It’s always such a pleasure to feature the gorgeous covers of Elliott & Thompson books on Being Anne – and they’re one of the very few publishers to tempt me away from fiction to look at the fascinating subjects they feature. Today it’s a real pleasure to join the blog tour for Rebellious Spirits by Ruth Ball, published in paperback on 19th April. In their press release, the publishers called this one “a delicious history of Britain’s secret, exciting and often dangerous love affair with booze” – so how could I resist? It’s already been shortlisted for the Fortnum & Mason Food Debut Drink Book of the Year Award 2016, and was one of the the Guardian’s Best Drinks Books of 2015.
For as long as spirits have existed, there has been someone doing something really naughty with them: selling gin through pipes in a London back alley; standing guard on a Cornish clifftop waiting for a smuggler’s signal; or dodging bombs and shrapnel running whisky in the Blitz. It is a history that is thrilling, utterly fascinating and uniquely British.
Packed full of historical recipes, from Milk Punch to a Wartime Martini, along with cocktails fromcontemporary bartenders, Rebellious Spirits is a treasure trove for the curious drinker.
From the gin dispensed from a cat’s paw at the Puss and Mew shop which could have been the world’s first vending machine, to whole funeral cortèges staged just to move a coffin filled with whisky, the stories show off all the wonderful wit and ingenuity required to stay one drink ahead of the law.
The accompanying recipes are just as intriguing: How did we drink gin before tonic? Was punch really made with curdled milk? Or breakfast served with brandy porridge, and gin mixed into hot ale? What did the past really taste like?
I hardly need to add to that great description. I dipped in, rather than read from cover to cover – the book’s perfect for that – and was totally hooked by the chapter on the history of gin, my spirit of choice. I could pepper this feature with “did you know…” comments – William of Orange, counterfeit brandy, the puritan backlash, the threat of bursting into flames, the Gin Plot and so much more. The writing is wonderful – light and conversational, heavy on fact and history but with the loveliest touches of humour. And then there are the recipes – 50 delicious cocktail recipes, authentic historical drinks tested by Ruth in her capacity as Head Alchemist, scattered throughout the text. I was tempted too by the idea of peaches preserved in brandy – the recipe specifies “half a bottle of brandy” but adds “you probably won’t need it all, but better to have too much than too little, and drink the rest”.
Let’s take a look at an extract… Tea Punch, anyone?
Spirits were the most difficult contraband to hide because liquids always need to be contained, whereas tea and tobacco could sometimes be disguised in plain sight. Suppliers grew skilled at twisting tobacco into convincing ropes, available in a range of thicknesses and lengths to match the ships’ rigging so that they could be stashed in a locker and explained away as spare rope in case of breakages.
Most boats would carry a mixture of different types of contraband, and having travelled across the sea together, these would soon be brought back together in the popular punches of the day. Punch was having a final fling before the late 1800s ushered the cocktail in to take its place. The brandy, sugar, tea and even sometimes the citrus fruits essential to making it would all have been smuggled at various times. No surviving recipes contain that other smuggling staple, tobacco, but I cannot believe that not one person who received their share of a shipment all together ever tried it. Perhaps they simply weren’t willing to put their name to a recipe, just as no one writes up their teenage experiments with vodka, sweets and their mum’s dishwasher.
TEA PUNCH: THE ORIGINAL
Take ½ pint good brandy
½ pint good rum
¼ pound of loaf sugar, dissolved in water
1 ounce best green tea
1 quart boiling water
1 large lemon
Infuse the tea in the water. Warm a silver or other metal bowl until hot to the touch; place in it the brandy, rum, sugar, and the juice of the lemon. The oil of the lemon peel should first be obtained by rubbing with a few lumps of the sugar. Set the contents of the bowl on fire; and while flaming, pour in the tea gradually, stirring with a ladle. It will continue to burn for some time, and should be ladled into glasses while in that condition. A heated metal bowl will cause the punch to burn much longer than if a china bowl is used.
Jerry Thomas, Bartender’s Guide (1887 reprint)
THE ALCHEMIST’S VERSION
8 tsp green tea (Chinese gunpowder is best, but 8 teabags of any pure green will do)
2 tsp pipe tobacco (optional, for if you have that naughty teenage feeling)
1 litre of water, hot but just below boiling
1 large lemon
250ml brandy (a good VS cognac is best)
250ml rum (navy style or a dark overproof is best; never use white rum)
First put the tea (and the tobacco, if using) into a large teapot or a jug. Add the hot water and leave to brew for 3–4 minutes. Once the tea has brewed, put the sugar into a clean jug and add the tea, passing it through a tea strainer. Stir until the sugar has fully dissolved, and leave to cool.
Use a stainless-steel bowl to assemble the punch if you have one, or a large ceramic bowl, like a mixing bowl, if not.
Preheat it by filling it with boiling water, leaving for a couple of minutes and then emptying. Zest the lemon into the bowl and add the juice, the brandy and the rum. Use a tablespoon to take a spoonful of the liquid, making sure that you are well clear of anything flammable, and heat the spoon with a match or lighter, then light the spirit. Gradually pour the lit spirit into the bowl until it catches, and then very slowly add the tea while stirring with a ladle. If the tea is added carefully, the punch should stay alight.
Serve with a metal ladle into heatproof glasses while still alight, but make sure that your guests remember to blow it out before drinking it. Also, don’t leave it lit too long in the glass: the rim can get extremely hot, and burnt lips are no fun at all.
Many thanks to Alison Menzies for sending a copy of the book and helping out with the extract – this is a book I’ll be dipping into again and again.
About the Author
Ruth Ball is related to Admiral Edward Vernon, the man who invented grog as a way to serve the rum ration to the navy in 1740. She is a chemist and former bartender, and was the founder of Alchemist Dreams, a company dedicated to making handmade liqueurs blended to order for clients such as the British Library and the Science Museum Group. She is the author of Rough Spirits and High Society: The Culture of Drink (British Library, 2017). Having grown up in the Peak District, she now lives in London where she works at East London Liquor Company.