A typology of tipplers

Should you over-indulge (perish the thought) what sort of drunkard might you be? Sanguineous (‘talkative from the beginning’ but ‘perfectly obstreperous’ when fully intoxicated) or perhaps melancholy (initially ‘gloomy’ but then ‘joyousness … breaks in … like sunshine upon darkness)? Into this latter category frequently fell ‘men of genius’ whose minds ‘possess a delicacy of structure which unfit them for the gross atmosphere of human nature. The poet Robert Burns was one such melancholic genius, Samuel Johnson another. Or – should you be a Welshman, a Highland laird or a mountaineer – you might likely fall into the choleric category (‘quick, irritable, and impatient but withal good at heart’)?

These and others were the categories isolated and analysed by the Scottish surgeon Robert MacNish in his very successful Anatomy of Drunkenness, first published in 1827 when he was a twenty-year old applicant to the Faculty of Surgeons in Glasgow.

Forthright in his condemnation of the ‘physical degradation’ that drunkenness had ‘spread over the world’, he was nonetheless both sympathetic to its causes and understanding of its appeal. While some, he thought, were drunkards by choice, the majority were those whom ‘misfortune has overtaken’ or who had been introduced to alcohol by others and found it impossible to regain sobriety. Thus he condemned not only the ‘parental custom of treating children to wine, punch and other intoxicating liquors, but also those ‘female attendants’ who from ‘well-meant but mistaken motives’ introduce nursing mothers to ‘porter [strong beer] and ale’.

The consequences of drunkenness were, he said, ‘dreadful’ and his readers were spared no detail of the sufferings both short- and long-term of over-indulgence. Yet he accepted that the ‘pleasures of getting drunk are certainly ecstatic’ and notes that ‘we drink at first for the serenity which is diffused over the mind’. Indeed he comes across as a man who fully understood the temptations, the pleasures and the consequent pains of alcohol and other intoxicants – including opium, tobacco and the then highly fashionable nitrous oxide (laughing gas).

Different forms of intoxicant produced different effects. Should you be in the habit of taking ‘light wines’ such ‘Champaign, Claret, Chambertin or Volnay’ then your drunkenness might be ‘airy and volatile’ but you would rapidly gain ‘an ominous rotundity of face’, and, not infrequently, corpulence’, the more so if your tipple of choice was fortified wines such as port, sherry or Madeira. Spirit drinkers on other hand tended to the ‘spindle-shanked’ with ‘glazed and hollow eyes’ whilst those who abused ‘malt liquors’ (ie beer, porter, stout etc) become ‘loaded with fat, the eye prominent and the face bloated and stupid’.

This latter form of drunkenness was, reckoned MacNish, ‘peculiarly of British growth’ and was most to be found in ‘innkeepers and their wives, recruiting sergeants and guards of stage-coaches’. Taken to extremes it was inevitably fatal with death coming ‘by some instantaneous apoplexy or rapid inflammation’.

Though death is a constant companion throughout the book, MacNish rejected the idea that alcohol was the cause of ‘spontaneous combustion’ of the human body. He absolutely rejected fanciful American tales of drunkards being ‘blown up in consequence of their breath or eructations catching fire from the application of a lighted candle’ and, though he cited a number of harrowing cases (mostly ‘women in advanced life’) he expressed doubts as to whether this phenomenon truly existed, demanding ‘authenticated facts’ rather than mere ‘hypothesis and loose analogy’.

Spontaneous combustion of the human body was a very frequent subject of newspaper articles in the nineteenth century and MacNish’s scepticism was ahead of his time.

Appropriately, perhaps, he concluded his book by stressing the virtues of water. Though it was acceptable for older men (that’s me) to take ‘moderate allowance to recruit the vigour which approaching age steals from the frame’, this was not so for those less advanced in age and without the necessity of manual labour. For such men, ‘water is the best drink’ since ‘his blood flows as cool and as pure as the element he quaffs; his brain is clear and composed; he is not encumbered with any useless corpulency; his body is free of all bad humours, his stomach of all bad digestions; and his appetite is healthy and natural’.

It is perhaps unfair, then, to note that McNish died tragically young of typhoid, a waterborne disease, in 1837.

Champagne and the world’s worst play

I had the fortune (or misfortune) to read today a ranking candidate for the world’s worst play. Published in 1895 it has sat, pages uncut, in Oxford’s Bodleian Library for over 120 years.

I read it because champagne plays a minor but nonetheless vital role.

Ernest England is an aspiring artist given to utterances on the lines of ‘hail rosy clouds, hail cerulean sky’. Money is of no object to him since ‘a gold-lined purse will never cleanse the heart / Nor build a true heroic full-souled man’. He is, however, entranced by Carlotta Durand, the daughter of a general who has written off Ernest as a fop and a sop. Despite her father’s objections, Carlotta falls for his line of pure-souled rhetoric and agrees to marry him.

Unfortunately, Ernest’s sole commercial commission as an artist is to create a back cloth for a music hall show. Viewing his work, he is spotted by Olga Pearl (‘a depraved brandy-swilling beast’ and ‘shameless courtesan’) who inveigles him into drinking many bottles of the best brands of champagne. In her defence she says that lemonade gives her indigestion and that ‘I detest inferior champagne’. She follows up the champagne with brandy chasers and the scene ends with Ernest leaving with her… to where we are not told.

But not before Ernest has delivered his analysis of wine: ‘It suddenly dawned on me that wines naturally gravitate into two divisions – literary divisions perhaps I should say. Your clarets, ports, burgundies, and sherries discover a sober equivalent in prose – plain unadorned prose; on the other hand you have in champagne the precise equivalent of poesy. Nature’s own ambrosial dew, an elixir fit to assuage the thirst of the immortals’.

Unfortunately shame (and a clearly dreadful hangover) haunt him so much that he enlists under the assumed name of Private Hope to fight in India, leaving Carlotta so bereft that she too heads off to work in a medical mission under the name of Sister Hilda.

Fate, of course takes a hand and ‘Corporal Hope’ (he has been promoted for his bravery and his ingenuity in making his own bullets from a lead roof to resist the Indian mutineers) and Sister Hilda meet again in the medical mission where he, temporarily blinded, is recuperating with head injuries and a broken arm. Happily this has not stopped him from writing an affecting farewell letter in the blood of his dead comrade (his ink bottle has been shattered by another bullet).

Ernest and Carlotta marry … they have an artistic son … he dies … she dies … he is paralysed. The play ends with a touching scene in which he – described unfortunately to modern ears as ‘completely paralytic’ – strokes the gravestone of his mother (I’d forgotten to mention she too had died unhappily).

You probably won’t get the chance to read it for yourself – but if you do don’t pass up the opportunity…. For what it’s worth contemporary reviewers were no less damning than this modern reader. Said the Clarion’s book reviewer of Mr Parker’s A Soul Laid Bare: ‘the most turgid colloquial prose [admixed] with ‘flights of furious grandiloquence’. No sober prose here but the very essence of ambrosial dew.

Pink elephants and champagne: the strange story of Boney’s supper party

For well over a hundred years, seeing pink elephants has been the anglophone synonym of choice for extreme intoxication. Disney’s 1941 Dumbo with its nearly five-minute sequence featuring the surreal menagerie seen by Timothy Q Mouse and his elephant friend after drinking from a bucket of champagne-spiked water is the best-known example but it is far from the only one.

Jack London’s 1903 story Barleycorn is often cited as the first example of the term in print, though the OED has a 1900 citation. London describes the type of drunk most likely, in his words, to appear in the ‘funny papers’; one who “falls frequently in the gutter, and who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.” But there is at least one earlier example in print.

In a short and somewhat melodramatic short story called ‘The Dead Letter’, published in the Leighton Buzzard Observer on 30 April 1895, the Irish M.P. and author Justin M’Carthy described how the bon vivant protagonist fears he is hallucinating a letter from a woman that appeared, then mysteriously disappeared, from his mantelpiece. The celebrated doctor from whom he seeks counsel, Sir Jasper James, accepts that there are ‘men who see queer dogs and pink elephants’ but is emphatic that alcohol is not Christie Clare’s problem.

As it happens, the alcoholic habits of elephants were in the news at that time. In spring 1895, the exploits of George Lockhart’s three circus elephants, Boney, Molly and Waddy were the talk of London and the provinces. Boney, a pygmy elephant from Borneo (hence her name) was able to play musical instruments, conduct a band and ride a tricycle but the party piece that brought the house down was her ‘restaurant’ scene. According to her trainers, she had a distinct fondness for gin (of which she’d drink a bottle with a few ‘satisfied glugs’) but was not averse to champagne.

Boney on her tricycle – note the steering arm held by the trunk

In the restaurant scene, she was seated at a table, where she ordered a bottle of champagne which she drunk with rapidity and then began to act as if she were under the influence, rolling on the ground and refusing to pay her bill, presented by the ‘chef’, Waddy. A policeman is called and Molly appears wearing a helmet as ‘big as a hogshead’. Still Boney is recalcitrant and Molly apparently much ‘enjoyed’ beating Boney with her truncheon before dragging her ‘drunk’ colleague off stage.[1]

As the papers noted at the time, two of Lockhart’s elephants had pink patches of skin during the summer. ‘Not a disease’ insisted Lockart. Could the ‘drunken’ Boney and his two pigmented companions have been the inspiration for M’Carthy and, later, Jack London?


[1] See, for example, South Wales Daily News, 27 May 1895, p. 3. For further details on Lockhart’s elephants, see George Lockhart, W G Bosworth, Grey Titan: the book of elephants (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1938). For the ultimately tragic story of other Lockhart elephants, see Jamie Clubb, The Legend of Salt and Sauce (Buntingford: Aardvark Publishing, 2008).


Civilization distilled – Bristol Method Gin

‘Civilization’, said the American novelist, William Faulkner, ‘is distillation’. His own contribution to distillation was the brewing of bathtub gin during Prohibition – raw spirit smuggled in from Cuba cut with juniper essence but we will pass rapidly on from that.


William Faulkner, novelist and gin maker

Although the term gin first came into use in the early eighteenth century in Britain, it had a long antecedent history in the ‘geneva’ (named after juniper rather than the Swiss city) of the Low Countries. As Bernard Mandeville eloquently put it in 1714, gin was:

the infamous Liquor, the name of which derived from juniper berries in Dutch, is now by frequent use and the Laconick spirit of the nation, from a word of middling length shrunk into a Monosyllable.

To reinforce its infamy, Mandeville added a concise but far from cheerful description:

Intoxicating Gin, that charms the unactive, the desperate, and crazy of either Sex […] It is a fiery Lake that sets the Brain in flame, burns up the Entrails, and scorches every Part within; and at the same time a Lethe of Oblivion, in which the Wretch immers’d drowns his most pinching Cares.’

In other words, it was probably pretty similar to Faulkner’s bathtub gin – and to the drink of the ‘Gin Craze’ of eighteenth-century London (as depicted by Hogarth), which was cut with turpentine, vitriol and other noxious substances.

Hogarth gin lane_210318

Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ – courtesy of bbc.com

In the unprohibited British market, gin started to improve towards the end of the 1830s with Aeneas Coffey’s refinement of the continuous still. This produced a clearer, purer spirit with far fewer impurities. The only problem was that, as William Loftus’s 1850 Mixing and Reducing Book for the Use of Publicans makes abundantly clear, the spirit that came out of the still underwent a fair amount of, shall we say, ‘further work’ in the interests of both customers’ tastes and publicans’ profits.

Though Loftus claimed that ‘purity and wholesomeness have come to be regarded as of high importance’ he also noted that ‘coarse and injurious stuff is still consumed in many quarters’. His survey of 24 London pubs suggested that the alcohol content ranged from 14 to 61 ‘under proof’. Full proof gin we now know as 100% proof. That was the Navy standard, so that if you spilled gin on the gunpowder it would still explode. The sugar content in the gins sampled by Loftus ranged from entirely unsweetened to a sugar content of over 13 ozs per gallon. Those with low alcohol content had, he suggested, almost certainly been cut with the addition of Cayenne pepper to mimic the burn of higher alcohol.

Cayenne pepper was not one of Loftus’ recommended flavourings (though ‘chilies’ were). His taste ran to the classic botanicals, but he also pointed to the considerable differences between the ‘palates’ of the different gins. The difference, he said, ‘between Liverpool and Bristol gin, or between that prepared at Bristol and at Plymouth is as remarkable as the difference between Dublin and London stout, or Scotch and Irish malt whiskey’.

It’s noticeable that Bristol – in both these comparisons – is the odd one out. What was Bristol gin and how did it differ from standard gin?

We now have an answer. And it’s not just a report from an old text but a real drink. Michael Palij MW has turned from wine to gin and recreated Bristol gin from ingredients lists and a recipe found in the Bristol archives. In most gins the botanicals (flavourings such as juniper, orris root, angelica, orange peel and so on) are macerated or distilled together with the consequence that the flavours blend together. In Bristol gin they are not only distilled separately but distilled only when each is in season, giving fresher and more distinctive flavours. The botanicals – including Tuscan juniper and hand-cut Valencia oranges – that go into Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin are individually distilled in traditional copper pot stills.

Smeatons gin

Smeaton’s Bristol Method Dry Gin

Smeaton's recipe_210318

Smeaton’s – the recipe and the botanicals

Dry Gin, by the way, was the taste of the upper classes. The poorer the district the more sugar in the recipe. In the Victorian view of the world to appreciate dry champagne you had to start early and drink often. Was the same true of gin? Well yes, according to Loftus. Only the ‘respectable and monied classes’ preferred dry gin. Perhaps they too started young and drank often.


The battle of the bubbles: Prosecco (It) v Prosecco (Aus)

In 2009, the Italian Consorzio renamed the grape used to make Prosecco. It used to be just ‘Prosecco’; it became ‘Glera’. This name – probably of Slovenian origin (like the wine itself) – was adopted by the Italians as a protective ploy. By changing the grape name, the Italians freed up ‘Prosecco’ to become a Geographical Indicator (or GI). GIs are protected under European law and by changing its status Prosecco was trying to emulate Champagne (which is rigorously protected around the world).

But the Italian Consorzio had not reckoned with the Australia in general and Australian-Italians in particular. The Prosecco grape (as it was then known) had become established and commercially successful in the King Valley to the north-east of Melbourne around the turn of the century.

King Valley_Tacitus

The Alpine landscape of the King Valley, courtesy of Tacitus

The wonderfully named Otto Dal Zotto was the first mover and though to begin with the family spent most of their time explaining just what it was and where it came from, that’s far from the case today. The Australian market is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and Dal Zotto is now the market leader among the many producers on Australia’s ‘Prosecco Road’ who are determined to keep Prosecco in the Australian market. (It should perhaps be noted that the Italians had a ‘Strada del Prosecco’ in 1966…)

Dal Zotto cellar door

The Dal Zotto cellar door

A first attempt by the Italians was fought off in 2013 when the Australian Trade Mark registry refused to consider the Italians’ application for GI registration. The Registrar cited the worldwide confusion over Prosecco (a grape or a style of wine), the long-term use of the Prosecco name as a grape variety since 1994 and the fact that registering the Prosecco GI would mean that Australians could no longer use the name Prosecco as the name of a grape variety.

Australian Prosecco is hard to come by in the UK. The Dal Zotto family’s ‘Pucino Col Fondo’ is available here through Red Squirrel Wine (www.redsquirrelwine.com) and I tried a bottle last week. Bottled under a crown cap, it’s a cloudy lemon yellow with a lemon cheesecake nose and a beautifully bitter finish. Very good indeed!


Dal Zotto Pucino Col Fondo – note absence of ‘Prosecco’ on the label

The name ‘Pucino Col Fondo’ has historical resonances of its own. Pliny the Elder, writing in AD 77 or thereabouts, recorded that the wine of ‘Pucinum’ that was produced near the Adriatic in the province of Friuli was the finest available for ‘medicinal purposes’.

Image result for pliny the elder natural history

Pliny the Elder, courtesy of AJS Gems

Livia Augusta, the wife of the Emperor Augustus, apparently ‘attributed her longevity’ to this wine. That wine was probably not sparkling. It’s only in the mid nineteenth century that the first claims for sparkling Prosecco surface in Italy though the wine was well known for centuries before that date.

‘Col Fondo’ takes us back to the sparkling origins of prosecco. Prosecco is made by the tank method – rather than in bottle fermentation like Champagne – and the Dal Zotto wine is bottled without filtering out the lees that drift to the bottle of the fermentation tank. Hence the cloudy appearance. It slowly settles out in the glass with time.

The battle over grape names is not confined to Prosecco. The GI battle over Prosecco is about to be re-fought in Australia. The Croatian dessert wine known as ‘Prosek’ has already gone under; Australian winemakers can’t use the Prosecco name on wines sold in the UK.


Can Prosek survive an attack of Prosecco?

There are Australian fears that if Prosecco is prohibited as a name for wine in Australia then others will follow. Moscato perhaps. Watch this space … and, if you get a chance, whether in the UK or in Australia, do try the King Valley wines. They’re very good.


From brandy to Bass Pale Ale: Algernon Swinburne’s path to sobriety

The poetry of Algernon Swinburne was written to shock Victorian morals and moralisers. He sang of Lesbianism and boasted of his own bestialising tendencies. He was certainly addicted to drink and (probably) flagellation. Just how perverted his sexual tastes were, is a matter of debate. Continue reading

You can tell by the smallness of the glass how precious the contents were’: wine glass size in the 19th century

As part of their Christmas 2017 edition, the British Medical Journal published a fascinating article looking at ‘Wine glass size in England from 1700 to 2017’ and asking whether ‘downsizing can reduce alcohol consumption. The answer, based on a range of studies, seems to be yes – but that’s not the focus of this post.

The article by Theresa Marteau and colleagues at Cambridge University obtained measurements of 411 different wine glasses dating from the 1700 to the present day. Their conclusion was that glass size has increased sevenfold in around 300 years with by far the greatest increases in size coming in the last thirty years or so. For the article and data go to http://www.bmj.com/content/bmj/359/bmj.j5623.full.pdf. It’s well worth reading. But it was their graphic (reproduced with permission below) that set me thinking and checking my own data for nineteenth-century.

The Cambridge team’s data shows a slow rise from 1700 to the late nineteenth century before the growth in capacity appears to level off slightly before beginning to rise again during and after the Second World War.

Glass size_281217GlassCapacity-MeanTimeTrend – reproduced by kind permission of Dominique-Laurent Couturier, University of Cambridge

However, they are not the first to consider glass size as an indicator of consumer behaviour. In 1861, there was an editorial in The Times which made a rather similar point about the growth in size. Talking about the new-found enthusiasm for wine produced by Gladstone’s budgets of 1860 and 1861 which drastically cut the duties on wine and kick-started a consumer boom, the paper noted first the shift to new types of wine. Claiming (rightly) that ‘there is no limit to the variety of flavour, substance, and quality at our command’, they suggested that future historians (i.e. people like me) would think it a ‘curious characteristic that in England once upon a time, the only wines known were port and sherry, and that both of were luxuries’. They further observed that in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century:

Wine, in fact, was not a beverage, but a liqueur. It was at once too strong and too dear. Nobody could take it at meal-times in the ordinary way of drink, and few could afford to consume it by pints, or half-pints, or at draught. It was preserved carefully in a decanter, and brought out of the cupboard on holydays and measured into glasses carefully sized. An English wine-glass of the last century tells its own tale, like the salt-cellar of an old Indian dinner service. You see by the smallness of the article how precious the contents were thought.

Times, they inferred, were changing and with them the size of wine glass. Other comments in the 1860s and 1870s backed them up and suggest that wine bars of the period were just as conscious as their twenty-first century counterparts of the glass size effect in increasing consumption and sales. In 1868, the popular wine writer Edward Beckwith warned his readers that glass sizes were increasing and instructed his readers to give a ‘timely and not quite unnecessary instruction to the officiating domestic’ not to fill the glass to the brim. His concern appeared to be that a brimming glass adversely affected the drinking experience. taste.  Commercial venues got into the larger glass act. In 1870, an advertising ‘puff’ in the London City Press noted of the flourishing ‘Bodega’ chain of wine bars that they used a ‘dock tasting glass’ more than double the size of the ‘ordinary glass’. Doctor Frederick Anstie, writing in 1877 of his concern that ‘young dancing ladies’ might unknowingly over-indulge warned that’ of late years there has been a marked tendency to make [glasses] larger the formerly’. The London Standard (possibly after a glance at the cuttings library) reiterated The Times’ 1861 point  in an 1882 article. Talking of champagne, they wrote that in the early part of the century:

the precious wine was poured into a prolonged thimble, in which froth largely predominated. In fact, you were intended to sip rather than to drink it. That would seem to us now an odious and churlish custom. […] Now the demand is for big spacious glasses.

By then the ‘tall, old-fashioned champagne glasses’ were only fit for filling with ‘pretty moss’ as part of a flower arrangement –  or so thought the Aberdeen Journal in 1880.

It’s possible that the Cambridge data has been slightly skewed by the continued presence in the market of smaller-size port glasses, for which the standard size remained at 2 fluid ounces (around 50 ml) for many years.

But, it seems probable that the size of ‘standard’ wine glasses increased during the wine boom of the 1860s and early 1870s; certainly the size of champagne glasses did. To quote the Aberdeen Journal again; this time from an 1888 article on the economics of hotels and restaurants:

the restaurant-keeper is making a golden harvest by the sale of wine. He can well afford to give a tempting and luxurious dinner at a few shillings a head when he knows that champagne will be freely used at it. A good bottle of champagne is not now to be had at a restaurant under twelve or fifteen shillings, and then the wine-glasses which are cunningly adopted are very large, one bottle filling about four glasses, so that relays of champagne are necessary.

Translated to old imperial measures and bottle sizes that meant close to half-pint glasses. And another thing. Restaurateurs preferred to serve lighter champagnes, which meant Chardonnay-driven blends rather than the stronger, black grape wines dominated by Pinot Noir. A customer would be satisfied with one bottle of the black grape blends but would take two of the Chardonnay-dominated wines. But that’s another story for another time.

‘Meurtre au Champagne’

It was the author – Agatha Christie – and title that got me. Translated back into English that’s ‘Murder by Champagne’ and it took a moment to work out that this must be the novel that Christie published in 1945 – ‘Sparkling Cyanide’.

‘Sparkling Cyanide’ movie poster (note the yellow iris) and ‘Meurtre au Champagne’

Continue reading

Champagne – the return of the pint?

Since Pol Roger announced in late August 2016 that they were planning to revive the tradition of supplying champagne in pint bottles, the pro-Brexit British press has been loud in its approval of this decision. A ‘deeply civilised measure’ according to Jonathan Ray in the Spectator; a ‘victory for common sense’ claimed the Express. ‘God’s own bottle size’ according to Simon Berry, the chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd. Continue reading

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’: Digby Fine English Sparkling Wine

‘Bringing happiness, one glass at a time’ is the unofficial mission statement of Digby Fine English – or so suggests their co-founder. The brand is named after Sir Kenelm Digby and portraits of the seventeenth-century courtier, cookbook author and pirate (hardly the life of the blessed Delia) suggest he was a man who appreciated happiness – and pleasure.

Sir Kenelm Digby, from an 18th C folio on Knights of the Realm.

Sir Kenelm Digby (courtesty of http://www.ArgentCellars.com)

And a lot of people owe him rather a lot in the way of hedonistic joie de vivre. The weight of the evidence suggests that he was the man who made English glass the strongest in Europe and in so doing kickstarted the champagne industry. Without bottles that can withstand pressure sparkling wine can never get beyond mere ‘creaming’. Full-blooded sparkling wine generates a pressure of around 6 atmospheres (think the tyres of a London bus).

So, it’s perhaps fitting that Sir Kenelm’s name (and currently modest fame) has been appropriated by a resolutely English brand of sparkling wine. At the Oxford Foodies Festival last weekend I had the pleasure of tasting Digby Sparkling wine in the company of co-founder Trevor Clough. Trevor, with the support of husband Jason Humphrey (the co-founder) and wine-maker Dermot Sugrue (ex-Nyetimber and now making his own wine), has created a wine with considerable personality and considerable sophistication.

... , Trevor Clough, Jason Humphries, and new chairman Ewen Cameron

The Digby Fine English team (courtesy of http://www.ukvine.com)

The Reserve Brut of 2009 has a French term on its label (rather to Digby’s founders’ regret) but apart from grapes (Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay) and soil (the chalk arc that spreads from norther France to southern England) it owes little to France. The taste – to my palate – is dry, precise, refined and vivid. More Laurent-Perrier Extra Dry than Bollinger.

It’s also a quite ‘vinous’ taste – an annoyingly common and ill-defined word that pops up all the time in nineteenth-century descriptions of wine. In essence it means that it tastes like wine – which is not quite so common in these days of fruity ferments and over-yeasted and (arguably) over-carbonated sparkling wines. For the Digby wine guys it’s important not to be a champagne ‘me-too’. English sparkling wine must in their view (and mine too) stand on its own feet and find its own style.

The style, dressing and personality of the brand is English – with a lion on the label, houndstooth foil with a purple lining and a Fortnum & Mason’s scotch egg in the background. English-ness has always been a challenge for luxury brands. How do you steer a course between Aston Martins and warm bitter? It will be fascinating to see how Digby deal with this challenge.

Digby Fine English

The Digby Fine English range

One of the key business (if not stylistic) influences on the brand is the Napa Valley sparkling wine industry. A tour of the area convinced Jason and Trevor that a négociant model made more sense than a grower / producer model. Better to buy in grapes than grow your own. That enables each player in the value chain to focus on their own set of skills rather than trying to master them all – a lesson straight out of the business consultancy playbook.

A couple of Harpers interviews (www.harpers.co.uk) speak to the quality of the liquid – as do a clutch of awards including Gold for the Reserve Brut 2009 at the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships 2014 – and the recent deal with the Leander Club to become the official supplier of pink fizz testifies to the marketing nous of the Digby pair and their advisers.

Digby Leander Pink NV

Out with the lion, in with the Leander Club hippo

Champagne was always a recommended drink on the nineteenth-century for athletes and jockeys (and horses – though that’s another story) so I look forward to a generation of Olympic oarsmen fuelled by fizz. And, I hope, a successful future for Digby (www.digby-fine-english.com).