Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek

Melchizedek or Midas – 30 litres/40 bottles
Used in: Champagne

The least common of all the great bottle sizes, indeed only the Champagne brand ‘Ace of Spades’ seems to use this utterly outlandish bottle size.

It usually makes an appearance in some tawdry nightclub where a crass big spender has decided to drop an obscene amount of cash in a vulgar display of wealth. Truly a scene worthy of Biblical idolatry and heathen worship of Baal or Moloch.

That aside, the two people behind the bottle name (Melchizedek is the more correct name though Midas perhaps easier to pronounce) are actually both quite interesting and have wine connections.

Melchizedek, the king of Salem, has a brief but starring role in Genesis when he comes to greet Abraham after the prophet’s victory over the four kings: Amphrael of Babylon, Arioch of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer of Elam and Tidal of Goiim.

As Genesis relates: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.”

It is a brief scene but one that was considered extremely important to later monarchs as a symbol of victorious kingship.

Those who read db’s account of the Agincourt campaign may recall that Henry V while marching through Normandy after the capture of Harfleur stopped to ask for bread and wine at each town along the road.

This was not so much a practical way to replenish his supplies because each town would be incapable of providing enough to do so but it was designed instead as a symbolic gesture that each town recognised him as a victorious king, a new Abraham. Certainly when he returned to London from Agincourt in November, the citizens picked out this verse in particular as an allegory fit to honour the return of a conquering hero.

Then to Midas, the mythical king of Phrygia in Asia Minor and the only non-Bible related figure to lend his name to a large format bottle. As related in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’, some Phrygian peasants found the satyr Silenus asleep in Midas’ rose garden where he had collapsed after a binge. Treating him hospitably for 10 days until Dionysus comes to fetch him, the god of wine gives him a wish by way of a thank you and Midas asked that whatever he touched be turned to gold.

His initial excitement with his new power quickly waned however when it became clear that it was more a curse than a blessing. His food and drink turned to gold before he could eat them and, most tragically of all, he even turned his own daughter into a golden statue when trying to comfort her. Dionysus releases him from his torment however, telling him to wash in the river Pactolus as well as all the things he had touched and wished to return to their natural state.

So it has something of a happy ending and, like the Bible, contains many a handy lesson about humility and being careful for what you wish for.

Midas is also the subject of another myth where, now understandably and heartily sick of wealth and splendour, he seeks the simpler pleasures in life. Yet while judging in a musical competition between the gods Pan and Apollo he chooses the rustic music of Pan’s pipes over the purer sound of Apollo’s lyre, at which the Olympian gives him ass’s ears. Poor Midas tries to hide his embarrassing secret and only his barber knows the truth. Sworn to secrecy he one day can bear it no longer, digs a hole in the ground and whispers into it: “King Midas has ass’s ears!”

A little later a bed of reeds grows up on the spot and as the wind rustles through them they waft the secret on the breeze to all within earshot.

So go the myths but, in fact, there really was a king Midas of Phrygia who we know from Greek and Assyrian sources ruled in the 8th century BC.

In the late 1950s a team from the University of Pennsylvania opened a chamber in the ‘Great Tumulus’ at Gordion in Turkey which was the heart of the Phrygian kingdom.

Inside was a royal burial, with the skeleton of a man, about five foot two inches tall and aged about 60 to 65 years old. Draped in richly decorated and coloured textiles, around him were

An artist’s impression of the funerary feast for king Gordius of Phrygia

an extraordinary array of precious artefacts; beautiful inlaid furniture made from box, juniper and walnut wood and hundreds of bronze jugs, bowls, pins and cups and the remains of a great feast that had been held in his honour before he had been interred in the mound.

The collection of drinking vessels found with him have generally been described as the greatest collection ever discovered at an Iron Age site. It was swiftly christened the ‘MM Tumulus’ or ‘Midas Mound’.

Did it really contain the king Midas? The team leader, Rodney Young, soon came to the conclusion that while the burial certainly dated to the time of king Midas it may in fact have been his father Gordius. Still, it was a spectacular find and one certainly marked by the ‘Midas touch’ as the famous king would have, without any doubt, overseen the burial proceedings. And there was a wine link too.

In the late 1990s Dr Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania was invited to use his chemical analysis techniques to determine what some of the organic residues found in many of the vessels might be.

Having put the residue through a whole gamut of micro-chemical techniques ranging from infrared spectrometry to gas and liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, McGovern and his team came up with an answer.

The special drink enjoyed at the funerary feast was a strange mix of wine, barley beer and honey mead – a sort of ‘Phrygian grog’ of a type that was apparently popular across the Aegean and Asia Minor at this time.

It’s a mix to make modern wine and beer drinkers blanche a little but McGovern put the word out to the growing craft brewing business to see if anyone could come up with a modern equivalent. The call was taken up enthusiastically – with varying qualitative results – but the eventual winner was Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head whose concoction was called, appropriately enough, ‘Midas Touch’.

Still in production today, it was the first in what has become a series of ‘Ancient Ales’ the brewery has made in collaboration with McGovern.

The hybrid drink apparently has aromas and flavours of “honey, Muscat grapes [used in its creation], melon and biscuits.”

Surely, a far better homage to such an interesting character than an oversized bottle?

2 Responses to “Biblical bottles: Balthasar to Melchizedek”

  1. Ian campbell says:

    What a fascinating series of articles. We don’t know the author’s name but he is a historian who also knows his Bible. And it’s always good to know that drinking has never gone out of fashion!

  2. Ian campbell says:

    Sorry! The author’s name is Rupert Millar.

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