The drinks of choice were: port. then brandy, claret, punch, rum, porter. So says my source Henry Jeffreys in his book ‘Empire of Booze’ and in this Guardian article:
Claret, probably, originally outsold port. But the wars against France and the difficulty of importing french wine, saw a transfer to wines from our ‘oldest ally’ Portugal. But the travel distance was longer so the wine was fortified to help preserve it better. Hence, the British addiction to port. Sherry was also popular for similar reasons being a fortified white wine. Shakespeare calls it ‘sack’ and sometimes ‘Canary’. (Toby Belch ‘says thou lack’st a cup of canary ‘ in ‘Twelfth Night’ which is a Christmas play.)
Consumption was prodigious. Samuel Johnson said ‘All the decent people in Lichfield (where Johnson came from) got drunk every night and were not the worst thought of‘. The Prime Minister. William Pitt the Younger said ‘I have drunk three bottles of port without being the worse for it. University College has witnessed this.’ He is referring to his college at Oxford University and so he might be considered to be another of our Prime Ministers who have disgraced themselves at Oxbridge only to rise to rule the unfortunate British. However, in those days Port was sold in pint measures (45cl) and was 16%, while now it is 20% and sold in 75cl bottles.
Even so, three bottles is still a lot and a drunken population would have not only increased the death rate but also increased violence and abuse. Gout was one result of too much drinking and a rich diet.
However, this is Christmas so lets end on a high note so here are a couple of recipes!
To make ye best punch
“Put 1½ a pound of suger in a quart of water, stir it well yn put in a pint of Brandy, a quarter of a pint of Lime Juice, & a nutmeg grated, yn put in yr tosts or Biskets well toasted.”Katherine Windham’s Boke of Housekeeping, 1707
And Gin? While by the 1770s the fear of the effects of cheap gin had ceased to be hot news, and after no less that eight Gin Acts of Parliament to control misuse, its cheapness was not such a threat to an ordered society. Booths and Gordon’s Gins were established in London during this period.
There seems to be a shortage of Gin punch recipes for the 18th Century but by the end of that century this recipe survives from London’s Garrick Club
– half a pint of gin, lemon peel, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino, a pint and a quarter of water and two bottles of iced soda water.
You would not need many of these to become quite relaxed quite quickly!