In the last post, we saw that the duties of a Regency era butler tended to revolve around the proper serving of wine. But that assumes that the wine is good enough to be served in the first place. If it was foul, or musty, or “flat” “lowering” or even “decaying,” the housekeeper might be expected to “improve” it. Or if the cellar was low on good claret, she might be called upon to make some. Just how could these miracles be accomplished? The Complete Servant guidebook gives numerous recipes.

The old methods for "improving" wine seem like old medical practices - more likely to kill than cure

The old methods for “improving” wine seem like old medical practices – more likely to kill than cure


Wine cellars of the 18th and early 19th centuries were not filled with cases of wine in bottles like we see today. Wine was stored in casks and generally not drawn out into a bottle or decanter until shortly before it was to be consumed. (There are stories of butlers requiring the footmen to whistle while they were drawing wine so that even if he wasn’t watching, the butler could be sure that the footman wasn’t sneaking a drink.)

If you had a cask of “poor” wine, the guide advises adding a quart of brandy and either a pound of raisins or two pounds of honey. If the wine was “decaying,” you were advised to remove about four gallons from the cask, add an ounce of powdered roche-alum (some kind of rock) and beat it for about half an hour, put it back and the cask and let it sit for a week. For wine that is “musty or disagreeable,” you were told to add two sticks of charcoal to the cask. If that didn’t work, you could try mustard seed in brandy, camphor (really? that stuff is used in moth balls and embalming fluid?) or two ripe “medlars” (a fruit that Shakespeare compared to “an open-arse” and which doesn’t become edible until it’s rotten)

And there’s more. To clear “foul or ropy” wine, you mixed in chalk dust, burnt alum and egg white. Finally if wine was “green or harsh,” you could add salt, gypsum powder and skim milk. (Or you could just drink water.)

So what if guests arrive and you’re out of good claret? The servant guide says to mix an equal quantity of apple cider and port (a heavy wine fortified with extra alcohol), put the two in a bottle, shake them up, and in a month “The best judge will not be able to distinguish them from good Bordeaux.” The book also instructs housekeepers how to “pass White Wine off for champagne.”

Many of the improvements and the recipes make a wine that sounds like it would be extremely sweet. But the guide offers help to those who prefer a dry wine. “At the commencement of the vineous fermentation,” it advises adding an ounce or two of calcined gypsum. Isn’t that what’s in drywall? So maybe if I’m ever stuck at a party with only white zinfandel, I should punch a hole in the wall, scrape out a couple spoonfuls, and “improve” my wine. Yum!

Next time… turnip wine – so good you don’t even need the gypsum…




Information in this article came from The Complete Servant: Being a Practical Guide to the Peculiar Duties and Business of All Descriptions of Servants by Samuel Adams and Sarah Adams (London: Knight and Lacey 1825).

The photo is Twisted Oak Winery, 2008 River of Skulls (