Empire of Booze

By Henry Jeffreys

A history of the British Empire told through drink

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.

1660: Charles II was crowned King of England. Along with loose morals and ludicrous wigs, Charles’s reign ushered in an explosion in learning. In November of 1660, the Royal Society for the Improvement in Natural Knowledge (better known simply as the Royal Society) was founded by Sir Kenelm Digby and, amongst other, Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. The Royal Society promoted a robust empirical approach to studying science. These men weren’t specialised in the manner of modern day scientists but polymaths, equally at home in architecture, physics and chemistry. Newton and Hooke even used to build mechanical toys in their younger days. They did not know it at the time, but these people were not only laying the foundations for Britain’s rise to global pre-eminence: they were also establishing the scientific method that is still used today.

But it wasn’t all about science. With the stability of the Restoration came frivolity. The theatre was resurrected after the strictures of the puritan years; social mores were relaxed and Charles’s court became notorious for its loose morals. This licentious mood is captured in Sir George Etherege’s comedy the Man of Mode 1676:

‘To the Mall and the Park

Where we love till ‘tis dark

Then sparkling Champaign

Puts an end to their reign

It quickly recovers

Poor languishing lovers

Makes us frolik and gay, and drowns all sorrow

But, alas, we relapse again on the morrow.’

Note the mention of ‘sparkling Champaign’ (sic). To our ears this sounds a commonplace sort of luxury, but in fact this is the first mention of sparkling champagne in literature.

The honour of creating sparkling champagne is traditionally given to a monk called Dom Perignon. His name is immortalised in the prestige cuvée created by Moët et Chandon. The image of the blind Benedictine monk working away in his cellar and creating a sparkling wine beloved of Louis XIV is a powerful one; it’s a great story and surely helps shift bottles of fizz – but it is also nonsense. The real Dom Perignon actually laboured very hard to keep bubbles out of the wine. The French would have drunk their champagne flat; it was only the English who encouraged the bubbles.

In a wine made as far North as Champagne, bubbles would have been an endemic problem. At harvest time in October it would be cold and sometimes the fermentation of the wine would finish and there would still be live yeasts and unfermented sugar within it. The following year when the weather warmed up the wine would start to re-ferment, producing carbon dioxide. This is something that has been noted for many years – there is even a reference to it in the Bible: ‘Neither do men put new wine into old skins; else the skins break’ (Matthew 9:17). If this wine is bottled and then allowed to re-ferment, the bubbles are absorbed into the wine and released when the wine is opened. Voila! Champagne! However, all French wine – in fact all wine throughout Europe – would have been delivered in wooden casks, so this carbon dioxide would simply dissipate. Furthermore, bottles at the time were not strong enough to take the pressures of fermentation and would have exploded. The pressure in modern day champagne bottles is something like 80 psi or the tyre pressure of a London bus. Glass had been used since Roman times for serving and drinking from but only in England was there a tradition of bottling wine and, thanks to a happy accident, English glass was the strongest in Europe.

One of James I’s admirals, the Welshman Sir Robert Mansell, a veteran of the Spanish Armada, was worried about not having enough wood for shipbuilding. At the time, glass was made by burning charcoal from trees. Mansell pioneered glass fired from coal and was given a royal monopoly of this new product. As this new glass was created at a higher temperature, it was stronger than the charcoal-fired stuff. Furthermore, impurities such as iron or manganese within the coal made the glass stronger still. In 1623 Mansell was given by James I a monopoly to set up glassworks that made his fortune – but the bottles coming out of Mansell’s works, though stronger than normal glass, were still not strong enough to be used for sparkling wine. It took some further alchemy from Sir Kenelm Digby to create the wine bottle.

It was his magic powder that proved the catalyst. Around the time of his wife’s death, Sir Kenelm was experimenting with glass at Gresham College in London using his homemade apparatus. He was living in Holborn, just around the corner from one of Mansell’s glassworks on Broad Street. A former manager at this glassworks, James Howell, who had fallen out with Mansell, came to Sir Kenelm with a serious wound incurred when he tried to break up a duel. He was treated by Sir Kenelm with the ‘Powder of Sympathy’, the wound healed and the two men became friends.

Howell was able to take Sir Kenelm’s laboratory experiments and apply them on an industrial scale. Together they worked out that tunnels going into the glass furnace would increase the heat further still and the higher the temperature the stronger the glass. This worked by drawing oxygen into the fire, making it burn more fiercely, though the reason for why it worked was not understood at the time. Sir Kenelm’s brilliance and money combined with James Howell's practical knowledge created a new kind of bottle. They were bulbous with a deep punt (indentation) on the bottom from where the blowpipe was fixed, dark from the coal smoke with a long cylindrical neck. They looked a little like an onion. Under license from Mansell, Digby opened a furnace at Newnham-on-Severn near the Forest of Dean with a plentiful supply of coal. Here he pioneered production of the new strong glass bottles. The new bottles were not only stronger; they were cheaper too. This sort of glass became known much later in France as Verre Anglais and German sparkling wine producers still refer to the thick material needed for their products as English glass.

But in the 17th century the wine to put in these new bottles was becoming scarce. Home-grown vines had been killed by prolonged cold weather – something now known as the Little Ice Age – and imports were severely curtailed because of wars with France, the Netherlands and Spain, often all three simultaneously. In order to break the Dutch commercial grip on England, Cromwell passed the Navigation Act of 1651. This was designed to punish the Dutch but they controlled the trade in all German and a great deal of French wine. Combine this with a very high excise duty and it made affordable wine scarce in England. What was needed was an alternative.

In his 1664 paper ‘Pomona’, John Evelyn had the answer: ‘our design is relieving the want of wine, by a succedaneum of Cider.’ This paper became a sort of bible to a new wave of cider producers looking to turn a peasant drink into something finer. Just as with wine, the variety of fruit was all-important. The most prestigious apple – the Pinot Noir of cider if you will – was called Redstreak or Scudamore Crab after its propagator, Herefordshire notable Sir John Scudamore. It would have been inedible raw, being high in tannin and extremely hard, but perfect for making fine high-alcohol ciders designed for keeping. These became known as ‘Vin de Scudamore’. The reputation of these fine ciders quickly spread. It was noted how ‘a barrel of Redstreak surpassed the best Spanish and French wines’. A hogshead (110 gallons) of best cider could go for £8, or £20 if it was three years old, as it improved with age. This was a similar price to the best canary sack (sherry-esque wine from the Canary Islands loved by Falstaff.)

Further evidence of how valuable these ciders were lies in the Museum of London. There is a drinking glass made in London sometime between 1642 and 1660 with an S for Scudamore and exquisitely rendered apples upon it. You wouldn’t use such a glass for scrumpy – in fact, it bears a striking resemblance to a modern champagne flute, a glass designed specifically to keep hold of precious bubbles. This is because in the West Country men such as Scudamore were experimenting with making their cider sparkle. Sir Kenelm Digby was one of the pioneers of this rarefied new cider, as outlined in his snappily-titled The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Knight Opened. In this book he outlines in detail how to make a strong sparkling cider for bottling. Naturally Redstreak was the preferred apple, and after corking, he outlines methods for storing so that they are kept cool to minimize the risk of bottles exploding. In cold weather they were to be kept in hay to stop them in freezing; in hot weather kept in sand to stop the fermentation getting too vigorous.

Other members of the Royal Society in London took an interest in apple growing, cider making and putting fizz in the bottles. The greatest minds in the country turned themselves to perfecting this home-grown product. It was soon noted that the bubbles would be all the more vigorous if extra sugar was added to fuel the secondary fermentation. John Beale from Herefordshire cider country and formerly of King’s College Cambridge read a paper to the Royal Society on 10th December 1662 in which he describes putting a ‘walnut of sugar’ into bottled cider. This is about 20g of sugar, roughly the amount of sugar (‘dosage’) added to modern dry champagne.

The man who is credited with applying this technique to wine rather than cider was Christopher Merret. Like Sir Kenelm Digby, Merret was interested in the production of glass and contributed much to creating strong glass through his translation of 1662 translation of Antonio Neri’s The Art of Glass – a seminal Venetian work on glassmaking. But it was a paper that he gave to the Royal Society 17th December 1672 called Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines that stakes his place in history. In this paper he describes some faults that appear in wines and how to remedy them. Some seem a little unusual to modern ears, such as adding beetroot to red wines that have lost their colour (though of course sugar from sugar beet is an essential ingredient in most French wines nowadays), whereas others are still normal practice, such as adding egg whites to wines to remove impurities. Amongst these helpful hints, there is this line: ‘Our wine coopers of recent times use vast quantities of sugar and molasses to all sort of wines to make them drink brisk and sparkling.’ This is how champagne is made. It would appear that Merret himself did not invent the technique; the way he describes it suggests that it was common practice to do this at the time. He was, however, the first person to write about it, hence his reputation as the godfather of champagne. Sadly his life ended in disgrace when he was accused by the Royal College of Physicians of stealing property from them during the Great Fire of 1666. His secondary fermentation process seems to have been forgotten. It did not resurface again until the 19th century.

By the late 17th century all the ingredients were in place in England to make a drink much like modern champagne. Wine from Champagne would have been brought over to England. The English market would have preferred the white wines made from Chardonnay that had a greater propensity to sparkle rather than the red or reddish Pinot Noir-based wines suitable for ageing that Dom Perignon strived for. Thanks to Sir Kenelm Digby, the wines could then be bottled safely in the new strong glass and would either have had sugar added to them as per Merret’s method or left to re-ferment naturally in the bottle. Due to the writings of the cider lords, experimenters with bubbles would know of the value of storing these wines under cork in a cool stable environment. These were the first sparkling champagnes mentioned in Etherige’s comedy.

But what happened to these aristocratic ciders? Why aren’t we drinking them today? Despite all the papers written, these ciders were never more than a minority interest, especially as England’s wine shortage was about to be solved by the signing of the Methuen Treaty of 1703 with Portugal. This led to the establishment of a British colony in Oporto and the creation of a new drink, port, in which powerful Portuguese wine was made stronger still by adding brandy: much more to the English tastes than 10% cider. So after this brief flowering, cider went back to being a drink for West Country labourers, the Upper Classes drank port, sherry or claret and everyone else made do with gin and beer.

However, the desire to make such ambitious ciders has never completely gone away. They returned briefly in the Edwardian era. Bulmer’s used to make a ‘Super Champagne Cider de Luxe’. Drinks such as these died out or were bastardised by mass production methods in the 1960s. Now, with the explosion of interest in cider, they’re back. A number of producers around the country are making ciders inspired by Digby and Scudamore. Recently I tried a superb bottle-fermented vintage cider from Ashridge in Devon. It tasted nothing like champagne; instead it was a very elegant West Country cider complete with some tannin and a little scrumpy-like funkiness but with the most beautiful persistent bubbles and an extremely long finish. The company that can produce something of this quality but in Moët-like quantities and market it as England’s answer to champagne will be rich. It just needs a catchy name.

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