In Charles Dickens’ famous tale A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge’s spectral-induced transformation leaves him with a longing for an old-fashioned Christmas drink.
“I’ll raise your salary and endeavor to assist your struggling family,” Scrooge promises his much-abused employee, Bob Cratchit, “and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of Smoking Bishop, Bob!”
But there’s a whole lot more than just goodwill toward men brimming from a cup of this rich holiday quaff of orange- and clove-spiked mulled port. It’s a drink chock-full of English history and what it meant to be a patriotic, Protestant Victorian of the merchant class.
“Dickens was an antiquarian and a (canny) nostalgic writing in a time of wrenching change,” says David Wondrich, a drinks historian and author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl. “A drink like Bishop, old as the hills (more or less), mild and rich, is a fine contrast to the Cratchit’s best-we-can-scrape-together, modern, thin and wretched gin punch,” he told us in an email.
Bishop belongs to a family of spiced warm drinks — known as “ecclesiastics” — that includes everything from rich “pope” (made with Tokay wine, Champagne, or Burgundy) to a “church warden” of inexpensive ginger wine diluted with tea. They were potable versions of religious jokes, explains Elizabeth Gabay, a historian and certified master of wine currently at work on a book about the global history of punch. Drinking a Smoking Bishop carried a “Protestant, anti-Catholicism tone,” she says.
In other Protestant countries, like Germany, Denmark and Sweden, “you have drinking societies where the punch bowl is actually shaped like a bishop’s mitre,” says Gabay. “You would get drunk and laugh at the church at the same time.”
Smoking Bishop has largely been relegated to history. But its main ingredient, port, remains an iconic drink of the contemporary British Christmas — and it, too, tells a story about English politics and class identity. Chad Ludington, author of The Politics of British Wine, explained to The Salt how port, a Portuguese fortified wine, became the drink of England.
“At the end of the 17th century, the English and the French were engaged in a series of tit-for-tat economic wars” that created protective trade barriers on both sides, he says. Such conflict raised the price of French wines like Bordeaux, or claret (as it was often called), which had been the choice of a certain class of English drinkers since the Middle Ages. As the usual tipple became too expensive, buying it was deemed unpatriotic.
“English merchants then went prospecting for wine in other countries in southern Europe,” says Ludington. “They just continued down the coast from where their boats had been going in France, and they found Spanish wines and Portuguese wines.” Then when the English signed the Methuen Treaty in 1703, they gave the Portuguese the privilege of having their wines taxed at one-third the rate of French wine. That secured port’s place as a more affordable middle-class libation.
According to Ludington, through the 18th century and into the 19th, British port merchants “became not just shippers but producers as well.” By the time Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, Brits owned a fair amount of land in Portugal, which allowed them to “control every aspect of production and shipping.”
At the same time, the peninsular import became a useful tool for newly moneyed Victorians — like Scrooge.
Throughout the 19th century, “there’s this long process of new money coming in and joining the English aristocracy,” says Ludington. Those who can afford to, begin to buy port to store in their cellar. “What better expression of the longevity of your family than pulling out a bottle that is 30, 40, 50 years old?” Luddington says. “Port is the perfect wine for a mercantile elite that wants … to convince other people that it’s largely aristocratic” — even when it wasn’t.
Wondrich finds those same aristocratic longings in the new Scrooge: “I see Bishop as a token of Scrooge’s return to the old England, where the gentlemen took care of their people and the people worked cheerily for the gentlemen.”
Sounds a lot like Scrooge’s apprenticeship in Old Fezziwig’s workshop. There, the ghost of Christmas past shows Scrooge his former employer, a generous Fezziwig, who encourages his workers to enjoy their jobs, but also to live it up a little — and to remember it’s his generosity that makes the party.
That group celebration is what’s important about the bowl of Bishop. The punch bowl is like the communal well. Everybody dips in. “There was something convivial and bonding” about it, says Gabay. “Whereas a cocktail is very individualist, with Smoking Bishop, you’re sharing the same drink.”
Anne Bramley is the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter: 30 Ways to Celebrate When the Mercury Drops. She’s a food writer and independent scholar in Norwich, U.K.