Hogsheads of honey, kilderkins of mustard,
Muttons, and fatted beeves, and bacon swine;
Herons and bitterns, peacocks, swan, and bustard,
Teal, mallard, pigeons, widgeons, and in fine
Plum-puddings, pancakes, apple-pies, and custard:
And therewithal they drank good Gascon wine,
With mead, and ale, and cider of our own;
For porter, punch, and negus were not known.
John Hookham Frere (1817)
Prospectus and Specimen of an Intended National Work, by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket in Suffolk, Harness and Collar Makers
~ ~ ~
In 1817 when Frere gushed on about a Christmas feast set before King Arthur in his mock-heroic Prospectus and Specimen
, porter, punch, and negus were all the rage among his English audience. Two hundred years on, you have your pick of porters at any well-stocked bottle shop while punch—whether milk, planter’s, or Hawaiian—is hardly in danger of extinction.
The preparation of negus, however, though not wholly unknown to savvy imbibers, has fallen into neglect. Like eggnog, the port wine-based tot is a seasonal affair, creeping out of its obscurity once the veil of winter has descended, letting us know that Christmas is on us.
With the nation vexed by inclement weather and even sunny San Diego beset with cold nights and biting showers, when bamboo freighted with rain arcs nearly to the ground, what’s called for is liquor. And why not a mug of hot wine to send warming tendrils of boozy nutmeg goodness throughout the body? A mug? Make a Thermos full if you’re feeling punchy.
Through my early drinking years, port was linked in my mind inextricably to the English who, especially in the works of Dickens, seemed to guzzle the Portuguese fortified wine with alarming frequency. As far as I was concerned, they could keep it. Too sweet, too strong, it called to mind overpriced Mad Dog.
I’ve since learned two things. First, I had been sampling crap port—less porto
. Second, it turns out that, just as sweet tea explains itself best in the complementary presence of vinegar-based barbecue sauces, port shines in the company of other things—England’s justly famed Stilton cheese, for instance, or mellow cigars. As the British lieutenant-colonel Francis Negus* (d. 1732) discovered, port marries handsomely with citrus and spices. For three hundred years, the drink bearing his name has been almost an exclusively British concern. According to Oxford University Press’s 1894 The Dictionary of National Biography
It is related that on one occasion, when the bottle was passing rather more rapidly than good fellowship seemed to warrant over a hot political discussion, in which a number of prominent whigs and tories were taking part, Negus averted a fracas by recommending the dilution of the wine with hot water and sugar. Attention was diverted from the point at issue to a discussion of the merits of wine and water, which ended in the compound being nicknamed ' negus.'
There are other origin stories, but all surround this same Francis Negus. A majority of 19th-century texts, while allowing for variants, go on to concur that a proper negus calls for five ingredients;
- A large measure of port wine
- Boiling water
Lemon is occasionally supplemented with orange and nutmeg with cinnamon (or more exotic ambergris
). Unlike glögg
, or mulled wine—revitalizing hot nips from northern climes—negus is made hot by the addition of boiling water rather than heating the wine itself. Wouldn’t want to lose all that Brumalian ethanol to the open air, after all.
So there you have it—wine, lemon, and sugar mixed together, heated with the addition of boiling water, and dusted with nutmeg. As ancient a yuletide beverage as you’re likely to find—And its health benefits are not to be denied: in The Gentleman's Magazine (
1822), John Sinclair recommended negus on sea voyages to lessen "the puking."
I offer you two personal negi here, and no puking: one in the style of Mrs. Isabella Beeton (who presented a weaker negus intended for drinking “at children’s parties”—way to go, Mrs. B.) and another after M.E. Steedman, writing for more manly constitutions. Though Beeton’s recipe is the more widely disseminated, Steedman’s is the better. Both are sweet by modern tastes, so feel free to ease your foot off the sugar pedal. Their original recipes and proportions follow.
Negus in the Style of Mrs. Beeton
for a Brace of Victorian Children
4 oz. port (Sandeman Founder’s Reserve)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. lemon juice
1 oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
8 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*
Pre-heat a sixteen-ounce ceramic mug or other container by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel, lemon juice, and sugar and muddle together. Add the port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. Cover or close until slightly cooled, then dish out into separate smaller mugs.
Yield: 12 oz
Negus in the Style of Steedman*Notes
4 oz. port (Sandeman Ten Year Tawny)
a wide swath of lemon peel (no pith)
½ oz. sugar (demerara if you’ve got it, white if not)
4 oz. boiling water (plus extra for heating the mug)
fresh nutmeg to taste*
1-3 drops vanilla extract, optional
(alternately, one or two of essence of ambergris, if you’re feeling flush)
Yield: 8 oz
Pre-heat a ten-ounce ceramic mug by filling it with boiling water. Toss the water once the mug is warm to the touch. Add the lemon peel and sugar and muddle together with a splash of port if necessary. Add the remaining port, grate in a dusting of nutmeg, and top off with boiling water. If using the vanilla or ambergris, now’s the time to add it. Give it a stir and drink when it’s cool enough to down.
Nutmeg: The prodigious amounts of nutmeg called for in older recipes don’t necessarily indicate a fanaticism for the taste (“Oh, them old-timey cooks spiced up everything really high ‘cause the meat was rotten.”). Consider another reason—We’re accustomed to fairly high turnover in spices, but in 1723, 1891, and even 1958, a nutmeg could be years
old by the time it reached our ancestors. Quite simply, much of the aromatic oils had dissipated by the time they reached the kitchen or bar, so it was necessary to oomph up the volume to wrest much taste from old dry spice. Feel free to de-oomph it to your own preferences now that we have access to less vintage
Pronunciation: Everyone familiar with it is agreed that the port wine-based drink is pronounced nay-gus
. Everyone except William Makepeace Thackeray who informs us, by way of Edwin Hewett and W.F. Axton in Convivial Dickens
(1983), that it’s nee-gus
seems more likely, but given the British penchant for surprising pronunciations (even of my surname among blood relatives in those parts), I wouldn’t rule it out at this juncture.Original Recipes
Isabella Beeton (1861) Beeton’s Book of Household Management
To Make Negus
1835. To every pint of port wine allow one quart of boiling water, ¼ pound of sugar, one lemon, grated nutmeg to taste.
Mode. – As this beverage is more usually drunk at children’s parties than at any other, the wine need not be very old or expensive for the purpose, a new fruity wine answering very well for it. Put the wine into a jug, rub some lumps of sugar (equal to ¼ lb.) on the lemon-rind until all the yellow part of the skin is absorbed, then squeeze the juice, and strain it. Add the sugar in the lemon-juice to the port wine, with the grated nutmeg; pour over it the boiling water, cover the jug, and, when the beverage has cooled little, it will be fit to use. Negus may also be made of sherry, or any other sweet white wine, but it is more usually made of port than of any other beverage.
Sufficient. – Allow one pint of wine, with the other ingredients in proportion, for a party of nine or 10 children.
19th Century bon vivant Jerry Thomas—as near to a patron saint of cocktails as Americans come—steals his negus recipe verbatim from Beeton’s Book of Household Management
(though, to be fair, so did dozens of writers: recipe plagiarism is an old and well-honed craft and poor Mrs. Beeton has been shamelessly plundered; she may, in fact, have done some negus plundering herself).
William “The Only William” Schmidt, however, gives a few takes on it in his 1891 bartending guide The Flowing Bowl
, one with port and another with claret (the English term for red Bordeaux wines):
This beverage is of English origin, and there very highly estimated; it derives its name from its inventor, the English Colonel Negus.
Put the rind of half a lemon or orange in a tureen, add eight ounces of sugar, one pint of port wine, the fourth part a small nutmeg–grated; infuse this for an hour; strain; add one quart of boiling water, and the drink is ready for use.
In other countries they are used to take lighter wines. The recipe follows: put two bottles of claret, two sticks cinnamon, six cloves, a little pulverized cardamom, a little grated nutmeg, and a half a pound of sugar, one which you have previously rubbed the rind of a lemon, on a slow fire; cover well, and heat to the boiling-point; strain through a hair-sieve; add one pint of boiling water, and the juice of one and a half lemons, and serve in strong glasses, that are first warmed. [all sic]
M.E. Steedman (n.d. c 1890’s) Home-made Beverages and American Drinks gives us a more fortified version:
Rub 3 oz. of loaf sugar on to the rind of a lemon, pound it, and add to it a pint of port, a quarter of a small nutmeg grated, a pint of boiling water, and if liked one or two drops of essence of ambergris or rather more of vanilla. Serve hot.
Jerry Thomas also offers bubbly version:
Soda NegusGeorge IV’s Negus
A most refreshing and elegant beverage, particularly for those who do not take punch or grog after supper, is thus made:
Put half a pint of port wine, with four lumps of sugar, three cloves, and enough grated nutmeg to cover a shilling, into a saucepan; warm it well, but did not suffer it to boil; pour it into a bowl or jug, and upon the warm wine decant a bottle of soda water. You will have an effervescent and delicious negus by this means.
Dr. Samuel Johnson's dictum regarding port comes to mind: “Claret is the liquor for boys, port
for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy
.” And if one commingles port and brandy? Surely such a drinker must aspire to majestic heights of masculinity. From the premier issue of the The Portfolio of Entertaining & Instructive Varieties in History, Literature, Fine Arts, Etc. (1829) comes
this blurb about a massive negus made for the Hanoverian King George IV.
HIS MAJESTY'S NEW WINE COOLERON Monday last the magnificent wine cooler manufactured for his Majesty by Messrs Rundell and Bridge, was, with his Majesty's approbation, filled with port negus at the manufactory in Dean-street that the workmen employed in its construction might toast his Majesty's health on the completion of their work.
This splendid vase weighs 6950 ounces, and contains 38 gallons. There were used in making the negus sixteen gallons of old port, one gallon of brandy, eight dozen lemons six dozen nutmegs, and 20 lbs of loaf sugar.
What's interesting to me about this one is the addition of the brandy—and the lack of any mention of boiling water. Perhaps it merely assumed, given the not quite
double capacity of the vessel compared with the volume of the listed ingredients, but knowing a fair number of workmen myself—and the seeming absence of the king during the toasting—I wouldn't be shocked if it had been omitted entirely. Tuesday
last might've been a painful day for those toasters...
============================The Academy of Ancient Beverages
Negus isn’t the only venerable Christmas drink around. Short of milking a cow right into the syllabub bowl, here are some others to get your yuletide motor turning...