Four hundred years after Shakespeare wrote his last work, we will review the drinks mentioned in his plays, the same ones he and his associates probably used to toast after his success.
Each of the works of Shakespeare has at least 38 mentions of alcoholic beverages. The choice of drink for a character was an indicator of social status or character, and the fashions and practices of the age.
Tea and coffee were still to arrive in Britain, and water was a health risk back then, so alcoholic drinks were the most common choice. In Shakespeare’s time, drinking water was hardly an option, especially in towns and cities. Thus, the most common drinks were the following:
Ale and beer
The ale was a traditional soft drink among all, including children, who were drunk from breakfast until bedtime. It also represented a source of vitamin B. This drink crossed the barriers of social status, as it was consumed by the rich and poor.
The beer was then a novelty in Holland, where hops were added. The aromatic addition was initially seen as an adulteration but gradually took over England. In Shakespeare’s time, beer was relatively sweet and fruity.
Aqua vitae covers most forms of alcohol, so at that time this could include beverages like brandy and whisky. It’s mentioned 6 times by Shakespeare, where he referred it as a restorative or therapeutic drink, unlike wine or beer.
In fact, the nurse in Romeo and Juliet asks for it twice: the first time when she explains Tybalt’s death and the banishment of Romeo, and the second time when he discovers that Juliet is dead (apparently) in her bed.
Claret, at that time, was a lot lighter than you would expect to drink and it was closer to a pink than a red of Bordeaux. There is a very important symbolic meaning of Claret in Shakespeare’s work. In the twelfth century, Bordeaux and Gascony area became English territory due to the marriage of Henry Plantagenet and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Bordeaux wines were sent in large quantities to England.
But by the end of the Hundred Years’ War, Henry VI had lost Gascony, recovered by the French, and the availability of Claret decreased. The loss was still being felt in the times of Shakespeare.
It is worth to mention that the wine was a luxury in Shakespeare’s England, and was not accessible to everyone. As it was an imported product, with a value 12 times higher than beer or soda, it was a drink only available to kings and courtiers.
The Sherry sack it’s now what we know as fortified wine. It became a well-accepted term for a variety of wines like sherry, some of them fortified and some sweets, but the Sherry sack was the best known. There are many references to this drink associated with Falstaff character, where he enjoyed Sherry sack and was always eager to ask for more. In Twelfth Night, Don Tobias and Sir Andrew Aguecheek express their fondness for the sack (Come, I will burn some sack. It’s too late to go to bed”.) In The Tempest, Stephano uses a cylinder head from a sack as a float to swim away from the wreck.
The metheglin it’s a fermented alcoholic beverage made out of honey and it comes from Welsh. It was a spiced mead. It was fermented with honey and was used as a tonic. It was a drink that only the richest of society could afford and was mentioned twice by Shakespeare, once in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and another in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Although today is not produced for commercial distribution, there has been some interest in returning to this drink.
Rich and sweet and made from Muscat grapes, is the drink of Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew. At the time, the term was generally used for Muscat wines of Greece, mostly from Crete and Zante.
Currently the Posset is a dessert of thick cream, often flavored with lemon, but in Elizabethan times it was a drink of hot milk curdled with ale or wine, usually flavored with spices and probably with sugar. It is with a poisoned Posset how Lady Macbeth sleeps the servants who guard King Duncan:
“The doors are open, and the servants have sated their thirst and their snores are heard: I drugged her Possets” says Lady Macbeth, urging her husband to take the opportunity to kill the king.
Alvear PX 1927
Néctar Pedro Ximénez