A history of the British Empire told through drink
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.
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.
Monday, 19 September 2016
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…
Last chance to get your name in the book
Monday, 23 May 2016
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…
We have a jacket
Monday, 8 February 2016
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…
News from Empire of Booze
Wednesday, 15 April 2015
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…
Christmas wine recommendations
Tuesday, 18 November 2014
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…
What will Scottish independence mean for drinkers?
Tuesday, 16 September 2014
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…
Strenuous research trips and a book update
Monday, 18 August 2014
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…
New Spectator article on drinking with my dear old Dad
Monday, 31 March 2014
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…
The decline of Wine Book Publishing
Thursday, 20 March 2014
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…
Bluffer's Guide interview
Monday, 10 March 2014
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.
Keith Waterhouse and the joys of lunch
Friday, 7 March 2014
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…
Winter Drinking from the Spectator
Wednesday, 5 March 2014
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…
These people are helping to fund Empire of Booze.