centuries. In the 18th century, drinking claret helped the rich to distinguish themselves from England’s port-sodden landowning class.
When Britain made peace with France in 1713, claret became more accessible and the wine trade flourished. Claret was pricey but rich Londoners, who were also by then big spenders on theatres, spas and music, consumed conspicuous quantities. Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first Prime Minister, used navy ships to smuggle his favorite wines from France. The most expensive one he bought was old burgundy, but that—as now—was available only in tiny quantities. So he relied largely on claret, buying four hogsheads of 24 dozen bottles of Margaux and one hogshead of Lafite every three months. Claret remained primarily for the prosperous well into the 19th century.
Although I have been unable to find the exact characteristics of the Claret wines of the 18th and early 19th centuries, it is likely that they were made from Cabernet Sauvignon, created at some point in the 17th century when French wine growers crossed Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Other possible grape varieties include Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc grapes, as these were all existent in the region in our era.
White Wine: Imports of white wine into England seem to have come primarily from two sources Burgundy and Western Germany. As early as the autumn of 1403, some merchants of Bordeaux had loaded a barge with 79 tuns of white wine from La Rochelle to take to Weymouth and sell there and at Melcombe. This import trade in European white wines continued but the levels fluctuated depending on political and military relations between England and the Continent. The types of white wine imported would include Bourgogne (Chablis and Chardonnay grapes), and Rhenish wine (primarily Riesling and Sylvaner grapes) and some Italian wines.
Champagne: The people of the Champagne region were envious of the reputation of the wines made by their Burgundian neighbors to the south and sought to produce wines of equal acclaim. However, the northerly climate of the region gave the Champenois a unique set of challenges in making red wine. At the far extremes of sustainable viticulture, the grapes would struggle to ripen fully and often would have bracing levels of acidity and low sugar levels. The wines would be lighter bodied and thinner than the Burgundy wines they were seeking to outdo.
The oldest recorded sparkling wine is Blanquette de Limoux, which was apparently invented by Benedictine Monks in the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire, in 1531. They achieved this by bottling the wine before the first fermentation had ended. The pressure in the bottle led it to be called “the devil’s wine” (le vin du diable), as bottles exploded or corks popped.
Jean François de Troy’s 1735 painting Le Déjeuner d’Huîtres (The Oyster Luncheon) is the first known depiction of Champagne in painting
Over a century later, the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret documented adding sugar to a finished wine to create a second fermentation, six years before Dom Pérignon set foot in the Abbey of Hautvillers and almost 40 years before it was claimed that he invented Champagne. Merret presented a paper at the Royal Society, where he detailed what is now called méthode champenoise, in 1662. Merret’s discoveries coincided also with English glass-makers’ technical developments that allowed bottles to be produced that could withstand the required internal pressures during secondary fermentation. French glass-makers at this time could not produce bottles of the required quality or strength.
In the 19th century Champagne was noticeably sweeter than the Champagnes of today. The trend towards drier Champagne began when Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his 1846 vintage before exporting it to London.
Spanish Wines: were exported and traded throughout the Roman Empire. The two largest wine-producing regions at the time were Terraconensis (modern-day Tarragona) in the north and Baetica (modern-day Andalucía) in the south. During this period, more Spanish wine was exported into Gaul than Italian wine, with amphorae being found in ruins of Roman settlements in Normandy, the Loire Valley, Brittany, Provence, and Bordeaux. Additionally, Roman soldiers guarding border settlements in Britain and Germania also received Spanish wine as a part of their provisions. Following the decline of the Roman Empire, various barbaric tribes including the Suebi, and the Visigoths invaded Spain. Finally, the Moors conquered large portions of Spain during the early 8th century AD.
The Spanish Reconquista, and ejection of the Moors, reopened the possibility of exporting Spanish wine. Bilbao emerged as a large trading port; introducing Spanish wines to the English wine markets in Bristol, London, and Southampton. The quality of some of these exported Spanish wines appears to have been high. The full-bodied and high alcohol in most Spanish wines made them favored blending partners for the “weaker” wines from the cooler climate regions of France and Germany though there were laws that explicitly outlawed this practice. The 17th & 18th centuries saw periods of popularity for various Spanish wines-specifically Sherry (known in Britain as “sack”), Malaga, and Rioja wine.
Portuguese Wine: exports to England increased rapidly after the Methuen Treaty in 1703, which favored sales of English cloth in Portugal in exchange for low tariffs on Portuguese wines. As a result, the Portuguese began making a variety of wines for export. By the mid-eighteenth century, however, quality of Portuguese wines had begun to decline and so had the exports. There had been widespread planting, sometimes in unsuitable places, and various tricks were used to disguise the inadequacy of the wines (blending with wines from Spain, coloring with elderberry juice, etc.).
To curb the influence of the British wine merchants, and support the Portuguese growers, Portuguese first minister Sebastião José de Carvalho (later to be the Marquis of Pombal) introduced new laws, authorized specific vineyards for Port production, and had the elderberry trees ripped out For the same reason, black cherry trees were ordered to be ripped out in Madeira. Meanwhile, in other parts of Portugal, he ordered vines to be uprooted from low-lying wetlands in favor of grain, which was in short supply, and was in any case a more appropriate crop for such land. In 1758, he created the first Portuguese wine-producing region, in the Douro Valley.
The early 19th century brought threats of invasion from Spain, and three real invasions by the French, repelled by the combined forces of the Portuguese and British. The enthusiasm of returning British troops for the wines they had enjoyed boosted Portuguese wine sales in Britain yet again.
Although in English society, Ale and Cider were the drink of the laborer/working class and wine the drink of the wealthy, for the middle class landowners, shopkeepers, and others with some money the drink of choice was often fortified wines.
Fortified wine is a wine to which the producer has added a distilled spirit, usually brandy. The original reason for fortifying wine was to keep it, since ethanol is a natural antiseptic. Even though other preservation methods now exist, fortification continues to be used because the process can add distinct flavors to the finished product. When added to wine before the fermentation process is complete, the alcohol in the distilled beverage kills the yeast and leaves residual sugar behind. The result is a wine that is both sweeter and stronger, normally containing about 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). For drier fortified wine styles, such as sherry, the alcohol is added shortly before the end of the fermentation or just afterwards.
In the 1300s, Henry the Navigator brought the Moscatel and Malvasia grapes to the newly discovered island of Madeira from the Greek island of Crete, establishing wine growing there. Over the ensuing centuries, the viniculture of the Islands continued to improve and the sailors, who made the islands a regular port of call to supply themselves before beginning the trek to the New World, provided a ready market for their products.
The interior of Madeira around Curral das Freiras showing the vineyards inter-spaced throughout the town.
The 18th century was the “golden age” for Madeira. The wine’s popularity extended from the American colonies and Brazil in the New World to Great Britain, Russia, and Northern Africa. The American colonies, in particular, were enthusiastic customers, consuming as much as a quarter of all wine produced on the island each year. Madeira was an important wine in the history of the United States of America. No wine-quality grapes grew in the 13 colonies, so imports were needed, and there was a great focus on Madeira.
One of the major events on the road to the American Revolution, in which Madeira played a key role, was the British seizure of John Hancock’s sloop the Liberty on May 9, 1768. The British seized Hancock’s boat after he had unloaded a cargo of 25 pipes (3,150 gallons) of Madeira, and a dispute arose over import duties. The seizure of the Liberty caused riots to erupt among the people of Boston.
Madeira was also a favorite of Thomas Jefferson, and it was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams are also said to have appreciated the qualities of Madeira. In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin mentions the wine. On one occasion, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, of the great quantities of Madeira he consumed while a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress. Chief Justice John Marshall, as well as his cohorts on the early U.S. Supreme Court, was also known to appreciate Madeira.
One other event of note is the use of a bottle of Madeira by Captain James Server in 1797 to christen the USS Constitution.
The earliest examples of Madeira were unfortified and had the habit of spoiling at sea. However, following the example of Port, a small amount of distilled alcohol made from cane sugar was added to stabilize the wine by boosting the alcohol content (the modern process of fortification using brandy did not become widespread until the 18th century). The Dutch East India Company became a regular customer, picking up large casks of wine known as “pipes” for their voyages to India.
The intense heat and constant movement of the ships had a transforming effect on the wine, something discovered by Madeira producers when one shipment was returned to the island after a long trip. Customers seemed to prefer the taste of this style of wine, and Madeira labeled as vinho da roda (wines that have made a round trip) became very popular. Madeira producers found that aging the wine on long sea voyages was very costly, so began to develop methods on the island to produce the same aged and heated style. They began storing the wines on trestles at the winery or in special rooms known as estufas, where the heat of the island sun would age the wine.
Exposure to extreme temperature and oxygen accounts for Madeira’s stability; an opened bottle will survive unharmed for a long time, up to a year. Properly sealed in bottles, it is one of the longest-lasting wines; Madeiras have been known to survive over 150 years in excellent condition. Before artificial refrigeration, Madeira was prized in areas where it was impractical to build wine cellars (as in parts of the southern United States) because, unlike many other fine wines, it could survive being stored over hot summers without significant damage.
Port wine (also known as Vinho do Porto, Porto, and usually simply port) is a Portuguese fortified wine produced exclusively in the Douro Valley in the northern provinces of Portugal. Port wine is typically richer, sweeter, heavier, and possesses a higher alcohol content than unfortified wines. This is caused by the addition of distilled grape spirits (aguardente similar to brandy) to fortify the wine and halt fermentation before all the sugar is converted to alcohol and results in a wine that is usually 19 to 23% alcohol.
Contrary to popular belief, British sailors did not create Port by spiking the wine with brandy to avoid spoilage during the long voyage north. More accurately, British importers recognized that a smooth, already fortified wine that would appeal to English palates would coincidentally survive the trip to London. In 1678, a Liverpool wine merchant sent two new representatives to Viana do Castelo, north of Oporto, to learn the wine trade. While on a vacation in the Douro, the two gentlemen visited the Abbot of Lamego, who treated them to a “very agreeable, sweetish and extremely smooth” wine,” which had been fortified with a distilled spirit. The two Englishmen were so pleased with the product that they purchased the Abbot’s entire lot and shipped it home. (Stevenson, 2007) Port became very popular in England after the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which allowed merchants to import it at a low duty, while war with France deprived English wine drinkers of French wine.
The continued English involvement in the port trade can be seen in the names of many port shippers: Cockburn, Croft, Dow, Gould, Graham, Osborne, Offley, Sandeman, Taylor, and Warre being among the best known.
Sherry is a fortified wine made from white grapes grown near the town of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, Spain. The word “Sherry” is an anglicisation of Xeres (Jerez). Sherry was also known as Sack, from the Spanish saca, meaning “extraction” from the solera process; a method for aging liquids such as wine, beer, vinegar, and brandy, by fractional blending in such a way that the finished product is a mixture of ages, with the average age gradually increasing as the process continues over many years.
In 1264, Alfonso X of Castile re-took the city from the Moors. From this point on, the production of Sherry and its export throughout Europe increased significantly. By the end of the 16th century, Sherry had a reputation in Europe as the world’s finest wine. Christopher Columbus brought Sherry on his voyage to the New World and when Ferdinand Magellan prepared to sail around the world in 1519, he spent more on Sherry than on weapons.
Casks of Sherry aging in the traditional method
Sherry became very popular in Great Britain, especially after Francis Drake sacked Cadiz in 1587. At that time, Cadiz was one of the most important Spanish seaports, and Spain was preparing an armada there to invade England. Among the spoils Drake brought back after destroying the fleet were 2,900 barrels of Sherry that waiting to be loaded aboard the Spanish ships. (Johnson, 2005)
Types of Sherry include:
- Fino – is the driest and palest of the traditional varieties of Sherry. The wine is aged in barrels under a cap of flor yeast to prevent contact with the air. (15-17% ABV)
- Manzanilla – is an especially light variety of Fino Sherry. (15-17% ABV)
- Manzanilla Pasado is a Manzanilla that has undergone extended aging or partially oxidized, giving a richer, nuttier flavor. (15-17% ABV)
- Amontillado – is a variety of Sherry that is first aged under flor but then exposed to oxygen, producing a sherry that is darker than a Fino but lighter than an Oloroso. (16-17% ABV)
- Oloroso – is a variety of Sherry aged oxidatively for a longer time than a Fino or Amontillado, producing a darker and richer wine. (17-22% ABV)
Once bottled, Sherry does not generally benefit from further aging and therefore usually consumed immediately, though the Sherries aged oxidatively may be stored for years without noticeable loss in flavor. Bottles should be stored upright to reduce the wine’s exposed surface area. As with other wines, Sherry should be stored in a cool, dark place.
Marsala is a wine, dry or sweet, produced in the region surrounding the Italian city of Marsala in Sicily.
The most creditable version of the introduction of Marsala fortified wine to the English palate is that of the English trader John Woodhouse from Liverpool. In 1760, he visited Marsala, the seaport in western Sicily. Realizing that the terrain and climate were comparable to those of Spain and Portugal, he decided he might be able to make wines similar to Sherry or Port there. He found the local Marsala wine made using a process called in perpetuum, which was similar to the solera system used to produce Sherry, and aged in oak barrels for several years. Woodhouse established a company there in Sicily, began making wine, and in 1772 shipped some six hundred gallons of Marsala wine to England, where it was a great success. Marsala became popular in England as inexpensive substitutes for Sherry and Port.
Legend has it that Admiral Nelson stopped in Marsala and “victuallized” his fleet with strong Marsala wine before his great battle with the French fleet at Trafalgar, believing it an excellent cheap substitute for their usual rum. As a result, Marsala became a popular wine in Regency and Victorian England. (Hailman, 2006) While this is certainly a charming, legend, it is unlikely to be true and may even be an early example of “marketing hype”. Before the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet had been in the Atlantic, not the Mediterranean, and before that in England so it is almost impossible that Nelson could have stopped in Marsala to stock up his fleet for the battle.
In Part 3 we will finish up our survey of Georgian beverages by taking a look at distilled spirits that were popular in the era.
© 2015 Chuck Hudson
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