Drinking, Victorian Style

Everyone who’s ever read historical romance knows that there is very often alcohol featured somewhere. It’s typically consumed by the men in the story, although on occasion the heroine gets tipsy and does something stupid. Generally speaking, though, I prefer my heroines to be able to handle their liquor. Since my current heroine owns a pub in 1867, I thought I ought to find out what her patrons would be drinking. I am limiting this post to England; if I add American booze we’d probably be here all day.


Victorians drank a fair amount of beer–ale, bitter, porter, and stout. I couldn’t possibly do justice to the subject here, but I found this fabulous blog–Zythophile–which appears to be able to tell you everything you wanted to know about the history of beer, including a history of bottled beer.

For amusement, check out this beer ad from Wales in 1888. There’s a wonderful collection of Victorian era ads over at www.sensationpress.com/victorianadvertising.htm.


I love cider, much more than beer, although I can tell you from experience that it provides a hangover several times worse than beer. Cider, of course, is fermented apple juice, varying widely in taste and alcohol content. It has been popular since in England since the Norman conquest–the Normans were very fond of apples, and did amazing things with them–just think of that amazing nectar known as Calvados, an apple brandy. But I digress. To give you an idea of the popularity of cider in the Victorian period, a paper I found notes that “In 1877 there were 23,000 acres of apples in Devon, 22,000 in Herefordshire, 21,000 in Somerset, 9,000 in Worcestershire, 8,000 in Gloucestershire, and 6,000 in Kent.”


Most wine consumed in England during the Victorian “period was from France. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published initially in 1861, provides the following about the wine known in England as “Claret”:

CLARETS.—All those wines called in England clarets are the produce of the country round Bordeaux, or the Bordelais; but it is remarkable that there is no pure wine in France known by the name of claret, which is a corruption of clairet, a term that is applied there to any red or rose-coloured wine. Round Bordeaux are produced a number of wines of the first quality, which pass under the name simply of vins de Bordeaux, or have the designation of the particular district where they are made; as Lafitte, Latour, &c. The clarets brought to the English market are frequently prepared for it by the wine-growers by mixing together several Bordeaux wines, or by adding to them a portion of some other wines; but in France the pure wines are carefully preserved distinct. The genuine wines of Bordeaux are of great variety, that part being one of the most distinguished in France; and the principal vineyards are those of Medoc, Palus, Graves, and Blanche, the product of each having characters considerably different.

Of Champagne (my personal favorite), Mrs. Beeton writes:

CHAMPAGNE.—This, the most celebrated of French wines, is the produce chiefly of the province of that name, and is generally understood in England to be a brisk, effervescing, or sparkling white wine, of a very fine flavour; but this is only one of the varieties of this class. There is both red and white champagne, and each of these may be either still or brisk. There are the sparkling wines (mousseux), and the still wines (non-mousseux). The brisk are in general the most highly esteemed, or, at least, are the most popular in this country, on account of their delicate flavour and the agreeable pungency which they derive from the carbonic acid they contain, and to which they owe their briskness.

Other wines included port, a sweet red wine from Portugal fortified with brandy, usually consumed by gentlemen after a meal, and sherry, an aperitif from Spain. Other wines included marsala, usually used in cooking, and madeira, often an aperitif. Mrs. Beeton also provides recipes for Elder Wine, Lemon Wine, Mulled Wine, and various cordials.

Eliza Acton, in her “Modern Cookery,” has an entertaining little recipe for “Raisin Wine, Which if Long Kept, Really Resembles Foreign.”  This book was originally published in 1845; you can find that edition and several subsequent ones on GoogleBooks.

Spirits and Liqueurs

Whisky (or whiskey–don’t ever use the wrong one), brandy, gin–the Victorians drank them all.

Whisky is the spelling preferred by the Scottish, and refers to the spirit made in that country. Whiskey is preferred by the Irish and the Americans. I have had a terrible time with this word, because my heroes are always drinking the stuff, and when deep in the throes of writing I sometimes forget which is which.  Since my characters do inhabit Northeastern England, just south of the Scottish border, I have decided they drink Scotch whisky.

Brandy is a spirit produced by distilling wine (or other fermented fruit), containing about 40% alcohol. The most famous brandy is, of course, cognac, which comes from certain producers in the Cognac region of southwestern France. It is usually an after-dinner drink.

And then there’s gin. Gin is basically ethanol flavored with juniper berries, about 40% alcohol. It originated in Holland (and is believed to be the source of the term “Dutch Courage,” as 16th century soldiers took a few swigs before battle to calm their nerves). Gin suffered a terrible reputation in the 18th century, as bans on imported liquor allowed the proliferation of affordable, poor quality gin, causing untold social problems.

Bear Street and Gin Lane, by William Hogarth, 1751.

Nevertheless, eventually gin did become more respectable. The gin and tonic was popularized by the Victorian military officers in India, who found it a much better way to get their daily dose of antimalarial quinine. Ladies sipped sloe gin, which is obtained by steeping sloe berries (from the blackthorn tree) in sweetened gin.

While not strictly a Victorian, Queen Elizabeth’s late mother, the Queen Mum, was born at the tail end of the Victorian era, and famously drank gin until she died. Her favorite tipple was a Dubonnet and gin: 2 parts Dubonnet to one part gin (preferably Gordon’s).  She had wine with lunch, port after lunch, a martini before dinner, and two glasses of pink Veuve Cliquot with dinner. And lived to 101–draw your own conclusions.

Shall we go down the pub?