Empire of Booze

By Henry Jeffreys

A history of the British Empire told through drink

Wednesday, 5 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 a warm flat and decent-quality booze. Of course it’s going to be the booze; I’ll just have to wear a woolly hat and fingerless gloves whilst drinking.

At times like this, I thank God for the ingenuity of the British. Other cold countries have drinks to combat the winter — the Russians have vodka, the Swedes have schnapps and the Mongolians have fermented yak’s milk. These are drinks to achieve oblivion rather than to savour. We, however, have a whole smorgasbord of drinks to help us through the winter.

The best wines for cold weather come from hot countries, funnily enough. Wines such as Barossa Shiraz from Australia temper the longing in the British soul for sunshine. But the ultimate winter wines are the fortifieds. These wines were created by the British in the 18th and 19th century by taking strong southern European wines and making them stronger still. This was done to survive long sea voyages but they accidently created the perfect winter drinks because the added alcohol not only made them stronger, it also stopped fermentation, so the resulting wine was often sweet.

Spectator readers are undoubtedly aware of the big three fortified wines, port, sherry and madeira, but there used to be many others. From Spain there were malaga and alicante, from Cyprus commandaria and, from Sicily, marsala. They all struggle on in reduced circumstances today. The decline of the marsala industry is particularly sad. The quay in Marsala, a town in western Sicily, is a mile long and it was once packed with warehouses of wine. The wealth of the Anglo-Sicilian merchants such as the Woodhouses, the Florios and the Pellegrinos was legendary. It was likeDallas in downtown Palermo in the 19th century: they built lavish palazzos, hosted outrageous parties, and it was marsala money that bankrolled the first railways in America. Very little of this remains and most marsala is now suitable only for cooking. But if you can find a good one, it’s well worth trying. Look for the word vergine on the label, which means that it’s unsweetened. One such marsala vergine is Florio’s Terre Arse (and you wonder why it’s not more popular in Britain): with its flavours of burnt oranges, walnuts and aniseed, it tastes like a meeting of Italy, Spain, North Africa and the Levant. It’s Sicily in a glass. And of course in that alcoholic burn there’s a reminder that Britain ruled the island during the Napoleonic wars. Read on

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