The Englishman’s Drunk; Port in Excess
How can you measure greatness? Surely it’s by the standards of the age. And so it was in the early nineteenth century that to be thought of a man to be reckoned, you would have to attain the ‘three bottle man’ status. The ability for a young man, in a single sitting, to be able to drink three bottles of port.
As the Napoleonic Wars raged on the continent the popularity of Port grew in Britain – born of necessity with the vineyards of France, Italy and Spain denied to them. As with previous conflicts across the mainland, the only available
trading nation to Britain was Portugal.
Previously, in the late seventeenth century, a group of English merchants had discovered Port and managed to initiate it as the wartime drink of choice – it’s been said that if Portugal is the mother of Port, then Britain is the father. Perhaps there’s a certain degree of patriotism to be seen in the drinking of Port in the face of Bonaparte.
Nowadays Port is drunk in small glasses, usually with fine cheese or in a blurry warm haze on Christmas eve – far removed from our heavy drinking ancestors. The most brilliant man of the age all tried to achieve this dubious “three bottle” celebrity status. William Pitt the Younger is a prime example. Heralded throughout history as one of the great men of politics, he was also a heroic drinker. Pitt, as William Hague recounted in his biography of the man, had been prescribed a “daily quantity of port wine, variously recollected down the generations as “a bottle a day” or “liberal potations”, but at any rate a good deal of it.” Drinking a quantity a day for medicinal purposes is a far cry from the determined sloshing of three bottles in a single sitting however.
Pitt was an intellectual heavyweight who would study classical literature late into the night, could speak Latin at aged 7 and was Prime Minister by 24. It doesn’t seem to fit to think of this man knocking back three bottles of Port to impress his peers. Hague tries to excuse the fact in a series of points. He points to bottle sizes being smaller and alcohol levels lower, both of these points are debatable. However to argue over these semantics is to miss the point entirely.
This was an age that viewed drinking with a kind of martial wonderment; The ties between alcohol and battle were deeply symbolic, with the drinking clubs of the age generally taking regimental-like names, such as Crochallan Fencibles. Defeating three bottles was to be imbued with the spirit of Mars, to “declare victory for the Jolly Gods”. The vast conflicts of the age seems to have spurred on a ‘masculinity’ in society; one which had to be exercised regardless of whether or not you were actually on campaign. Alcohol seems to have been the ideal challenge for young men, with too much money and testosterone.
By gaining the status of a Three Bottle Man was to become decorated in the eternal battle of Man vs Booze. But, in my opinion at least, this was something more than a drinking game akin to the worst excesses of modern day students to be bemoaned in Daily Mail headlines*. It was in-bedded in a society of excess. Port, and wine in general, transcended miserable sobriety and became a romantic ideal in the artistic output of the day. The great literary figures of Byron and Burns become absorbed by it and Burn’s poem ‘The Whistle’ was the product of witnessing just such a great drinking competition. And so we leave him with the last word;
The dinner being over, the claret they ply, And every new cork is a new spring of joy; In the bands of old friendship and kindred so set, And the bands grew the tighter the more they were wet.
- The Real Regency Rake: Mad with Drink (angelynschmid.com)
- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/3623135/He-was-something-between-God-and-man.html William Hague on William Pitt the Younger