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.

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1914 Pol Roger pint – presented to Cabinet War Rooms by Berry Bros & Rudd

The pint bottle was Churchill’s favourite size, although it’s unclear whether all 42,000 bottles he is said to have drunk between 1908 (the date of the first invoice in the Pol Roger records) and his death in 1965 were in fact pints. It seems unlikely, though they certainly they could have been. The final vintage bottled in halves by Pol Roger was 1973.

Will exit from the European Union enable Britons once again to share the convenient four glasses that the pint bottle delivers (rather than the somewhat unsatisfactory three of the standard 75 cl half bottle)? We’ll have to wait and see. According to James Simpson of Pol Roger UK it will take four years to pint bottles on the shelves (double that time if a vintage wine is required).

The history of the pint bottle goes back a long way of course and, equally obviously, it was not just champagne that was bottled in pints during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Christie’s sales records from the early nineteenth century record pints of claret, port, sherry and a range of other now forgotten fortified wines – though pints of champagne are not recorded in the records, probably because they would not have been cellared for long.

Wine in smaller bottle sizes matures faster and champagne in the early nineteenth century was a notoriously tricky drink to store for any length of time whatever the size of the bottle. By the 1830s, however, Perrier-Jouet was willing to supply wine not only in pints but also in half pints. By the 1850s, the ‘Spartan abstinence’ that had promoted the half pint ‘life preserver’ in the London clubs was fast going out of fashion. According to Charles Tovey in his 1852 Wine and Wine Countries, half pint bottles were accounted as ‘failures’, though some later writers advocated their use as the perfect size for invalids.

The pint bottle however was consistently successful from the 1850s onwards. Drinks Business (www.drinksbusiness.com) has gone so far as to say that the pint was the most popular size of bottle in the nineteenth century but the records of some prominent houses suggest that was unlikely. Around 20% of Pol Roger’s sales by volume between the 1860s and 1914 were accounted for by pint bottles (or half bottles since the standard measure was the two pint imperial quart). By number of bottles, therefore, halves represented around 40% of sales. The same was true for Veuve Clicquot for most of the nineteenth century though there were problems in the early 1870s (the peak years for British champagne consumption) when hoteliers in particular were demanding to be supplied with approximately equal numbers of full and half bottles. Edouard Werlé of Veuve Clicquot imposed an unpopular limit of 20% by volume for a few years. However, by the turn of the century there were occasional years when Veuve Clicquot’s pint bottles outsold quarts.

The appeal of the pint was clear. It was sold to London Clubs for the consumption of solitary diners; to hoteliers and restaurateurs for those dining alone or with a companion. The Clubs were not generally sites of excess. The gentlemanly code of conduct (to which Churchill also subscribed, though not always successfully) insisted that visible drunkenness was an unpardonable social sin. Analysis of the accounts of the Athenaeum and the Junior United Services Club in the 1830s suggest that little more than half a pint of wine was the standard ration.

By the turn of the century, consumption was more generous. Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, the pioneer restaurant critic, occasionally recorded that he and his lady companion would have a pint bottle each (probably dry wine for the critic and sweeter wine for his companion) but much more frequently they shared a quart bottle.

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Nathaniel Newnham-Davis, pioneer restaurant critic for the Pall Mall Gazette

Champagne was occasionally taken as a breakfast drink. Robert Louis Stevenson reports on a veteran of South Seas trading who had a pint for breakfast every day. A doctor writing on the ‘Proper Diet for Hot Weather’ in 1892 mentioned a pint of champagne as a morning bracer with the suggestion that in some aristocratic houses to refuse such an offer was to invoke concerns about your health. Churchill would have approved, though his breakfast and morning drink was whisky and soda.

The pint bottle was also a key component in many doctors’ recommendations for patients suffering from flu or stomach problems. During his gruelling American tours in the late 1860s Charles Dickens subsisted on a rum flavoured with fresh cream for breakfast, a pint of champagne mid-afternoon and  sherry with an egg beaten into it in the evening, sometimes accompanied by ‘the strongest beef tea that can be made’.

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Dickens reading in the US – courtesy of Stanford University

Twenty years later doctors were still favouring champagne and beef tea and a 1905 Moet & Chandon brochure recommended a pint of champagne as ‘an almost magical cure’.  However, H G Wells’ determined attempts to revitalise the ailing George Gissing by force-feeding him pints of champagne on Christmas Day 1903 ‘more or less killed him on the spot’, according to a recent biographer.

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George Gissing – killed by pints of champagne (and H.G. Wells)?

In the midst of this excess it is somehow encouraging to note that Irish terrorists in the late nineteenth century were using pint bottles of champagne as the basis for their bombs. Churchill would not have approved.

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