L.L. Diamond

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Did you know that in as late as Victorian times water was considered dangerous? In fact, one of the main causes of death in children was tainted water. Adults avoided a similar fate by mixing wine with their water—nothing like a little alcohol to kill the germs! So, in Regency England, if you eliminated plain water, what was left?

Photo by Polina Kovaleva on Pexels.com

We often read of Darcy enjoying a brandy, Mr. Bennet having some Port or sherry, or everyone drinking a glass of wine with their dinner. Tea, coffee, and drinking chocolate were non-alcoholic options—particularly in more affluent homes, but the rich comprised only a small fraction of the population in 19th century England. Servants and the lower classes required something to drink and tea was an expensive commodity many could not afford. Servants drank tea brewed from what was left after the mistress of the house served the family and her guests, but what else did the servants drink?

Many of us are familiar with beer and ale, but did you know they were usually made in one’s own house? The wealthy would hire a brewer who would reside at the estate for a month as he brewed several hundred gallons for the family with hops and malt purchased from local merchants. This person would not only brew the higher quality ale for the master of the house, but also the weaker version for the servants. Some great houses even had pipes that ran throughout the servant’s area below stairs. These pipes were part of an elaborate system that brought the ale from the drums to the kitchen and other areas of the house to be served.

Small Beer, which was also referred to as ‘small ale’, ‘common beer’, and ‘rot gut’, was the low alcohol ale often drank by the servants of the house. On average, servants consumed a minimum of a quart of beer a day, and due to such heavy consumption as well as a short shelf-life, that particular mixture was brewed often over the course of a year.

Porter was a dark brown beer brewed from toasted malt. It had a “modest” alcohol content. Porters and laborers were said to drink it for strength and often cost around two pence. Though this type of beer originated in England and was likely popular due to its low cost, it is not widely consumed these days, much to my husband’s chagrin.

Gin was cheap alcohol in those days and was called such names as: Madame Geneva, Strip-me-naked, and Blue Ruin. Since it was more than fifty percent alcohol by volume, a man could get well into his cups for as little as a penny. Two-pence could render one in need of a bed of straw to sleep off its effects.

Rum was the other hard liquor common during this time as whiskey was virtually unknown. As this particular drink was imported, duties to the government were to be paid before a drop could be sold, so rum for the lower classes was often mixed with something else. For example, sailors often drank Grog, which consisted of rum, water, and lime juice; however, the wealthy would use rum in punches comprised of water, rum, citrus juice, sugar, and spices.

Punches was commonly imbibed during this time, and quite a few recipes can be found for different versions. Gin could be used in the place of brandy and rum, but gin was not as popular as brandy and rum.

Other variations of punches included-

  • Negus – Wine or port, boiling water, lemon, sugar, and grated nutmeg heated. Some recipes include calves foot jelly (Yuck!).
  • Ratafia – Punch flavored with the pits of fruits such as peaches, plums, or apricots. The object was to have it taste of bitter almonds.
  • Arrack – Distilled juice of a coconut palm.
  • Ramfustian – A dozen whisked eggs, a quart of strong beer, a pint of gin, a bottle of sherry, nutmeg, sugar, and lemon rind. This resembles what we today think of as Egg Nog, which according to my research was once also referred to in England as Egg Flip.
  • Regent’s punch – Two bottles of Madeira, three of champagne, one of Curacao and hock, one pint of rum, one quart of brandy, four pounds of oranges, lemons and raisins sweetened with sugar, two bottles of seltzer water. It could be diluted with green tea.

Madeira was quite fashionable in Regency England. This vintage was a sweet fortified wine from the Portuguese island of the same name. Madeira was matured in the hull of a ship as it sailed near the equator, the heat of the trip providing it with a distinctive flavor. No one is sure why the wine was not ruined from the maturation process.

Port was another wine imported from Portugal and often drank by the men after the ladies departed the dining room. The host would bring out the decanter, pour himself glass, and pass the bottle to his left (the port side), where that gentleman would pour his glass and pass the decanter again swiftly before he was deemed rude by the remainder of the guests.

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Copeland, Edward. The Cambridge Edition of Pride and Prejudice. Cambridge University Press. 2006. Pg. 459.
Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen and Food. Hambledon (1995). Pg. 70.
Martin, Joanna. Wives and Daughters. Hambledon Continuum (2004). Pg. 160.
Olsen, Kirstin. Cooking with Jane Austen. Greenwood Press (2005). Pp. 366-368.
Shapard, David M. The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. Pheasant Books (2003). Pg. 143.
Shapard, David M. The Annotated Emma. Anchor Books (2012). Pg. 651
Sullivan, Margaret C. The Jane Austen Handbook. Quirk Books (2007). Pg. 146.
Wiltshire, John. The Cambridge Edition of Mansfield Park. Cambridge University Press (2005). Pg. 659.
http://www. janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/12/01/the-wassailing-of-trees/

Images from Wikimedia Commons

2 thoughts on “Pass the Water…Umm…okay, Pass the Wine?

  1. sheilalmajczan says:

    I have read before that Europeans drank alcoholic beverages due to the water being unsafe. When did that change I wonder? When did they learn how to keep water pure for drinking? Thanks for sharing here.


    1. From what I’ve read, the water was at its worst by the mid 19th century. The Metropolis Water Act was passed in 1852 in an attempt to clean up the water in London. I’m sure a huge hurdle was getting sewage companies to stop dumping in the Thames first. I’m not sure when that stopped. 🙂 Thanks, Sheila!


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