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Empire of Booze

A history of the British Empire told through drink by Henry Jeffreys

This book is published, but you can still pledge for rewards!

Empire of Booze cover

The Synopsis

In the late 1990s I worked for a wine merchant. We were paid very little, but given a thorough education in wine. After a long evening tasting, a favourite topic of discussion was which country’s booze we could not do without. It was during one of these high-spirited arguments that I mentioned that without Britain, none of our favourite wines would exist. What chauvinistic nonsense, my colleagues said. And then we started naming drinks and trying to find the British connection. Champagne? The technology for making sparkling came from England and the taste for a bone-dry wine also came from these shores: without Britain, champagne would have been flat and sweet. Port? Well, the names on the bottles are a clue: Taylor’s, Churchill’s, Smith Woodhouse. We went on to other drinks: rum? Beer? Whisky? All British, I insisted.

How did this small archipelago exert such influence on drinks? Like most cold countries, we have a fondness for alcohol. The Russians have vodka, the Swedes have schnapps and the Mongolians have fermented mare’s milk. The British, however, have a whole smorgasbord of drinks to compensate for the cold, damp climate. This sheer ingenuity in creating alcoholic drinks is peculiar to Britain. Papers were read at the Royal Society in the 17th century concerning how to make wine sparkling. Adventurous entrepreneurs sailed around Southern Europe looking for drinks to ship back home to make their fortune. Later colonists would attempt to ape the classic European wines in parts of the Empire with grape-growing climates.

Without alcohol, the pre-20th century global economy could not function. The thirst of Britain’s burgeoning overseas empire needed slaking, so strong drinks such as rum and India Pale Ale that could stand long hot journeys were developed. Whisky, an indigenous British drink, became the drink of choice for weary empire builders far from home. Is it any wonder that one of the world’s bestselling whiskies, Cutty Sark, is named after that 19 th century symbol of globalisation, the clipper ship? As the dominant power at this time, it was Britain that created the first global drinks. Through the medium of drink, we can chart the rise of British power from a small corner of Europe to global pre-eminence. British culture, literature, science, philosophy and religion also have reflections in the bottom of the glass.

Empire of Booze will be a loose history of Britain told through booze. Each chapter will focus on a drink and a period, but it will also look at how these classic drinks are faring today and will include recommendations so you can drink your way through the book. Britain’s legacy has been much argued over. The lasting gifts to the world of the English language, railways and organised sports are much noted, but I would argue that our greatest gifts to the world are our alcoholic drinks. Every time you order a drink in a bar or visit a wine merchant, you are raising a glass to the Empire of Booze.

The Excerpt

Sir Kenelm Digby, Glass, and Bubbles

There is a picture that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London by Van Dyke. It is of a balding moustached man in an ornate suit of armour. He looks a louche sort of fellow; the kind of pleasure-seeking individual who could have provoked a puritan revolt with a raised eyebrow. Opposite him is his wife, also painted by Van Dyke, Lady Venetia Anastasia Stanley, who in the great tradition of 17th century beauties seems rather plain to modern eyes. Sir Kenelm’s life reads like a picaresque novel. His father was implicated in the gunpowder plot of 1605 and had been hanged, drawn and quartered. Sir Kenelm himself had a varied career as a privateer, soldier and academic. In his unreliable memoirs he claimed to have been propositioned by Marie de Medici, widow of Henry IV of France (she was 47, he was just 18). He was even accused, in 1633, of murdering his Lady Venetia – Van Dyke was on hand to paint her death portrait. He dabbled in alchemy and was best known in his own time for inventing a substance called ‘Powder of Sympathy’, which was said to have magical healing properties. Though an obscure figure today, he was considered to be one of the great minds of his time and counted Newton, Galileo and Descartes amongst his admirers.

But it was a more prosaic invention that seals his place in history, because Sir Kenelm Digby was the inventor of the modern wine bottle. When I mentioned this fact to a friend, he was incredulous that such a colourful figure created something so everyday. He said it was as if Francis Drake invented the tin can or Orde Wingate invented the Hoover. But without Sir Kenelm’s invention there would be no bubbles and no champagne; in fact all wine today would be very different. Previously wine bottles were used much like modern day decanters, for serving wine. They were much too delicate for storing wine and bubbles would make them explode, so no sparkling champagne. Champagne seems such a quintessentially French drink, but the technology to produce it was developed in 17th century England. Even stranger still, modern champagne, the drink of Grand Prix winners and Russian oligarchs, shares a common ancestor with a drink more commonly drunk by smelly old men in bus shelters: cider.


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The Author

Henry Jeffreys was born in Harrow, Middlesex in 1977. He was brought up in Amersham, Bucks and educated at the University of Leeds where he studied English and Classical Literature. After graduation he was spending so much time in Oddbins that they offered him a job. He worked in the wine trade for two years and then moved into publishing with stints at Hodder & Stoughton, Bloomsbury and Granta. He is currently Head of Publicity at Oneworld Publications. In parallel to this career, Henry has worked as a freelance journalist. Under the name Henry Castiglione, he reviewed books for the Telegraph and, and wrote a regular column for travel website Under the name Blake Pudding he was a founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website as well as a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury, 2013). In 2010 he started a blog about wine called Henry’s World of Booze which is currently in the top ten UK alcohol blogs according to Cision. Since 2010 he has been wine columnist for the Lady magazine and is now an occasional contributor to the Spectator and Guardian on booze-related matters. Empire of Booze is his first book.

Praise for Henry Jeffreys:

“Henry Jeffreys is everything you want a wine writer to be: funny, knowing, unpretentious but also un-blokeish, funny, clever, refreshing, original, funny and inquisitive. And did I say funny?” – Craig Brown, author and parodist

"Even if you don't like wine, and you don't like reading, you will enjoy reading Henry Jeffreys on wine and other ‘tipples’ (sorry – banned word). He writes so well on wine that I made him the first ever ‘Wine Columnist’ of The Lady magazine. If you don't enjoy his tour d'horizon of the British Isles through alcohol I will give you your money back." – Rachel Johnson, author and journalist.

"I am a great admirer of Henry Jeffreys and have been eagerly awaiting his booze and empire book for many years!" – Elif Batuman, author, academic and journalist.

Questions & Answers

Peter Lewis Peter Lewis asked:

When do we get the book?

Unbound Unbound replied:

Hi Peter,

Thanks for getting in touch. Henry is currently hard at work writing the first draft of the book. Once we receive this next year we'll get to work on editing, proof-reading, type-setting, designing the cover and producing the book. Please do look out for further updates of the book's progress.

Thanks for your support and patience while we make this book the best book that we can.


Unbound Support

Any news on the book? I think that the Q above was from last year.

Unbound Unbound replied:

Hi Stuart,

Thanks for getting in touch. Henry has handed in most of the material and we're just waiting on the final draft. As soon as we have the finished manuscript we'll get to work and are currently aiming to have books ready for Spring 2016.

Thanks as ever for your patience and support whilst we make this into a beautiful book.

Best wishes,

Caitlin - Community Coordinator

Thomas Lyall Thomas Lyall asked:

I may have missed the boat here, but interested to know when your book on Kenelm Digby will be out. As I'm living in Thailand at present, book launches are not often on my radar.
I have a particular interest in KD, because my great grandfather was named Kenelm Digby Lyall by his father, the reasons for which remain something of an enigma in our family!
Tom Lyall

Henry Jeffreys Henry Jeffreys replied:

Hello Mr Lyall!

My book is about Britain and booze and the first chapter is largely about Sir Kenelm Digby and his roll in the invention of strong glass. It should be out early next year. No boats have been missed!

I know that there is a full biography of Sir KD currently being written by an academic.

best wishes


The Rewards

This book is now published. You can still pledge, but you won't get listed as a supporter in the back.


The ebook edition


Limited hardback first edition and the ebook edition

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A signed copy of the first edition hardback, plus the ebook.

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Launch Party

2 tickets to the launch party, a signed copy of the first edition hardback, and a copy of the ebook.

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Pub Crawl

1 place on a pub crawl around the City of London visiting haunts of well-known London boozers such as Samuel Pepys, Dr Johnson and Sir Kenelm Digby, a signed copy of the first edition hardback, and a copy of the ebook.

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Dinner with wine merchant

Everything in the launch party level plus dinner with a London wine merchant, including some spectacularly rare wines

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  • Format: hardcover
  • ISBN: 978-1-78352-263-7