History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

03 January 2007


In honor of the New Year, I thought I'd talk a bit about liquor and spirits in Regency England--or, more precisely, what I've learned the hard way. First...a confession. There's a glaring anachronism in my debut book, Unlaced (and I'm sure there are plenty more; this one, however, was brought to my attention by a reader on a message board who declared it a 'wall-banger' error as far as she was concerned--egregious enough for her put down the book then and there and not finish it!).

What is it, you ask?! I had my hero, in 1817 England, drinking whisky at White's! Honestly, it never even occured to me to research what liquor and spirits would be available in Regency England--I knew whisky had been around since long before then, and wrongly assumed that it was fair game. Turns out, after 1707, whisky--produced in Scotland at clandestine stills such as the one pictured above--would have had to have been smuggled into England illegally, and therefore not likely served at a public establishment like White's (though I'm sure it was in many a gentleman's home, particularly those who also owned property in Scotland). It wasn't until the Excise Law was passed in 1824 that whisky became 'legal' again in England. An interesting 'history' of whisky can be found here.

Which led me to wonder, just what liquor and spirits *were* available to our Regency gentlemen? What *did* they drink at their clubs? The answer is...I'm still not entirely sure. Brandy, imported from France, for one. There were several wine and brandy merchants on Piccadilly Street alone during the Georgian era (the Walkers at Number 18, Peter Darlot at Number 45, among others). Additionally, men imbibed wine, claret, and fortified wines (i.e. bolstered with brandy or another heavy liquor) such as port (an after-dinner drink, historically only for men), sherry, and Madeira (generally a dessert wine). Gin was certainly available, but seems to be more of a staple with the lower classes or gentlemen in financial straits. A mulled wine called Negus (cinnamon/cloves/nutmeg/fruit peel added to a mug of wine/sherry/Madeira and heated) is frequently mentioned as a refreshment at Almack's (along with Orgeat, an orange or orange/almond flavored cordial, and Ratafia, an almond flavored cordial), though a Regency gentleman might have turned up his nose at such insipid drinks. A gentleman who took his meals at the Eating Room at his club might be offered malt liquor, cider, or spruce beer (a dark molasses beer flavored with spruce) to accompany his meal.

So, there you have it...at least all that I've been able to discern! I must say, I'm very sad that my poor hero couldn't have whisky at White's--it just seems so much more 'manly' than the alternatives, doesn't it?!


Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Great post, Kristina! I've never researched whisky, and now I'm curious. My characters often drink whisky, but I think the only scene I've set in a club they were drinking brandy. I'll have to check . . . and I wouldn't call a little illicit booze a wall-banger (it's not like you had the earl's bastard inherit the title!).

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Charlotte Featherstone said...

Great post! And I have to agree with Karen, there are degrees in research errors, yours being on the bottom rung of the 'shoddy' research ladder!

Frankly, I don't think it would ever occur to me, either to research whisky. I know it's an ancient drink and was definitely in production during the years of your book.

Interesting how little tidbits can annoy readers. Thanks for the links, btw

12:57 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn said...

A wall banger over regency whiskey?

My goodness, it's enough to drive a gentle author to drink. ;-)

Great post, Kristina. Personally, I enjoy a good port. But Negus, Orgeat, and Ratafia sound intriguing! Hmmmm, wonder if they serve them at the British Bankers Club here in Menlo Park? Worth asking. Cheers!

1:10 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

You're among friends here, Kristina! If we can all agree that this wasn't a wall banger, then it definitely wasn't!!!

I'd never heard word one about that and, frankly, if the gentlemen at White's wanted whiskey, I dare say they'd get it, illlegal or not. Come on, now. You don't think all the millionaires in America were drinking rootbeer during the Prohibition, do you? ;-)

I feel certain there was plenty of Scotch whisky shipped to France to be relabeled during that time period.

But your post has made me think. I need to do my own research. In the book I haven't copyedited yet, there is a discussion of "good Scotch whisky", but now I'm concerned that they were the only ones making whisky at that time. I'm off to your link! Thank you!

3:34 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Okay, maybe not to France, depending on the year. *snort*

3:34 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Oh, Kristina, I think we're both in the clear!!! Whisky been made in Ireland since the 12th century, and according to Wikipedia "By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers producing more than two million gallons of whiskey" in the U.S.. It's also made in many other places, including England.

Woo-hoo! Hold your head high! Unless you specifically mentioned Scotch whisky, I don't think you could be chastised for serving whisky at White's.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

That spruce beer is enough to invoke shudders even in me, who is always interested in trying different alcohol drinks, the funkier the better.

I'm curious, Kristina, how is malt liquor different from malt whisky?

Victoria, did your research say how the taxation and import laws worked for the Irish grain whiskies, as opposed to the Scottish malt ones?

5:11 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Ew, I agree about the spruce beer. Gah!

No, sorry, I didn't look at anything about the Irish taxation, but assumed that it would have been unaffected by the Scottish issue. (Looks like that started with an act of Scottish parliament.) I may be wrong though. Does anyone know?

5:30 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Victoria, I think it had more to with importation into England than it had to do with where it was actually produced. The reader who complained about it stated quite unequivocally that any sort of whisky/whiskey (regardless of its origin) would not be legally available in England till post 1823! As to whether or not she's right...I can't quite tell from the sources available.

5:39 PM  
Blogger Kristina Cook said...

Hmmmm, yet this link seems to imply that Irish whiskey was always available in Britain in the 19th century, at least in very limited amounts. Very, very confusing.


5:48 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

It seems as though the problem with Scotch whisky is that the Scottish, as a whole, refused to pay the taxes, but I could be reading that wrong. (Seems like a very familiar problem. The English had the same problem with the Scots here in the new world. Don't you just love rebels?!?)

I haven't actually seen the law, but it seems that an Irish distiller willing to pay the hefty taxes could have sold whisky in Britain? And if it was rare, what better reason to drink it? *g*

Keep in mind that I write Victorian, so I could be off the mark.

6:04 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Kristina and Victoria, many thanks. You Hoydens are the best.

1:30 AM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

All I know about this topic is that you have to be careful with the spelling. 'Whisky' is Scottish, and 'Whiskey' is Irish.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Not on the whisky/brandy question (thanks for the spelling info, Laura), but on more plebian quaffs --

Check out, if you haven't, Hogarth's engravings of Gin Lane and Beer Street, for continued to be considered evil and healthy drinks for the lower orders.

And a contemporary take on those famous images, Cocaine Lane.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

My copy editor corrected "whisky" to "whiskey" all through my book, and I changed it back since my heroine is Scottish (although I never make a point of it; I know it). LOL!

This has been a great topic, makes me want to pull CRAZE (which is about gin) down from my bookshelf . . .

9:02 AM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Yeah, thanks for a great first topic, Kristina! Brava!

9:12 AM  
Blogger Jessica Trapp said...

Great post, Kristina!

1:44 PM  
Blogger Jolie Mathis said...

Very interesting! I did not know that, Kristina, so I didn't even blink when I read that in your (awesome!) book! Thanks for sharing this bit of research.

2:18 PM  

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