Untold lives blog

04 February 2016

The illicit history of booze in Britain

Researching the illicit history of booze in Britain is a tricky business since it’s not often that anyone makes a record of crimes that people got away with. After all, that would be evidence.

So I was overjoyed when I came across a complete manual from c.1800 explaining how to run an inn in the most underhand manner imaginable: The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion.  It must have been a popular work - the British Library holds copies of the sixth, seventh and eighth editions - and it can’t have done much good for the quality of the beer served in the period but did offer some fascinating insights into the seedier side of the trade.

The beer wasn’t actually all that bad. Sure, the author provides methods for “fixing” beer which has gone sour or which has a bad head, including adding raw beef. He also give a recipe for putting together all the little bits of beer leftover at the end of the day and making them drinkable again by using toasted bread, eggshells and sand. However compared to his suggestions for spirit keeping that was practically honest.


Beer fixing 1

Beer fixing 2

Beer fixing 3

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc

The worst part (or the best if you are fascinated by the naughtier side of things like I am) is that The Daily Companion actually provides pages and pages of tables and instructions for accurately measuring the strength, volume and quality of spirits received. It’s exactly the information you would need to ensure you were serving your customers with the very best unadulterated spirits from around the world. But of course that wasn’t why they were provided: they were just to stop any distiller or importer from tricking an inn keeper into taking watered down spirits. The author thought this very important because taking spirits which were already watered down would stop the innkeepers watering them down to maximise their own profits.

Publicans' ready reckoner

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc


Then there are the spirit recipes. Some are actually quite good, and a bartender making their own fruit liqueurs today would get nothing but respect for the effort, but others are an obvious cheat to keep down costs. There’s a recipe for making “Nassau Brandy” from grain spirit which is an obvious swindle but at least nothing dangerous.

Nassau brandy recipe

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc

The gin is dangerous. Gin is properly made in a still by redistilling a spirit with botanicals and today we have very strict labelling laws which require gin to be made this way. But The Daily Companion insists that no one really bothers with that. You don’t need a still to make gin, all you need to make gin is a barrel and a pestle and mortar. No need even to bother with real juniper, it can be easily replaced with a few ounces of highly toxic turpentine.

  Gin recipe

The Publican and Spirit Dealers' Daily Companion   Noc


A recipe that bad could only be a descendent of the illegal gin made from necessity fifty years earlier, and so it offers a unique insight into the tastes, the smells and the dangers of the Gin Craze.

Ruth Ball
Head Alchemist, Alchemist Dreams

Further reading:

The illicit history of booze in Britain


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