Drink and characters, Regency and modern

Modern Drink (well, modernish)

Vodka Martini drink for James BondDrink can tell us a lot about characters in the books we read. This image shows a martini, with olives.

Remind you of anyone?

For me, it’s James Bond and his famous vodka martini, shaken not stirred.

Bond drinks booze

Bond drinks a lot. He’s never seen to be the worse for wear, though.
Interesting, don’t you think?

In fact, his martini recipe (in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale) is quite something and not mainly vodka, either: 3 measures of Gordon’s gin, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet, shaken till very cold and served with a long strip of lemon peel (rather than olives). He does say he only ever has one. Just as well, I’d say 😉 That’s most of a man’s weekly alcohol allowance right there in one glass.

red wine drink from below

Image by Dirk Wohlrabe from Pixabay

Bond also has a remarkable palate for wines, often identifying a vintage from a single sip. How he does that when he smokes about 60 a day is difficult to say…

Would readers believe in a character that did all those things in any other story but a James Bond? It would take some very clever writing but maybe you can do it?

Bond drinks coffee

James Bond Goldfinger Sean Connery and Tania Mallet

By ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv / Fotograf: Comet Photo AG (Zürich) / Com_C13-035-007 /CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

I do vividly remember one drink-related film scene in Istanbul that doesn’t involve alcohol. Bond (Sean Connery) is ordering breakfast from room service. No friendly preliminaries. Just a curt order: “Yoghurt, green figs, coffee, very black.”

Why do I remember that?

Because of how much it said about the character. His coffee—very black—makes a real statement. Very strong, almost certainly drunk without sugar. And no milky adulterations. Were the screen writers aiming to show a macho man through what he chose to drink and how he ordered it? Looks like it to me.

That’s enough of James Bond’s drinking habits, I think…

Regency drink

WineGeorgian decanter and wine glasses to drink from

Like James Bond, Regency men drank a lot. But their range of drinks was more limited than ours. Wines came from Europe and were mostly from established wine-producing countries with which England had long-standing ties. So Portugal provided fortified wines: port and Madeira. There was also sherry from Spain.

Table wines tended to be French claret (from Bordeaux) and Burgundy, or German hock, a term used for pretty much any German white wine, plus occasional Tokay from Hungary. And there was champagne, too, of course. Oodles of it.


drink of brandy from a balloonOn the spirits front, brandy was the gentleman’s usual tipple in the Regency period. Rum and gin tended to be the drinks of the lower classes.

Some readers, I understand, think that brandy is an effeminate drink and real heroes would drink whisky. Um, no. Not in the Regency period, they wouldn’t. For a couple of good reasons.

First, whisky at that period was usually a raw, colourless and incredibly potent (undiluted) spirit. It wasn’t aged in oak into the smooth drink that whisky is now. So it would be a bit like drinking industrial alcohol. Not the drink of a gentleman at all.

Second, most of the distilling was illegal since whisky was very highly taxed. The makers called it “moonshine” because their illicit stills ran at night when the excisemen (of whom Robert Burns was one) were less likely to detect it.

glass of whisky with barrels in background

modern-day whisky: smooth, amber and aged in oak barrels

The Scotch whisky industry, as we know it, didn’t really begin until after the Regency, with the Excise Act of 1823, when the British government started to issue licences for distilleries. The first licensed distillery, from 1824, now produces The Glenlivet, a Speyside malt.

Did drink have to be alcohol?

Well, no, but…
Cover of Devil's Cub by Georgette HeyerWater was unlikely to be safe to drink, especially if you were living in areas where wells or rivers might be contaminated. I remember being surprised, the first time I read Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, that Mary Challoner insists on drinking water in France instead of alcohol. Even a few decades ago, travellers repeated the warning to drink only bottled water in France, because the tap water wasn’t safe. Perhaps not true, but widely accepted. And Devil’s Cub takes place in the eighteenth century!

Still, Mary’s insistence on water shows her strength of character. She will not allow Vidal’s overwhelming charisma to intimidate her (unlike most of the other women he knows).

In eighteenth century England (and earlier), most people drank small ale or small beer, rather than water. It was alcoholic, but only just, usually 1% ABV or less. Crucially, the water was boiled to brew beer so it was safe to drink. Everyone, including children, drank it and many households brewed their own. Even places like Eton College did so.table to drink tea in garden

In the Regency period, tea was an expensive luxury and highly taxed. As tea became cheaper and more widely available in the later nineteenth century, it replaced small beer as the standard drink. Like beer, tea had the advantage of being made from boiled, therefore safe, water.

The tea tray after dinner was a normal Regency ritual. Wealthy ladies usually took tea and tea drinking very seriously. But not all of them.

Remember Mr Beaumaris’s grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Wigan, in Arabella, who says, forthrightly, “Maudling one’s inside with tea never did any good to anyone yet, and never will.” But then the old lady was born in a different era, “had never been known to waste politeness on anyone, and was scathingly contemptuous of everything modern”.  She takes exception to being given a mere half-glass of wine by Mr Beaumaris who has to admit, “I dare say you can drink me under the table…”

Fabulous. And the Dowager’s character shows clearly in her attitude to both wine and tea, don’t you think?

Regency food and characters?

Sadly, I’ve run out of space so I’ll be rambling on about food and characters in a future blog.

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland

Joanna, the whisky-lover

9 thoughts on “Drink and characters, Regency and modern

  1. Kate Johnson

    Remember Captain Picard’s famous drink order? “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” His character neatly distilled.

    I always rather imagined that was Patrick Stewart insisting on the last part… because an Englishman in America will have experienced some terrible things when he asks for tea and gets it served in a glass with ice!

    1. lesley2cats

      Not to mention the warm water that has been shown a teabag…

      You have to follow this up, Joanna – you haven’t yet touched on the coffee houses. Fascinating blog, especially as I have just been reading about small distilleries in Scotland and their history! From another whisky fancier.

      1. Joanna Post author

        I always think of coffee houses as being 18th century rather than Regency, Lesley. In fact, I do touch on coffee (though not coffee houses) in the food instalment of this blog which is still to come. Will ruminate on coffee houses…

        Bit early for whisky (I haven’t had breakfast yet) but you do remind me how much I enjoy it.

    2. Joanna Post author

      I didn’t remember that about Captain Picard, Kate, but I agree. Very similar to the James Bond breakfast order. And both you and Lesley are right about some of the diabolical things done to tea. When I lived in France, back in my student days, I gave up asking for tea because it was always made with water that wasn’t boiling. I suppose that was because the water from the espresso machine came out at ideal coffee temperature which is, I believe, about 92 degrees C rather than 100 degrees.

  2. Elizabeth Bailey

    This. Excellent blog. Definitely need more on drink. One of the differences that make Regency gentlemen seem like terribly hard topers – Vidal, if I remember, says he is not considered dangerous until the third bottle – is that 18th century and Regency wine bottles were much smaller than modern ones. A pint, I think, but would have to check that. So drinking two bottles would be more or less equivalent to a litre now. Our Regency gentlemen was getting perhaps 3 glasses of wine to his bottle? I’m sure you will have these facts at your fingertips, Joanna!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Not sure about fingertips, Liz, but I think you’re right about bottle size. However, I’m not sure about 3 glasses per Regency bottle. Georgian drinking glasses were a lot smaller than modern ones. So when gentlemen of the period “took wine” with one another and tossed off a whole glass, it was a much smaller quantity of booze than we probably imagine. The pic in the blog shows quite small, twist-stem glasses of the period.

      1. Joanna Post author

        Looking for Georgian wine bottles, I found this from 1750. It looks big, but it’s actually only 20.8 cms high, about 8 inches. Modern wine bottles are routinely half as tall again (about 30 cms). So although this one is quite fat, it wouldn’t have held all that much. Sadly, all the Georgian/Regency wine bottles I can find online tell me how tall they are but not how much they contained. The undersides often featured a deeply raised centre which would have reduced the capacity by a fair bit.

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