Meth in the Regency

It is not the meth you think!

This meth was a mild depressant rather than a psycho-stimulant, and, though it was usually home-made, it came in liquid, not solid form. It was made only from natural ingredients and was a healthier option for most of those who consumed it than was the drinking of their local water. This meth was not an illegal or controlled substance. Yet, it was also not widely distributed in Regency Britain. It was most popular in remote and rural areas, though lesser amounts were consumed in the major urban centers of the time.

The "meth" in question is, of course, metheglin, an ancient drink which was traditional in Wales long before the Regency. Metheglin is a form of mead, an alcoholic beverage brewed from a mixture of honey and water which ferments by way of the natural yeasts in the honey. In fact, many archaeologists and anthropologists consider mead not only the first alcoholic beverage made by man, but also man’s first step from nature to culture, from accepting his habitat as it was to crafting his environment to suit himself.

The name of this beverage betrays its original use, which was as a folk medicine. Some scholars believe it was used by the Druids for such purposes. However, many others believe that members of that ancient sect enjoyed it socially as well. Metheglin is an Anglicized version of the actual Welsh name, meddyglyn, which came into use in England in the early sixteenth century. The Welsh word for mead is medd, while the word meddyg, meaning healing, was a Welsh adaptation of the Roman/Latin word medicus, which means physician. The suffix of the name is derived from llyn, which can mean either a pool of liquid or simply liquid. Thus, meddyglyn got its name from its original purpose, a healing liquid. Metheglin was the version of the name which the English applied to this beverage, and, certainly by the latter decades of the eighteenth century, the English tended to refer to this drink simply as meth. However, the English knew it only as a lightly alcoholic libation, not as a medicinal preparation.

Mead is essentially honey and water, with perhaps the addition of some extra yeast, which is boiled and left to ferment. But it can take months or even years for mead to mature to the point that it is fit to drink. Metheglin has a more complex recipe and a number of different ingredients might be used in its production, which can reduce its necessary maturation period. The basic recipe for the making of metheglin directs that new honey, that is freshly harvested, should be rinsed from the comb by spring water, with additional spring water added to create a fluid that, fully blended, will suspend an egg white so that it will not sink to the bottom of the pot. It was known that metals, particularly iron, copper, brass and zinc vessels or utensils would contaminate liquid intended to be made into metheglin. Therefore, metheglin was usually boiled in ceramic pots, often stoneware, though there is some suggestion that glass vessels might also have been used. Once it was fully blended, the honey and water mixture was then to be boiled for an hour or more, or until the egg white would "swim above the liquor," at which time it should be removed from the fire and allowed to cool, for several hours. Many recipes suggest that it be allowed to set overnight, others for a day or more.

Not all metheglin recipes specify the number of eggs to be used, or even in what form. However, most do specify egg whites, and in at least one, three egg whites are to be used for every ten pounds of honey. The use of egg whites in this way probably serves a purpose that is very similar to my Swedish great-grandmother’s recipe for coffee. In her recipe, an egg is mixed with the fresh coffee grounds and just enough water to moisten it well. This mixture is then turned into a pot of boiling water. The boiling water releases the flavor from the coffee grounds, but the egg coating prevents the release of the oils and acids which make the coffee bitter. Plus, the egg solidifies as it cooks, binding all the coffee grounds together, eventually becoming a lump which floats to the top. This lump can be easily removed, leaving a clear brew, with no sediment. It is likely that the egg whites used in the preparation of the honey liquor for metheglin acted in a similar manner, trapping all the sediments and other impurities which might have been in the honey which was washed from the comb. All of the metheglin recipes do direct that the surface of the honey liquor be skimmed, usually just after the liquid is taken from the heat, which was more than likely intended to remove the cooked egg whites and the sediments they had trapped.

The completely cooled honey liquor was then poured into a barrel. It was at this point that metheglin departed from the recipes used for making mead. Sweet spices and/or aromatic herbs were then added to the liquor. Ginger, cloves, mace or nutmeg were commonly added to most batches of metheglin. Other ingredients which might be added were orange peel, rosemary, cinnamon, vanilla, coriander, thyme, hyssop or sage. Some even added tea or tea leaves to the liquid. Those wanting faster and more powerful fermentation to take place would add a half to a full spoonful of yeast to the liquor, before sealing the barrel. The barrel would then be stored in a cool place, often a cellar, for four to six weeks. The barrel could then be opened and the metheglin drawn off and bottled, ready to drink. The unpleasant flavor which mead would have after such a short period of fermentation would have made in nearly undrinkable. But the addition of the herbs and spices would cover such flavors so that the resulting metheglin would be ready to drink in a much shorter period than would mead. Those same herbs and spices significantly increased the shelf life of metheglin so that it would last much longer than mead.

Mead and metheglin were especially popular in Wales from at least the Middle Ages and both were regularly brewed at home. Mead took much longer to mature so metheglin was made more often in the majority of Welsh homes. Metheglin was usually made by the housewife, and many women passed their recipes for metheglin down to their daughters and grand-daughters for generations. Most women made their metheglin in fairly small batches which would supply their families for a few months. However, larger batches of both mead and metheglin were made in many public houses and taverns, mostly in Wales, for sale to their customers. Some was even shipped to England.

Though metheglin was not the national drink of Wales, is was so popular there that it had long been considered a Welsh drink, even in England. Metheglin was regularly served at most meals in Welsh households right through the Regency. Thus, in a sense, metheglin honored its origins as a healing fluid, because, since the honey and water mixture was boiled, it was actually safer to drink than the water found in many areas. Metheglin had the added advantage that it supplemented the sometimes meagre meals available to hard-working country folk with much-needed additional calories.

It had been believed for centuries that any beverage made of honey, such as mead, and especially metheglin, was a powerful aphrodisiac. For that reason, from the time of the Babylonians, such drinks were often designated the official wedding drink. Several scholars believe that the death of Attila the Hun on his wedding night was due to his excessive consumption of mead in an attempt to prepare himself for the night ahead. In a number of cultures, the bride’s parents were required to ensure the groom had a steady supply of "the wine of the bee" for a full month following the marriage. This period of time was originally known as "honeymonth." By the Middle Ages, in many Northern European countries, newly married couples were required, in some places, compelled, to drink metheglin daily, from one full moon to the next full moon, a period of about thirty days, thus the origin of our term, "honeymoon." It was believed that this steady intake of metheglin would bestow upon the young couple sufficient sweetness to enable them to carry out their marriage vows for the rest of their lives.

The ancient Britons had believed in both the medicinal and aphrodisiacal qualities of metheglin and mead, a belief which passed down through the generations. However, the production of these honey-based drinks in England went into a decline during the reign of Henry VIII. The primary bee-keepers at this time were monastic orders, and these large-scale bee-keeping programs ceased with the king’s dissolution of the monasteries, as did their regular production of metheglin. Wales does not seem to have been so severely affected at this time, probably because there were fewer monasteries and many rural people kept bees. These people therefore had the necessary honey available in order to continue to make both mead and metheglin. In 1577, William Harrison wrote of metheglin in his Description of England, that " … the Welshman held this brew in the highest esteem … " as they continued to do right through the Regency.

Metheglin is a fairly sweet drink, and sweet drinks were falling out of favor in England by the sixteenth century. It was sold in England in small quantities, mostly from Wales, by the last decades of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Records show the queen was quite fond of "meth" but was very particular about which spices were used in the making of that which she drank. Samuel Pepys recorded drinking his first "brave cup of metheglin" in 1660. Six years later, in 1666, he was offered a cup of metheglin from the stores of King Charles II and noted "it did please me mightily." However, not all Englishmen enjoyed metheglin. At least one English traveller in Wales, in the nineteenth century, Charles Harper, did not care for it at all. In his book, The Marches of Wales, he wrote: "The metheglin we sipped for experiment’s sweet sake … It has the appearance of rum, is very sweet and heady, and very nasty." In another part of his account he wrote: " … metheglin is everything that is sickly and horrid. We thought that, as this was the conclusion of dinner, we would take our glasses into the garden and sip her [his hostess, a country housewife] admirable metheglin in a leisurely manner. ‘Yes, do,’ said she; and we went forth into its most secluded corner and there emptied our glasses among the currant-bushes. …. "

Metheglin was consumed in significant quantities in both England and Wales, from at least the seventeenth century well into the nineteenth, on one day, or more specifically one night, each year. That occasion was Twelfth Night. On that night, throughout much of the British Isles, it was the custom to serve a special cake, known as Twelfth Cake, into which a trinket, such as a bead or coin was baked. When the cake was cut, whoever got the trinket in their slice was elevated to the rank of king or queen for the night. The Twelfth Cake was frequently accompanied by a special Wassail Bowl, into which had been poured a powerful punch composed of spiced ale or wine along with metheglin, to which was added a large measure of sugar and roasted apples.

Metheglin was not a common or popular drink in England during the Regency, but it was available to those aficionados who truly enjoyed it, especially in the larger urban areas. Most wine merchants would import it from Wales for their customers who wanted it. There were also a few who made their own metheglin at home in England, but the practice was not widespread. However, in Wales, metheglin was commonly made in many homes and was readily available in the majority of the public houses and taverns. But it was an acquired taste among the English and there were some who enjoyed it as much as had Samuel Pepys, but many others who found it as nasty and horrid as had Charles Harper. In Regency Wales, meth was still considered to have some medicinal properties, such as relieving coughs and sniffles. Its properties as an aphrodisiac were less well-known by the early nineteenth century, but there were still some who did believe it could reinvigorate a flagging libido

Dear Regency Authors, how might you pour some meth into one of your stories? Perhaps one of your characters finds themselves ill in Wales, to be dosed regularly with metheglin by the housewife in the rural home where they were taken for care? Or, might a character seeking to embarrass or annoy another character, serve them metheglin when they were expecting brandy or sherry. Then again, maybe the villain tries to get the heroine to drink some metheglin in the hope that it will make him more attractive to her by way of its supposed aphrodisiacal properties. One or more of you characters might be travelling in Wales and be offered a glass of meth. Will they politely drink it, or will they do like Charles Harper and find some discreet place to pour it out?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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11 Responses to Meth in the Regency

  1. Gerri Bowen says:

    This was very interesting, Kathryn. I had never heard of metheglin before reading this.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I only discovered it recently, when I was doing some research on Welsh customs. When I ran across that passage where Harper tells of how nasty it was and of pouring it into the currant bushes, I knew I had to write about it.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  2. mmmmm mead….. I make my own and 6 years old is the ideal time to drink it [if you can manage to lose a bottle or two in the back of the cupboard so it gets left that long]. Incidentally, a drink promoted by health food fanatics involves a teaspoon of honey, a teaspoon of cider vinegar and a pinch of ginger mixed in warm water. It’s an immune system boost and is a bit of an acquired taste, but honey is nature’s finest antibiotic. Henry V would likely have died while he was till Prince of Wales but for the honey packed into the arrow wound on his face after fighting Owen Glyndwr. Is there an irony in that as he fought the nation who gave us Mead?

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Do you use a family recipe for your mead? Do you add yeast or let it ferment with just the natural yeasts in the honey? What does it taste like? I have never had it and always wondered. Clearly the Vikings loved it.

      That immune system drink sounds nasty. I think I would rather have a cold.

      I must admit, there is a certain irony in Henry’s survival by way of honey. I was very surprised to learn about its anti-bacterial properties when I was reading about the history of bees. Yet again, we owe a big debt to those little critters. We humans really need to do all we can to ensure their survival. We need them for so much.

      I would toast you with mead, if I had any!

      =^..^=

      • Haha, if you had a deficient immune system as I do, which means a cold can last a couple of weeks and be caught looking out of the window at a snot nosed brat you’d take what you can get to lead as close to a normal life as possible – I have ME, it mucks with the immune system and actually, it’s not really nasty, just a bit unexpected…

        I found a recipe for mead in a book by a Mrs Gennery-Taylor, my family had never made mead, or indeed wine – strict Methodists or Salvation Army for generations, I’m a little more laid back – and fiddled about until I was satisfied. It’s definitely a dessert wine, being very sweet, but I have a very childish palate and prefer dessert wines anyway. I use a Sauterne yeast or a Tokay yeast not the rather uncertain natural ones [the incidence of modern contaminants AND antibiotics mean that natural yeasts are even less certain to work than in the days before you could purchase wine yeasts], the Tokay produces a mead a little too sweet even for my tastes with a slightly sickly overtaste, the Sauterne has smoothness without cloying. They can be quite fierce, the first batch I did was 19% and after a glass you were singing [well I was, but then I only drink about 2 litres of wine a year so I’m not hugely inured to alcohol!] but you don’t get a hangover…. just do be aware that it tastes so smooth without much hint of alcohol and like top grade Cider you only find out how strong it is when you make an abortive attempt to stand up.
        How to describe the flavour… have you ever sucked nectar from clover flowers or honeysuckle? it’s like that only even better. Ambrosial. And wine made from honeysuckle flowers actually tastes very similar.
        If you can find an Irish bar that serves mead do try it… you’ll be spoiled for most other wines for the rest of your life.
        There is some suggestion that what the Vikings meant by mead may have been closer to a honey ale, and this I have yet to have a go at making, but I suspect with the amount they knocked back this may indeed be the case. The idea of drinking mead by the tankard either proves they WERE the master race or that it wasn’t as strong… and I suspect the latter. They’d have to be Odin, Thor and Beowulf combined otherwise.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Major bummer about the ME. I am sorry to hear it! In that case, it is probably worth it to you to suffer the taste of the immune system drink. I have a serious sweet tooth and tend to avoid sour things like vinegar whenever possible.

          Thanks for all the information about mead-making. I am not a big drinker myself, so probably won’t make any. But I do appreciate the tip about the Irish bar. There are a lot of them here in Boston, so I will have to pay one a visit so I can taste mead for myself. I am sure my alcohol tolerance is no better than yours, so I will be sure not to drink too much!

          Interesting about the use of the term mead in different cultures. I thought mead was mead was mead. I did not realize it might be an ale rather than a wine. Though I did run across mention of other honey-based drinks such as hydromel, hypocras and melomel while I was doing my research on metheglin. You must be right about those old Norsemen drinking a honey ale, since there are all those pictures and films of Vikings drinking from those huge horns in the great hall with all their buds. Probably wouldn’t have remained standing long if it was wine mead.

          Regards,

          Kat

          • I keep threatening to make it but I’m not a huge ale/beer fan [i can make an exception for the Belgian fruit beers] so I’m a bit chary about starting as it’s like cooking cakes – I don’t much like cake so I make a pig’s ear of cooking them and stick to savoury pastries….

            Hypocras was big with Henry VIII, I have a recipe somewhere of the Hampton Court version.

            I am wondering actually though if a country wine of pre-dedicated yeast times might have been a lot less strong though – because not all the sugar would turn to alcohol if the yeast content is less certain. I fancy we will never know! [though one can’t help wondering if Thor had enough taste buds left to tell the difference as Utgardhaloki conned him into causing the sea to be tidal by magically attaching the end of his drinking horn to the sea…]

            • Kathryn Kane says:

              You are much more ambitious than I. With the exception of Christmas, I seldom bake any more. As much as I enjoy it, there just never seems to be enough time. The making alcoholic beverages is not even on the radar for me.

              I think your speculation on the relative power of the yeasts of past times is dead on. All living things evolve and change, partly on their own, and in some cases, through the intervention of man, so it stands to reason that the yeasts available today would not be the same as those our ancestors used. There is a historic village museum here in Massachusetts called Old Sturbridge Village, and one of their ongoing programs is the back-breeding of both plants and animals to try to replicate versions of both which are more similar to those known to people in times past. I don’t think they have got down to the level of yeasts, but they are using old breeding records to reverse engineer animals and plants with those traits which previous generations tried to breed out. The results are quite enlightening.

              I had forgotten about Thor’s “bottomless” drinking horn. And sea water, of all things. I am sure he would have much preferred something fermented!

              =^..^=

              • I guess I just grew up baking at the skirts of my great aunt, whose father was a Master Baker… and because I like pastry but I don’t trust a lot of what you get sold in shops ready cooked. With ME comes a basket load of food allergies [haha, including gluten, so pastry has to be a treat unless I spend a fortune on alternative flours] and I like to know what goes in to what I eat…I would love to be able to visit that museum. I do actually grow some heritage plants like Carlin peas – didn’t have a good enough crop to eat last year so I saved them to sow this year – because there’s quite a movement to use the early plants amongst a lot of allotment owners on organic allotments. One of my friends is a garden historian and he’s fairly passionate about it, and about getting as many people growing heritage plants as possible. If I’m ever able to visit the US again that’s got to be a stoppover at least…

              • Kathryn Kane says:

                Well, until you can come to the States, here is the link to the OSV web site, so you can at least visit them virtually:

                http://www.osv.org/

                =^..^=

              • Many thanks! I shall neglect my duties in a most delightful way I am sure!

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