Subversive Brewers in Medieval England

This past week, I presented on the panel, “Beer and Taxes: Nothing Can Be So Certain,” at the Sixty-Second Annual Midwest Conference on British Studies in Detroit (hosted by Wayne State University). My paper, “Subversive Brewers: Ale and Tax Evasion in Medieval and Early Modern England” featured research completed for my M.A. thesis. I had not returned to my thesis in roughly six years, so it was an amusing, and at times cringeworthy, experience. Still, dusting off my thesis reminded me of how much fun I had researching the history of beer. It remains a topic near and dear to my heart.

For those interested, my entire thesis is available online, either through the Proquest thesis database or at Academia.edu, but a snippet of the paper I presented in Detroit is included below.

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Abb. 8: Jorg Prewmaister, Mendel Band I (1437), Seite 60 (Source: Historical depictions, guild signs and symbols of the brewing and malting handcraft; online thesis by Matthias Trum.)

Segment from, “Subversive Brewers: Ale and Tax Evasion in Medieval and Early Modern England” (please contact me if you wish to read the full paper):

Along with setting the price of ale, the English government also regulated the size and cost of serving measurements. The London Aldermen only allowed three measurements for selling ale: the quart, the pottle, and the gallon.[1] An Assize from 1277 declares that, “no brewster henceforth sell except by true measures, viz. the gallon, the pottle and the quart. And that they be marked by the seal of the Alderman.”[2] The law required all brewers to have their quart, pottle, and gallon containers inspected by an Alderman four times a year.[3] If a brewer brought any container to the Alderman that did not meet the measurement standard – the wooden serving containers shrank over time – the Alderman destroyed the vessel. Brewers who neglected to present their measures to the Aldermen had to pay a monetary fine.[4]

A section of the Liber Albus, the first book of English common law, lists the punishments for any brewer caught serving ale in a measurement that did not have the seal of an Alderman. According to the Liber Albus, those caught breaking the laws of appropriate measurements faced a fine of forty pence and the destruction of the brewer’s measures for the first offense. The punishments increased for multiple offenses: “The second time let her be amerced to the amount of half a mark. And the third time, let her be amerced to the amount of twenty shillings.”[5] As the government reissued the Assize of Ale, the punishments for breaking the law became harsher. A proclamation from 1316 set the cost of one gallon of ale at three farthings and one penny for the city of London.[6] Any brewer caught breaking the ale law lost her brewery for the first offense, and she lost access to engage in the trade completely for the second offense. For the third offense, the guilty party faced exile from the city.[7]

Ale brewers resisted the regulations implemented by the English government, either by openly objecting to the prices set by officials, or by subversive means of fraudulence. Multiple accounts appear of brewers approaching the Mayor and Aldermen with complaints of the legal price of ale appear, and often the brewers threatened to discontinue their service of providing ale to the public. The Plea and Memoranda Rolls feature many accounts of London brewers who appeared in the Mayor’s Court challenging or refusing to abide by the ale laws. The brewers made these objections in hopes they would receive higher wages, but their attempts to alter the ale laws ultimately failed.[8] London officials viewed such demands as particularly harmful to society, as threats to cut off or diminish the ale supply would directly affect the ability of London citizens to obtain the necessary victual. The majority of the brewers who threatened to cease brewing faced imprisonment as a result. The Liber Albus outlines such punishment, stating:

And if any brewer or brewster be not willing to brew, or brew less than such person was wont to brew, let such person be held to be a withholder of victuals from the City, and for such disobedience and malice incur the penalty of imprisonment, at the will of the Mayor for the time being; and nevertheless, let such person foreswear the said trade within the franchise of the City for ever.[9]

Brewers not only had to adhere to measurement and cost restrictions, but they faced an obligation to engage in the trade regularly to ensure a steady supply of ale to the public.

As the English government tightened its control over the brewing trade through the Assize, problems between brewers and local authority figures developed during the fourteenth century. On May 19, 1350, Adam le Brewere proclaimed before both the Mayor and the Sheriffs of London that brewers deserved exemption from the Alderman’s regulation and control. Adam states that he intended to “gather together the brewers, and they would agree not to take service except by day only and at the wage of 12d. [pence] a day.”[10] Adam’s threat to halt the availability of ale to the public resulted in his imprisonment, as, according to the Alderman, his demands directly displayed contempt for the King and the commonwealth of the people.[11]

Other brewers openly challenged and made threats in public and in the Mayor’s Court against ale taxation caused by the Assize. In 1375, a brewer named Simon Macchyng declared that the brewers of London “would or could not observe the recent proclamation” of the Assize, which put in him prison.[12] Like Simon, Thomas Goudsyre also faced charges of imprisonment in the same year for refusing to sell a gallon of ale at the legal price.[13] Another troublesome brewer named William Ronyn made a public declaration in a market place in November of 1375 that he and all other brewers of London would stop brewing due to the price set by the Assize.[16] William faced additional charges for carrying out his threat, as he convinced a portion of the brewers to cease production or refuse the price of the Assize.[17]

Ale brewers made up a unique area of England’s economy during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Due to the wide practice of the trade and the high demand for ale, the English government regulated brewing more than most other crafts. While brewing and baking shared a similar importance, the early thirteenth-century formation of the Bakers’ Gild provided bakers with a greater advantage than brewers. Bakers faced public humiliation for providing small loaves of bread, as did other craftsmen caught breaking the law by short-changing their customers, including brewers. Unlike brewers, however, neither bakers nor members of other trade gilds had to pay fines in order to engage in their ordinary work. Instead, the English government left control of the respective industries largely to the gilds.[18] Other craftsmen could freely manufacture goods in accordance with the law, but brewers had to pay standard fees simply because they made ale. The government regulated brewing more because it wanted to ensure the public had access to ale, but also because of the profits gained by taxing ale brewers.[19]

[1] A pottle measured around one-half of a gallon.

[2] Sharpe, ed., Letter Book A, folio 129 b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=33031.

[3] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 57.

[4] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 57-58.

[5] Monckton, English Ale and Beer, 56-7. The feminine form appears in this declaration because women made up the majority of brewers during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. A half-mark was equal to six shillings and eight pence.

[6] A farthing was equal to a quarter of a penny. The price for a gallon of ale cost 1 ¾ pence.

[7] Sharpe, ed., Letter Book E, folio lvii, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=33100.

[8]A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Gildhall: Rolls A1a-A9, A.D. 1323-1364, Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 260-70; A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), Roll A 21, Membr. 3 and 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685. Specific details pertaining to Brewere, Macchyng, Goudsyre, and other disruptive brewers’ appearances before the Mayor’s Court appear in chapter five.

[9] John Carpenter, Liber Albus: The White Book of the City of London, trans. and ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London, 1861), 311.

[10] A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Gildhall: Rolls A1a-A9, A.D. 1323-1364, Volume I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), roll A6, membr. 5b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36660. Although wages increased following the outbreak of bubonic plague, Le Brewere’s demand of 12 d. is particularly high.

[11] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A6, membr. 5b.

[12] A.H. Thomas, ed., Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1929), roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[13] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. II, roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[14] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A9, membr. 2b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36663.

[15] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. I, roll A9, membr. 2b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36663.

[16] The price of ale during listed in the record at this time was 1 ½ d. per gallon.

[17] Thomas, ed., Plea and Memoranda Rolls: Vol. II, roll A21, membr. 3b, available online at http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36685.

[18] Salzman, English Industries of the Middle Ages, 313-15.

[19] Bennett, Ale, Beer, and Brewsters, 47; Salzman, English Industries in the Middle Ages, 297. Brewers remained below the ranks of other gilds, because an overall social perception that brewers were public servants existed at the time.

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HIST 4388: Alcohol in the Atlantic World

Classes begin next week at UTA, which means the past few days have been full of course prep. I will say, having the chance to visit the local homebrew store to buy materials for class… well, it was a nice treat.

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My kind of school supplies.

A few seats remain. To any UTA students out there, jump in and join the fun!

To everyone else not at UTA, but who may be interested in the class (a number of you have contacted me over the past few weeks), I hope to post regular updates related to the course throughout the semester. You can also follow course discussions on Twitter via the hashtag: #H4388.

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The course syllabus is now available. You can find it online here.

Making Washington’s Whiskey: Living and Working at Mount Vernon

Those who have been following this page probably know that I spent the past fall semester working at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. I did this after receiving a three-month fellowship offered by the library (you can learn more about the fellowship program and how to apply here), which provided me with ample time to conduct research, write chapter drafts, and enjoy the events held at Mount Vernon. It would be an understatement to say that it was a remarkable experience, especially as I was there in the midst of the gorgeous Virginia fall weather.

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The Fred W. Smith National Library from the back.

Many of the events held at Mount Vernon seemed to be a perfect fit for my research. The whiskey and beer dinners were not only fun, but these events helped me get in touch with the folks who worked at the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery. The distillery offers tours to the public through the end of October – after that point, the distillery goes into operation. Therefore, the first two months of my fellowship were largely focused on manuscript research and writing. This was a true pleasure, as it included working with the original manuscript of James Anderson’s ledger for Washington’s distillery.

Distillery Ledger
With Anderson’s distillery ledger.

The size of the book surprised me, especially as the enterprise was a new one for Washington only agreed to the construction of a distillery after Anderson, his Scottish farm manager, convinced him to give it a shot (and after Washington conferred with John Fitzgerald, a rum distiller, to see if it actually was worth trying).

“Mr[.] Anderson has engaged me in a distillery, on a small scale, and is very desirous of encreasing [sic] it: assuring me from his own experience in this country, & in Europe, that I shall find my acct in it, particularly in the benefits my stock would derive from it. The thing is new to me, in toto; but in a distillery of another kind (Molasses) you must have a good general knowledge of its profits, & whether a ready sale of the Spirit[s] is to be calculated on from grain (principally to be raised on my own Farms) and the offal of my Mill. I, therefore, have taken the liberty of asking your opinion on the proposition of Mr[.] Anderson.”
– George Washington to John Fitzgerald, June 12, 1797

Fitzgerald responded to Washington’s inquiry affirming Anderson’s knowledge of distilling and claim that whiskey production would result in profit.

Washington ended up funding Anderson’s plan for a distillery, and once the distillery began operation, Anderson kept careful notes on its operation in the ledger pictured above. The distillery only operated for a short time. It began production in October of 1797, and by 1799 the distillery produced around 11,000 gallons of whiskey. Following Washington’s death at the end of 1799, though, the distillery never matched that output again. Anderson left a few years later, and in 1814, the distillery was destroyed by a fire. Between 1999 and 2006, archaeologists excavated the site, and a reconstructed building now stands in the spot of Washington’s original distillery.

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The reconstructed distillery.

People can visit the distillery, though not while it is in production. Distilling involves many hazards, and it is simply too dangerous for tour groups to mill around while the distillers are at work. Lucky for me, though, Steve Bashore, the Manager of Historic Trades and head distiller (also a UTA alum!), invited me to join them while they worked on a batch of rye whiskey.

Production began November 1, and I visited about four or five times throughout the month to see how the overall process of distillation operated. The distillers take great lengths to preserve the eighteen-century distilling methods, which provided me with a unique opportunity to wrap my head around early modern methods for producing spirits.

Steve Bashore shows how the process works in the reconstructed distillery in this video:

The few days I stopped by the distillery, I developed a great sense of admiration for the people who run the place today. I also gained a new perspective for the amount of labor that seventeenth and eighteenth century distillers – many who were enslaved – endured to keep the great rum industry running (whiskey production would match the scale of rum production in the nineteenth century).

The people who worked at the distillery were all incredibly kind and patient as I asked an unending stream of questions. Before seeing the process in action at Mount Vernon, I had only read about the distilling process in both modern and eighteenth century accounts and guides. I read about it, but I didn’t completely understand it. It was like trying to read a cookbook without having ever cooked a meal. But seeing distilling in action completely changed the way I understood the process.

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A still and condenser in the Mount Vernon whiskey distillery.

Terms that I had read became physical actions; cautionary guidelines became clear warnings against spoiling a batch. Words like “puke,” “worm,” and “break” took on new meanings. I was like a child attending school for the first time, and I took frantic mental notes throughout each day.

The distillery, when in operation, is a busy place. The water boiler and the smoke from the stills makes the air hazy and difficult to see through. Heavy buckets of mash, burning fires, and boiling water all present hazards that threaten injury. The distillers all take careful precautions to avoid hurting themselves or others, but it seemed that each person I spoke to had their own story of ways the distillery ‘bit back’ as they navigated the production process. Luckily, I managed to escape unscathed, but I also did a lot more hanging back and observing than the rest.

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The haziness caused by the boiler and the smoke from the stills makes visibility difficult at times.

I did participate at times, and I did my best to follow instructions. Goodness knows, I did not want to be responsible for ruining a batch of whiskey (though, I was assured by everyone there that such an outcome was highly unlikely – still, I remained cautious). Because the distillers try to preserve eighteenth-century methods, many of the steps that are now mechanized in modern distilleries are carried out by hand at Mount Vernon. Literally – by. hand.

Bags of rye, barley, and malt are poured into the fermenters by hand. Boiling water is carried from the boiler to the fermenters in buckets by hand. The mash is raked, you guessed it… by hand. The entire process is remarkably labor intensive, and I will admit I was not quite prepared for physical demands the first day I visited.

Raking the mash
Raking the mash.
Adding the malt
Adding the malt.

Still, they let me participate in almost all aspects of the process, and the experience is one I will never forget. After spending a few days at the distillery, I returned to my eighteenth-century distilling manuals, and they made sense in a way they never had before. This experience showed me how diving into the history and engaging with the actions captured within the text of primary sources can completely change the context of those words. It also underscored the difficulty historians face every time they try to recreate and understand such activities, like distilling or cooking in the early modern era. While I have gained new knowledge of distillation, it is important for me to remember what I participated in is a reconstruction and an interpretation of eighteenth-century distilling. Is it exact? Certainly not. But it was about as close as I am going to get.

Fermenters
Cheers.

To all those who worked at the distillery during my time there I wish to offer my deepest thanks. Special thanks goes to Steve Bashore for inviting me to participate in the first place. You all have no idea what an impact your time and knowledge has had on my own work. Thank you.

Alcohol in the Atlantic World (HIST 4388)

One of these days I will get around to writing a post about the whiskey dinner I attended at Mount Vernon. I want to make sure that, when I do write it, I devote the proper amount of time and attention it deserves. Luckily, my tasting notes keep better than my memory, so there will be plenty of details to lay out (once I do it, that is). In short, it was wonderful.

For now, however, I simply wanted to share an early flyer for my course on Alcohol in the Atlantic World, which will be offered next semester at UT-Arlington. Cue the sigh of disappointment – my apologies. A fair amount of Mount Vernon whiskey posts are on the horizon. I promise.

Until then, I leave you with this:

4388 flyer - sea captains

Cheers.

Upcoming Talk

Next Monday, September 15, I am giving a presentation on my research project, “John Barleycorn vs. Sir Richard Rum:  Alcohol, the Atlantic, and the Distilling of Colonial Identity, 1650-1800,” at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, Mount Vernon. The talk will occur in the Rubenstein Leadership Hall from 12:00-1:00 pm.

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West Indies Porter: Thoughts on Historical Context

News broke early this month about two new ‘historical’ beers offered by Guinness: the Dublin Porter and the West Indies Porter. According to the reports, the brewers at Guinness made these through historical inspiration, specifically taking a few notes out of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century brewers’ diary entries. Guinness is far from the first brewery to find inspiration in the past. Dogfish Head gained a lot of attention over the past several years for their Ancient Ale series, which strives to put the past into your glass in a literal way. Guinness is also looking to recreate the drinks of the past, though with a greater emphasis on historical ties to the brewery itself (as, according to the article, the diary entries were written by Guinness brewers).

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The two new historical offerings from Guinness. Photo credit: The Telegraph.

Guinness is a huge, well-liked brewery, and I believe these beers will make a splash as a result. Personally, I always enjoy a nice Guinness, and I look forward to the day that I can try these new beers. Though critiques may focus on the accuracy of recreating a historical brew, one point that stuck out to me was inclusion of the West Indies on one of the labels. A West Indies Porter may not sound too exciting to some, and it may appear as a simple play on the ever popular India Pale Ale (IPA) beer style. However, the Irish connection to the West Indies is one that features a hard and horrific history – the result of imperial interests, conquest, and forced labor.

When Americans think of Irish culture, many things come to mind, among them are the color green, Flogging Molly, and Guinness. These colors, sounds, and tastes roll out every year in March as Americans, whether of Irish descent or not, enjoy the excuse to carouse amongst friends. What people consider less when thinking about the Irish, especially in the midst of a party, is their long history of subjugation. For the Irish, the West Indies represents one particularly galling episode.

Oliver Cromwell. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

In the aftermath of the English Civil War (or English Revolution, depending on who you talk to), Oliver Cromwell launched a campaign of conquest in Scotland and in Ireland. Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland was brutal – so much so, that the population of Ireland fell from 1,466,000 to 616,000 between 1641 and 1659. No wonder Cromwell gained the nickname “The Butcher.”

A 19th century illustration of the Massacre at Drogheda, Mary Frances Cusack. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

One result of this conquest was the mass shipment of Irish prisoners to the West Indies. The act grew common enough that it became known as being “Barbadosed.” Even though they were officially labelled as indentured servants, historians have drawn comparisons between the forced migration and treatment of the Irish to the early years of African enslavement in the West Indies.

Today, a small population of the descendants of these laborers, known as Red Legs, remain in Barbados, where many continue to live in a state of poverty. Though this story does not often receive much attention, it is by no means a secret. In fact, the popular band Flogging Molly, whose songs gain a lot of play-time around St. Patrick’s Day, has a song about this specific episode in Irish history:

For these reasons, the appearance of “West Indies” on the new Guinness bottle struck me as historically complicated. The Irish have not forgotten the events of the mid-seventeenth century, but it is now a marketing point for Ireland’s most famous brewery. Though, considering the long and embittered history of British imperialism in India, which ultimately spawned the beloved hoppy style of beer, perhaps this reference to the horrors of forced migration and labor in the West Indies is nothing more than a play on words.

Drinking for Freedom

This holiday weekend, as people across the United States celebrate the anniversary of the American colonies’ declaration of independence, many will do so by firing up backyard grills and enjoying cold, crisp bottles of beer. Beer is particularly popular in the United States at the moment, thanks to the rapid spread of innovative breweries across the country. Drinking also seems to go hand-in-hand with holiday celebrations, but there is a certain appeal to enjoying a cold beer on a hot July day.

Though many likely stocked up on beer in anticipation of the holiday, what would the American colonists who supported the fight for independence drink? Probably not beer.

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“Eight men around table, drinking and smoking” (1797), via Library of Congress

I say probably, because beer was certainly available in the mainland thirteen colonies. The colonists, though, tended to have a taste for the stronger stuff, and they had plenty to choose from. Readily available ‘potent potables’ included (but were not limited to): rum, a variety of wine, cider, rum, brandy, whiskey, and more rum. Beer did flow through the colonies, but often tavern-goers opted for bowls of rum punch. They also mixed their own cocktails out of beer, adding rum and sugar to make a popular drink known as Flip.

More popular, though, was rum punch. A mixture that traditionally included five ingredients, aided by a handy rhyme (to keep the recipe easy to remember after the second or third round). The handy little rhyme called for:

One of sour,
Two of sweet,
Three of strong,
Four of weak.

One part sour – which usually comprise of either limes or lemons. Two parts sugar to take the edge off the sour lime flavor. Three parts strong included whatever rum one had handy, though aged rum was preferred. Four of weak included a mixture of water and ice, so tavern-goers could have more than one round before falling on the floor (though that did tend to happen).

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Greenwood, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, c. 1750s, via Wikimedia Commons.

Rum punch was immensely popular, as shown in the number of illustrations that feature the rum punch bowl as the focal point (for both the viewer of the illustration and those depicted drinking in the tavern). The colonists would mix, and consume, this popular punch in great quantity. One recipe called for one quart of lemon juice, one quart of brandy, two quarts of rum, five pounds of sugar, and four to five quarts of water and ice.

This drink was enjoyed by all, from the humble tavern patron to members of the social elite. Recipes of rum punch could become quite extravagant, as shown in Harriott Pinckney Horry’s recipe book from 1770. Here is her recipe for The Duke of Norfolk Punch:

“Boil twelve Gallons of Water, as soon as it Boils put in twelve pound of loaf Sugar and the Whites of thirty Eggs… [strain with a cloth] into a rum Cask; then put in five quarts and a half of Orange juice, and three quarts and a half of Lemon juice [strained]. Peel thirty Oranges and thirty Lemons very thin, steep the Peel in a Gallon of rum four days, strain the rum off into the Cask adding four gallons more of rum. It will be fit to bottle in two Months.”

Harriott Pinckney Horry’s recipe provides an example of ‘elite’ rum punch, likely the kind enjoyed by the Founders themselves (not a far leap, as her brother was a Revolutionary War veteran and signer of the Constitution).

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Gillray, Anacreontick’s in full song, 1801, via Library of Congress. The tune of ‘The Anacreontic Song’ would become better known in the United States as ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’

Historians have made much about the abundance of alcohol in the North American colonies, as well as the role drinking played in fueling the movement toward independence. Americans continue to celebrate this momentous day, and though the beverage of choice may have changed, the practice of pouring and enjoying a refreshing glass continues.

Happy Independence Day! As always, enjoy that rum punch responsibly.

 

Further Reading:

Peter Thompson, Rum Punch & Revolution: Taverngoing & Public Life in Eighteenth Century Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998).

Ian Williams, Rum: A Social and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 (Nation Books, 2006).

Ed Crews, “Drinking in Colonial America” 

D-Lab and really expensive liquor

This past week I attended a three-day program that focuses on regular dissertation writing from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. This program is called Dissertation Lab (or D-Lab), and it is held every summer at UTA for PhD students who are at the writing stage of the dissertation process. It was an intense three days, but the overall experience was remarkably productive, and I accomplished more than I anticipated.

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A picture taken by my colleague, Mylynka Kilgore Cardona, of the D-Lab group diligently working (with me peeking in on the far left).

While working on the chapter, I had a chance to work with some fun sources I gathered while working at The Wellcome Library in London last summer. The Library holds a wealth of cookery and physick (medical) books from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which include countless recipes involving alcohol. There was one recipe in particular that I wanted to share, given its wonderful extravagance.

A mid-to-late seventeenth century recipe to make “Orange Watter” – distilled spirits were often known as ‘waters’ – appears common enough at first. Many of the recipes for such spirits were costly, and the addition of two quarts of brandy, as well as thirty ‘civil oranges’ (both imported goods to England), put this recipe out of financial reach for most. However, added on, almost as an afterthought, to the end of the recipe there is an intriguing note. It suggests the addition of saffron to the mixture “for colour.” Saffron has long been one of the most desired, and most expensive, spices. A trip to the grocery store today proves that saffron is still quite expensive (an extravagance for graduate students like myself).

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Saffron threads.

Saffron was certainly a luxury item in the seventeenth century, but that was not the final addition to this special liquor. The recipe continues: “[add] a small quantity of leafe Gold, Musk and Amber greace [ambergris].” Reading that last line – jotted down with apparent ease, centuries ago, by an unclear contributor to a family cookery book – brought my progress to a halt. First, the gold leaf; the addition of actual gold to the recipe may not be as impressive today, given the inclusion of gold leaf in not-so-expensive liqueurs like Goldschläger, but it was a clear sign of opulence at the time.

The final two ingredients, musk and ambergris, would bring strong aromatic, perfume-like qualities to the recipe. Both ingredients, though, originate from animal sources. Musk was obtained from the musk deer – a species nearly hunted to extinction. Ambergris was (and still is) obtained from sperm whales. In the seventeenth century, both musk and ambergris were extraordinarily expensive. The ingredients were also believed to be aphrodisiacs, placing this recipe for a orange-flavored liquor in a very interesting category.

Unfortunately, this recipe did not offer any description of the use for this ‘Orange Watter.’ Was it medicinal? Many of the recipes for spirits in these sources were intended to be used as a cure for all sorts of ailments. The inclusion of musk could hint at medicinal properties, as it was used as a restorative at that time. Was it simply an enjoyable, luxurious beverage – one that I am sure (or hope) was consumed in very small quantities? It isn’t clear what the purpose of this beverage was, or if the person who documented this intriguing recipe had any particular interest in that aspect. Such is the frustration historians encounter time and time again. We read through these preserved sources, such as these recipe books, to find enticing insight into the behaviors of those who lived in the past, without the contextual framework to give it meaning. I suppose, though, that is my job.

While I continue to mull over what to make of this particular recipe, it was a surprising and amusing find in the midst of the three-day writing grind. At the very least, I know that every liquor I buy from now on will likely appear rather dull in comparison.

Sidecar Cocktail
What, no saffron?