Bottoms Up! Drinks Straight off the Pages of your Historical Novel

Source: written by Steph

A Logo for my Blog Feature "Who's Your Daddy?"Some years ago while volunteering at the Tate House Museum in Portland, Maine, I learned of a  beverage called flip. It was popular in England and the American Colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It seems we often come across names of beverages that seem odd when we read historical fiction or historic classics like Jane Austen.

Comforts of Bath: Gouty Gourmands at DInner

Two of today’s popular beverages, milk and water, could be rather deadly unless the water was boiled or the milk was cooked (before Pasteurization). When Europeans first “arrived”  in North America they were amazed one could drink the water.  This was of course because there weren’t thousands of people dumping raw sewage into the fast flowing streams and rivers.

In Cook It’s History Cookbook section they say:
The consumption of alcoholic drinks was high amongst both rich and poor.
Rum and wines fortified with brandy, such as Port and Madeira, were drunk in liberal quantities by the rich, and gin and beer by the poor. The ready availability and low cost of gin led to a massive rise in consumption, known as ‘the Gin Craze’. In London, an average of 2 pints per person per week was consumed by the 1730’s.

In 1751, ‘the Gin Act’ was brought in to control and license the sale of gin. The drinking of beer was encouraged as an alternative and the import of tea was also encouraged to offer the masses another invigorating (and non-alcoholic) beverage. Rum was made from molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process. It was made by enslaved people on West Indian Plantations. Rum was drunk with hot water or mixed with fruit and spices in punch. It was also issued to sailors in the Royal Navy on a twice daily basis, mixed with lemon juice and known as ‘grog’.


So, what are some of the drinks we read about?


Beer and Small Beer:

In Britain people drank ale at breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, these beers and wines were watered down substantially and were much weaker than their counterparts today. Small beer, a term used to describe a weaker second beer, averaged an alcoholic content of only 0.8%. This concoction was obtained after the first brewing had used up almost all the alcohol from the grain. The product from the second brewing was 99.2% water and tasted nothing like our beer today. Small beer was consumed by people of all ages and strata in society, even children. Recipes for stronger drinks existed but they were too expensive for ordinary people, taking twice as much grain to produce.


Flip: Popular from about 1695 or before, this was a mixture of spices, beer, rum and sugar heated together with a red hot poker.  Eventually, in the Victorian period, the beer was removed and milk or cream, and eggs were added (wikipedia) .  It obviously evolved into egg nog.   I tried making  the original flip at home but couldn’t bring myself to drink it.

Madeira:  Madeira was a forttified wine (fortified with a liquor to stop fermentation) which was shipped around the world in order to improve the wine.  According to the great resource blog Jane Austen’s World:

This sweet, fortified wine was hugely popular during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, especially in Colonial America. Brandy was added to the wine to stop the conversion of alcohol from the sugars in the grapes.

British laws prohibited the exportation of wines to the colonies except for Madeira. This brandy-laced wine became so popular in colonial America that nearly 25% of all Madeira wine was shipped there. An interesting chemical reaction occurred inside the casks during the long, hot, and rocky sea voyage across the ocean – the wine improved vastly in flavor. “Why these wines, exposed to constant rocking, extreme heat, and the barrels often found soaking in bilge water, were not ruined, is a mystery.” (Into Wine) It was popularly thought at the time that for Madeira to age well, the wine had to cross the equator in order to heat up sufficiently. In those days, as now, the wine was offered as an aparatif, or with cheese or desserts after dinner. (Jane Austen’s World)


Port was named for the port city of Oporto in Portugal. It is heavy, usually sweet, and most often served after dinner.

Sometimes we read of Malmsey which was originally a sweet Greek wine. The production of which was moved to same island which lends its name to the previously mentioned Madeira. ( George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence, 1st Earl of Salisbury, 1st Earl of Warwick was executed or murdered in prison by drowning in a “butt of Malmsey” wine (wikipedia).

Tea was consumed more and more as trade with the Indian subcontinent and Asia increased.  It became fashionable with King Charles II after 1662. It was a way of added flavor to boiled water and its caffeine content was a pick me up.   While we think of it being serve in handled cups in its early days it was made in a small china-for-export bowl without a handle, similar to the tea cups in a Chinese restaurant. To drink it was poured into a saucer and sipped from there.  (source is from my general knowledge).

Orgeat syrup was almond syrup still used today to flavor all kinds of drinks and food. It would also have made boiled water more palatable.

Ratafia was a cordial one recipe:

Into one quart of brandy pour half a pint of cherry juice, as much currant juice, as much of raspberry juice, add a few cloves, and some white pepper in grains, two grains of green coriander, and a stick or two of cinnamon, then pound the stones of cherries, and put them in wood and all. Add about twenty five or thirty kernels of apricots. Stop your demijohn close and let it infuse for one month in the shade, shaking it five or six times in that time at the end of which strain it through a flannel bag, then through a filtering paper, and then bottle it and cork close for use; you can make any quantity you chose, only by adding or increasing more brandy or other ingredients. Robert’s Guide for Butlers & Other Household Staff, published in 1828 via

Elder Wine is mentioned by Jane Austen in her letters.  This would have been at home ans set aside for the winter.  Today we drinkl Elderberry concoctions as an immune system fortifier. A recipe appears here:

Women Drinking Punch
Nope, we didn’t event this stuff for proms, bridal and baby showers:

Negus is a mulled wine punch with a spiced sugar syrup mixed with wine and fruit juice.

The Regent’s or George the Fourths Punch  includes tea, rum, and well, an awful lot of other stuff!

Pare as thin as possible the rinds of two china oranges, of two lemons, and ove one seville orange, and infuse them for an hour in half a pint of thin, cold syrup; then add to them the juice of the fruit. Make a pint of strong green tea, sweeten it well with fine sugar, and when it is quite cold, add to it the fruit and syrup, with a glass of the best old Jamaica rum, a glass of Brandy, one of Arrack, one of pine-apple syrup, and two bottles of Champagnel pass the whole through a fine lawn seive until it is perfectly clear, then bottle and put it into ice until dinner is served. We are indebted for this receipt to a person who made the punch daily for the prince’s table, at Carlton palace, for six months; it has been in our possession for some years and may be relied on.
Modern Cookery for Private Families, by Eliza Acton (1849) via


Wassail was also a mulled wine served during the Christmas holidays.  (Jane Austen Co. UK)

Cordials: Flavored restoratives which were generally alcoholic.

Cider was fermented apple cider. It’s still available today.