Empire of Booze

By Henry Jeffreys

A history of the British Empire told through drink

Food & drink | History
131% funded
400 supporters

Publication date: November 2016

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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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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.


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78 pledges


The ebook edition

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$30  + shipping
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Limited hardback first edition and the ebook edition

  • Henry Jeffreys avatar

    Henry Jeffreys

    Henry Jeffreys was born in London in 1977. After graduating from the University of Leeds, where he studied English and Classical Literature, he spent 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. At the same time he worked as a freelance journalist, book reviewer, founder member of the London Review of Breakfasts website and contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013).

    In 2010 he started a blog about wine called ‘Henry’s World of Booze’ which became one of the most popular wine blogs in Britain. Following its success he was made wine columnist for The Lady by Rachel Johnson and in 2014 was shortlisted for Drinks Writer of the Year at the Fortnum & Mason awards for his work in the Spectator. In 2015 he wrote a weekly column for the Guardian called ‘Empire of Drinks’ looking at history and alcohol. He is now a regular contributor to the Spectator, the Guardian, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine on drink and other matters, and has appeared on the Food Program and Broadcasting House on Radio 4. His first book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass won Fortnum & Mason debut drink book 2017. He lives in Blackheath, south London with his wife and daughter.

    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.

  • 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.

  • Henry Jeffreys has written 6 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    19th September 2016 Finished copies

    Very soon you will be holding a finished copy of Empire of Booze - we're just waiting for the special editions to arrive in the warehouse and then they will start to be dispatched. I hope you are pleased with the result. I particularly like the gold spine which you can only see when you remove the dust jacket. That's proper craftsmanship that is.

    I  hope too that you are pleased with the contents…

    23rd May 2016 Last chance to get your name in the book

    Just a very quick post to say that the book is in the vital stages of copy-editing. All the commas should be in the right place and hopefully all my jokes will make sense. The closing time to order an advance copy with your name in the back is midnight on Thursday 2nd June. If you have a friend who likes reading and booze then please do give them a nudge about the book. 

    Everyone who has already…

    8th February 2016 We have a jacket

    Good morning!

    I just wanted to share the jacket of Empire of Booze with you. I am sure you wil agree that it looks marvelous. It was designed by Sroop Sunar who has designed covers for Salman Rushdie and Rudyard Kipling so a massive honour to have someone so prestigious. It's nothing how I pictured it and all the better for that. I like that she has caught the fun of the book and emphasised the…

    15th April 2015 News from Empire of Booze

    Good afternoon

    I thought I should give you a little update on how the book is going. I've written most of it. Some days I think I've written 3/4, on not so good days I think I've written half. I've done most of the research (see photo below) and I just need to take gruelling trips to Elgin, Oporto, Jerez and Bordeaux to finish the research. I'm off to Scotland on Friday and will report back with…

    18th November 2014 Christmas wine recommendations

    What I like to drink at Christmas is burgundy, burgundy and more burgundy followed by a little port with my stilton. Good burgundy costs money which I don't have so I'm always on the look out for burgundy substitutes. I've discovered two such wines this year and at the moment they're on offer at Tesco

    Here they are:

    Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005 - Hunter valley semillon is a classic…

    16th September 2014 What will Scottish independence mean for drinkers?

    Every month or so the marketing bumf from Majestic Wine Warehouses comes through my door outlining their latest offers. It's normally bargain rioja. If you read the small print carefully you'll find that their glorious multibuy offers aren't available in Scotland:

    "The Alcohol Scotland Act 2010 disallows any alcohol promotion offering customers a discount for buying multiple products in Scottish…

    18th August 2014 Strenuous research trips and a book update

    Recently I've be getting lots of email which can be paraphrased as 'where's my bloody book?' Whenever I see friends, relatives, colleagues and acquaintances, they always ask 'when am I getting my book?' So I thought it would be a good idea to give you an update. 

    Firstly thank you everyone for pledging. It was wonderful that the book was funded so quickly. It shows that there's an interest in the…

    31st March 2014 New Spectator article on drinking with my dear old Dad

    Here's something I wrote recently for the Spectator. Be warned, it contains references to my misspent youth:

    Many men really can only communicate through sport. It provides a ritualised way to argue, to become passionate and to bond without having to talk about awkward things such as feelings. This is never truer than of father-and-son relationships. But my father and I never had this common ground…

    20th March 2014 The decline of Wine Book Publishing

    I have a bit of thing about old wine books. I can’t resist picking them up no matter how rubbish they might look. My latest acquisition from  Oxfam is called Supernosh by Anthony Worrall-Thompson and Malcolm Gluck. It features the authors on the front cover resplendent in brash 80s clothing (though it was published in 1993 – the 80s carried on well into the 90s in some parts of the wine trade) both…

    10th March 2014 Bluffer's Guide interview

    I did this slightly odd interview with Bluffer's Guides. I couldn't think of proper answers to most of the questions so I just made something up. 

    Also for some reason they have described me a celebrity. Hurrah! You will soon see photos of me falling out of nightclubs with thingy from One Direction.

    Link to interview here. 

    7th March 2014 Keith Waterhouse and the joys of lunch

    If any man deserved the epithet, a legend in his own lunchtime, it was Keith Waterhouse. You probably remember him for his playsBilly Liar, made into a film with Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay, and Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell  but his lunching exploits are equally worth celebrating. His work day consisted of rising at 6am, reading all the papers, writing his Daily Mail column followed by lunch that…

    5th March 2014 Winter Drinking from the Spectator

    Hello and welcome.

    I'm going to be adding articles to the Shed so that you can get a flavour of my writing. Here's something that appeared in the Spectator recently on Winter Drinking: 

    I’ve just received my latest energy bill and it appears that I’ve been living this last year in a draughty manor house rather than a three–bedroom ex-council flat. This winter, I’m going to have to choose between…

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  • Peter Lewis
    Peter Lewis asked:

    When do we get the book?

    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. Yours, Unbound Support

    Stuart Birrell
    Stuart Birrell asked:

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

    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! Thanks, 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 Henry