Top 10 Shakespearean drinks
Four hundred years after the Bard hung up his pen for the last time and drained his final glass, we look back at the drinks mentioned in his plays, and what he and his contemporaries would have been using to toast their dramatic success.
William Shakespeare died 400 years ago this year with the month of his demise given as either April or May, so it’s a chance to reflect on aspects of his legacy and the times in which he lived.
The past, they say, is a different country – they do things differently there. That’s certainly true of drinks. Many names have changed, fashions have evolved, and even if the names remain, the styles have developed into very different things.
Each of Shakespeare’s 38 plays has at least one mention of alcoholic drinks, so they’re deeply embedded in his writings. A character’s choice of drinks will often be an indicator of their social position or character, and also of the fashions and practices of the age.
Tea and coffee were yet to arrive in Britain, and water was a health risk, so alcoholic drinks were ubiquitous.
Ale & Beer
At the time of Shakespeare, drinking the water was hardly an option, particularly in towns and cities.
Ale and beer were popular as a result, but were very different creatures.
Ale was a traditional, mild-flavoured drink, popular with everyone, including children, and was drunk from breakfast through to bedtime, providing a ready source of Vitamin B. Ale was brewed at home as well as by commercial brewers, and crossed the social spectrum from the poorest to the most aristocratic.
By contrast, beer was at the time a recent introduction from Holland, where they added hops. The aromatic addition was initially seen as an adulteration, and viewed with a good deal of suspicion in England, but it gradually took hold. By Shakespeare’s time, beer would have been a relatively sweet and fruity drink, with ale a lighter option.
Brewed in the home, ale was not subject to quality standards, but commercial brewers had to conform to stricter regulations on ingredients and pricing, with official ale tasters checking their products. Shakespeare’s own father, John, was appointed to the role in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1556.
There was no shortage of places to enjoy a pint, either. A survey of 1577 counted over 16,000 ale houses, taverns and inns across England and Wales for a population of just four million people – one for every 250 people.
Aqua vitae is likely to cover most forms of spirit, so it could be brandy or a form of whisky. It’s mentioned six times by Shakespeare, and it’s always talked of as a restorative or therapeutic drink in contrast to wine or beer.
The Nurse in Romeo and Juliet asks for it twice: the first time when she explains the death of Tybalt, and Romeo’s banishment; the second time when she discovers the apparently dead Juliet in her bed. She seems to use it like smelling salts.
Bordeaux & Claret
Wine was a luxury in Shakespearean England, and not available to all. As an imported product, it cost around twelve times more than beer or ale so it’s the kings and courtiers that generally get to drink it in his plays.
Claret was a much lighter drink than we would expect from a modern red Bordeaux, and would be closer to a rosé or, dare one say, an ‘orange wine’.
In Henry VI, Part 2, the rebel leader Cade orders that the sewers of London should “run nothing but claret wine the first year of our reign”.
There’s a symbolic quality to the mention of claret in the play. In the 12th century, Bordeaux and the Gascony area became English territory with the marriage of Henry Plantagenet to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Bordeaux wines were sent in large quantities to England
By the close of the Hundred Years War in 1453, Henry VI had lost Gascony when it was retaken by the French, and the availability of claret was diminished. The loss was still being keenly felt in Shakespeare’s times.
The forerunner of a dry Sherry, ‘Sherry sack’ was made famous by Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s most famous drinker.
There are multiple references to Falstaff enjoying sack, and calling for more, in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor. (“You love sack, and so do I”.) Sometimes he enjoyed it warm, and on other occasions took it with added sugar.
In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek both express a fondness for sack (“Come, come, I’ll go burn some sack. Tis too late to go to bed now”.) In The Tempest, Stephano even uses a butt of sack as a float when swimming away from the shipwreck, and drinks the contents with Trinculo.
Sack wouldn’t have been given much time to develop and mature in the barrel – hence the addition of sugar at times – and is likely to have been similar to a modern oloroso in style. Sack became a broad term for a variety of Sherry-style wines, some fortified, some sweet, but the ‘Sherris sack’ was the best known.
Canary sack was well-known in England by the time of Shakespeare. According to the Bard, it was “a marvellous, searching wine; and it perfumes the blood ‘ere one can say ‘What’s this?’”.
Believed to have been been normally rather sweeter than Sherry Sack and closer to Malaga, it was fortified and made from the Malmsey (or Malvasia) grape.
It remained popular through to the eighteenth century.
Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night favour Canary over sherry sack, while Falstaff, although he drinks Canary, prefers Sherry Sack. Each to their own.
A rich, sweet, fortified wine which in the 16th Century originated in Greece. In later centuries Malmsey became associated with Madeira, but not in Shakespeare’s time.
Malmsey is mentioned in Love’s Labours Lost and in Henry IV Part 2, but its most infamous mention is in Richard III.
Richard orders the execution of his brother The Duke of Clarence, who had plotted against him with the Lancastrians.
The possibly mythical drowning is rehearsed in the play, when the assassins hatch a plan to drown the Duke in a butt of the wine: “Take him on the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then throw him into the malmsey-butt in the next room”.
Already incarcerated in the Tower of London, Clarence innocently asks for a cup of wine, and one of the murderers responds: “You shall have wine enough, my lord, anon”.
Metheglin was a spiced mead, with its origins in Wales. Fermented from honey, with the addition of cloves and herbs, it was used as a tonic and largely confined to the wealthier members of society.
It’s only mentioned twice in Shakespeare, once in Love’s Labours Lost, and once in The Merry Wives of Windsor as being drunk by our dependable guide to drinking, Falstaff. He is accused of being “given to fornications and to taverns and sack and metheglins”.
Metheglin does not appear to be in commercial production any more, despite a resurgence in interest in mead, but marketeers may insist on a name change. To the modern ear it sounds rather more chemical than natural.
Rich and sweet, from muscatel grapes, this is drunk by Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.
The terms Muscadel and muscadine were generally used for wines from Greece, most coming from Crete or Zante in the early years of the sixteenth century.
The name is now widely used in South Africa.
Nowadays, a Posset is a dessert of thickened cream, often flavoured with lemon, but in Elizabethan times it was a drink of hot milk, curdled with ale or wine, generally flavoured with spices and probably with the addition of sugar.
Not to modern tastes, perhaps, but Lady Macbeth used a poisoned version of a Posset to entice the grooms outside King Duncan’s quarters, so they sleep through Macbeth’s murder of the King:
“The doors are open, and the surfeited grooms do mock their charge with snores: I have drugged their possets”, says Lady Macbeth, urging her husband to make use of the opportunity this presents.
Falstaff would have regarded this as a “thin potation” – light, dry unfortified white wine, from around the Rhine in Germany.
In Hamlet, one of the grave-diggers reminds Hamlet that Yorick once “pour’d a flagon of Rhenish” over his head.
Rhenish sold for more than sack, but less than Muscadel in the 16th Century. Although it was popular, it never gained the popularity of French or Spanish wines at the time.