Today many of us buy our wine in bottles with paper labels which provide the name and type of the wine and other information required by our respective governments. Such was not the case during the Regency, nor had it been for centuries before. In fact, it was illegal to sell wine in bottles until more than three decades after the death of George IV. Yet most upper-class and aristocratic households regularly served a selection of wines, as well as liquors and other spirits in glass decanters. How was one to know which was which?
When the labelling of wine was an elegant craft …
The selling of wine by the bottle had been prohibited by law at a time when all bottles were made by hand, mouth-blown, one at a time, by glass-makers usually working in large glass manufactories. Even in such mass-production situations, no two bottles, even blown by the same man, were exactly the same size or contained the same amount of liquid. There was no way to guarantee that each bottle held the same volume, even though they were similar in size and shape. Typically, vintners and wine dealers would buy wine by the cask or barrel. When a customer made a purchase, if they did not buy the entire cask, the vintner would measure it out, by the gallon, or other reliable unit of measure, then bottle it in the number of bottles needed to contain the measured volume of wine. Often the customer provided their own bottles for the purpose. Some customers preferred to be present for this measuring and bottling process, others sent their butler along to observe or even supervise the proceedings. There were, of course, many customers who trusted their regular wine dealers and they, or their butlers, simply placed their orders and the specified volume of wine was delivered to them, to be stored in their wine cellars until needed.
Casks and barrels of wine might often have the name of the wine branded into the wood. If they did not, they could simply have the name or type of wine written on the container, in pencil, chalk or even charcoal. In some households, even that step was not taken, as certain areas of the wine cellar were designated for certain types of wine, so any barrel stored in a designated area was assumed to be that type of wine. The problem of storing wine in unlabeled bottles was overcome in a similar fashion. Most wine cellars had large wooden bins for the bottles of each type of wine which was used by the household. Each of those bins had a simple ceramic label attached, with the name of the wine contained in that bin, such as "hock," "port," "claret," madeira," etc. This system worked very well, for more than two centuries, right through the decade of the Regency.
But how was the wine to be labelled when it emerged from the wine cellar? No self-respecting host or hostess, with any pretensions to taste or even good manners, would serve wine directly from the bottles in which it was stored in their cellars. Rather, wine would be decanted, from cask or bottle, usually by the butler, into fine glass decanters which were deemed appropriate to be seen in the public rooms of the house. But in most of the better households, more than one wine would be served. How was one to tell them apart? By their bottle tickets, of course.
The first bottle tickets, which today are more often called wine labels, were introduced about 1730, initially, all made of silver. Later other materials would be introduced. Bottle tickets would continue to be made for the next two centuries, though some of the most elegant and attractive were made during the decade of the Regency. In fact, a limited number of wine labels of this type are still made even today. The majority of these bottle tickets continued to be made of silver, though some were also gilt. Most silver bottle tickets comprise a small plaque on which the name of the type of wine had been engraved or stamped, the plaque being suspended by a short chain that could be dropped around the neck of the decanter which contained that type of wine. Not all bottle tickets were suspended on a chain. Some were suspended from a metal ring with a circumference larger than the neck of the decanter, but smaller than the decanter’s shoulder. There were even some bottle tickets which were simply a wide metal ring which would settle on the shoulder of the decanter with the name of the wine stamped or engraved on the ring itself. And though silver was the usual material for making bottle tickets, it was by no means the only one. Bottle tickets were made of enamel, ivory, mother-of-pearl, bone, Sheffield plate, porcelain and even tigers’ claw, to mention a few.
For much of the eighteenth century, bottle tickets were made to order for each customer. In most cases, they were made in matching sets, each ticket carrying the name of a wine which that customer regularly consumed. Some were even embellished with the crest, coat of arms or the monogram of the owner. By the end of the eighteenth century, bottle tickets made of less expensive materials, such as Sheffield plate, bone and porcelain, were made up in large numbers, with the names of all the popular wines of the time. Those who could not afford to have their bottle tickets custom-made would still be able to acquire labels for all the various decanters of wine served in their homes at a reasonable cost. Of course, these mass-produced bottle tickets would not contain personal symbols such as coats of arms or monograms, but most were quite attractive and served the purpose for which they were intended, if perhaps a bit less high in the instep than custom-made tickets.
By the mid-eighteenth century, bottle tickets had inspired glass-makers to introduce clear glass decanters into which were etched the names of various wines. The names etched into these decanters were often surrounded with gilt designs, to more closely approximate a metal wine label. Some even had a chain motif etched around the neck of the decanter, which was also sometimes gilt. However, most people preferred to use their individual bottle tickets, which were considered more fashionable, and had the added advantage of allowing them to pour any wine they chose into any decanter they chose. That wine could then be easily labeled by slipping the appropriate bottle ticket over the neck of the decanter. By the latter decades of the eighteenth century, many upper class customers were also ordering bottle tickets with the names of other alcoholic beverages. These bottle tickets were also being made in large volume, in standard shapes, by the end of the century. Bottle tickets in a number of different styles and materials could be found bearing names such as "rum," "whiskey," "hollands," or just "gin." [Author’s Note: Hollands was a type of gin made in Holland which was flavored with juniper berries. It was essentially an upscale version of ordinary gin and was therefore more likely to be found in better households than was plain "blue ruin."]
As the nineteenth century began, bottle tickets had shown themselves to be so useful they were also being made to label bottles which contained a plethora of sauces and other fluids. During the Regency bottle tags were made for ketchup, soy sauce, chili sauce, lemon juice and tarragon vinegar, among others. Just about anything that could be poured into a bottle or cruet of any size could be labeled with a bottle ticket. If a cook in a house had a special sauce that was served with a number of dishes, once it had a name, a bottle ticket could be made to elegantly label the container for that sauce when it was placed on the dinner table. By the Regency, another specialized bottle ticket was being made. This type of bottle ticket was actually a small holder for a hand-written label which could be changed as needed. These label holder bottle tickets continued to be made well into Victorian times. Just as the Regency was ending, another type of bottle ticket was being introduced. These new bottle tickets consisted of a large, ornate single letter which was the initial, typically, for the name of a well-known wine. These single letter bottle tickets became even more popular during the reign of George IV and William IV and retained that popularity through the Victorian era and into the early twentieth century.
Aristocratic households of long standing might well have sets of bottle tickets which had been made in the eighteenth century that were still in use. However, it frequently happened that not all the wines and other alcoholic beverages preferred by great-grandfather or even grandfather, were to the taste of the current head of the household. In such cases, new bottle tickets would be needed. For those who wished to maintain tradition and uniformity, particularly with silver or silver-gilt bottle tickets, the new tickets would be commissioned from the family goldsmith or jeweler and would be made to match the existing family set. Gentlemen with a more contemporary turn of mind might choose to have their new bottle tickets made in the current neo-classical style. They may even have gone so far as to have had a complete new set made, consigning the old-fashioned bottle tickets to a drawer in the butler’s pantry.
Though French wines were consumed in England in the eighteenth century, they were less popular than the wines of Portugal and its territories. This preference by the English was due in large part to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, by which significant tax reductions were established for the importation of wines from areas controlled by Portugal. It was at this time that Madeira wine grew in popularity in Britain and her colonies, including those in North America. French wines were much more heavily taxed, but remained popular with a select few wine connoisseurs in England. Claret was perhaps the most popular, since it came from the costal region of Bordeaux, from which it was easier to ship wines than it was from the more northern, but land-locked region of Burgundy. Thus, in England, bottle tickets for Madeira were very common, though bottle tickets for Claret were made in significant numbers as well, while bottle tickets for Burgundy were quite rare. However, in Scotland, where the "Auld Alliance" with France was still remembered, French wines were more common, and, so too, were bottle tickets carrying the names for those wines.
French wines had grown in popularity with the upper classes in England by the early nineteenth century, despite their higher cost. Therefore, more bottle tickets were being made with the names of popular French wines in the first years of the new century. But then, Napoleon provided the impetus to yet another need for new bottle tickets. The French Emperor’s so-called "Continental System" put a stop to all legal shipments of French wines to English ports in 1806. Though smuggling kept a steady stream of French wine flowing into England, it did not match pre-war volumes. Nor was it considered politically correct to serve or consume such wines. Which is not to suggest such consumption abated, only that it became more clandestine. When a household was dining en famille or with very close friends, the correct bottle tickets may have been placed on the wine decanters used at table, even if their contents were of the smuggled variety. But when a dinner party was given which included guests who were not close and well-known friends of the family, were French wines kept off the table, or were they merely mis-labeled by the use of bottle tickets carrying the names of legal wines? Such decisions may well have been driven by the perceived intelligence of the palates of the guests. If it was assumed they would not recognize a French from a Portuguese wine, the host might decide to serve French wines with for his own pleasure, secure in the knowledge his guests would not tumble to the fact they were drinking smuggled wines. He knew he could easily disguise the origins of the wines by using bottle tickets with the names of Portuguese or other legal wines. But if any of the guests were known to be connoisseurs of wine, highly patriotic, and/or worse, potentially hostile to the host or his family, only legal wines, all correctly labeled with the appropriate bottle tickets would appear on the dinner table that evening.
By the late eighteenth century, primarily in France, though also in parts of Italy, a very few wines were made available in bottles, with paper labels, usually hand-written. But these were the exception, not the norm, and such paper labels were typically used only to distinguish wines of a truly special vintage at the winery where they were produced. But even those bottles would never have been used to serve the wine they contained at a meal in an upper class English household. All wine, and most distilled spirits, were decanted into fine glass decanters before they were served in any upper or even middle class household during the Regency. Though it was not common, some taverns and public houses did serve wine, for at least some of which, no duty had been paid. On request, a few of these establishments might well provide their regular customers who wanted wine with a bottle of that wine. But even those bottles were seldom labeled, with either a paper label or an ornate bottle ticket. So Dear Regency authors, be sure to keep the paper labels off the wine bottles in your stories, unless, of course, one of your characters has come across a paper-labeled bottle of a very special vintage while poking about a French or Italian winery. Then again, if you wish to clearly demonstrate the poor taste and uncouth manners of a character, perhaps a wealthy upstart cit, you can always allow him to serve wine to his guests directly from the bottles in which he stored it in his wine cellar. You may be sure his upper class guests will be horrified and deeply insulted by such crass and tasteless behaviour. Some may even refuse to drink wine served in that way.
Bottle tickets from the 1730s on have survived into the twenty-first century in large numbers. They are often very attractive and are highly collectible, if usually rather pricey. Though they are now more often called wine lables, it is important to distinguish them from the paper lables found on modern wine bottles, which many people also collect. Some collectors restrict their bottle ticket collections to only those for wines, or further restrict them to those tickets for wines of specific regions. Other collectors seek only bottle tickets for distilled spirits, and a few collect only bottle tickets for sauces and other condiments. Regardless of their design or material, these small relics from a past time and culture are always a delight to behold.