A ‘spirited’ history of the British empire and its ‘high’ legacy (Book Review)
Title: Empire of Booze; Author: Henry Jeffreys; Publisher: Unbound Publishers; Pages: 303; Price: Rs 699
This is one legacy for which avid party animals with thirsty throats will always thank the British Empire, which is otherwise not very popular currently. Besides English and cricket, one more abiding — and cheering — legacy is preserving (with generous intake) and popularising all around the world a full bar from beer to champagne — and Scotch, of course.
It is Britain, rather than even France or Germany, which is “the country with the greatest influence on wine and drink in general”, holds wine blogger and columnist Henry Jeffreys in this book, and goes on to make a compelling argument for his claim as he traces his countrymen’s contribution to alcohol drinking around the world.
Take champagne. Most quintessentially and indisputably French? Not entirely, when Jeffreys tells us that the technique to make it sparkling, as well as the taste for a bone-dry wine, was British, without whom this drink “would have been flat and sweet”. (He though admits that while the British began it, it was Madame Clicquot in Champagne and Louis Pasteur who perfected the technique in the 19th century and made mass production possible.)
But even other forms of liquor “owe something, if not everything, to Britain”, he says, citing the cases of gin, whisky, rum, madeira, sherry, claret, champagne, port, cognac (two still most prestigious brands were begun by the British — Hennessy, an Irish nobleman and Martell, from Jersey) and more.
Jeffreys, who worked in the late 1990s for a firm on British wine merchants (where he reveals they “were paid very little, but given a thorough education in wine”), recalls that after a long day of work — and longer evening’s tasting — a favourite topic of discussion was which which wine-producing country they could do without. It was during one of these, he created a stir by stressing that, without Britain, none of our favourite wines would exist. His colleagues initially dissented but when they started listing drinks and trying to find the British connection, the results were startling.
One outcome of that discussion is this unique history of Britain and its Empire, tracing its journey from a small, cold and damp corner of Europe to global pre-eminence through the perspective of a drink which originated or was popular during that particular period.
“My story is about how drinks were created by culture or more accurately by cultures, colliding, intermingling or fighting. Each chapter will be a drink (or two) and a time and place in British history,” he says, adding it ends in the 1920s when American inspired cocktails and soft drinks became more popular (but not their liquor, and Jeffreys explains why).
The book is, however, more tipped towards the drink aficionados than historians with more about processes of winemaking, brewing and distilling, and estimations than the historical circumstances (which can be a little suspect at times). He also ends each chapter dealing with a drinks with how it is faring now and provides a little list of recommendations.
But for all that, it is a spirited excursion through history, with plenty of most singular characters like a 17th century English nobleman who invented industrial-strength glass in which sparkling wine could be carried about without exploding, and spent much time in perfecting cider; a former Indian Army soldier, who subsequently became a restaurant critic for a London newspaper in the 1850s and was known for “always taking other peoples’ wives out to restaurants with no hint of impropriety”; the American liquor smuggler who chased US customs men off his vessel at machine-gun point, and many more.
There are also many revealing facts about alcohol — how its use grew from the calorific benefits it provides, how a beer had the first recognised global trademark, and how a whiskey was the first product to be advertised in cinemas, and so on.
Jeffreys also seeks to explain why a small cold, damp archipelago went on to have such influence, while also showing the curious history of tastes and global business. A most fascinating and informative read, it is rather apt for the season too.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)