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?