The Refreshing Summer Drink of British Monarchs and Prime Ministers
The low-alcohol Badminton Cup was invented to beat the heat.
The recent royal wedding, silly spectacle that it may have been, prompted me to grab an envelope out of the recycling and scratch a little list on the back.
“The British Aristocracy, Pro & Con,” I titled it. To balance out the defects such as—to chose a couple from a long list—their limitless confidence that whatever harebrained ideas they have are naturally better than the carefully considered opinions of experts and professionals, their fondness for shooting animals, and their delight in taking countries that don’t belong to them, I was able to find a few good traits. They have amusing names, for instance. Plus they are foolishly brave in battle, display excellent manners and decorum while doing all the bad things on the Con list, and have a knack for coming up with novel and refreshing summer drinks.
Consider, as an example of that last trait in action, the Badminton Cup. In 1837, when the 18-year-old Princess Alexandra Victoria rose to the British throne, it was the custom of British gentlemen to drink themselves silly after dinner (and on just about every other social occasion) on strong Punch in one form or another or fortified wine. The queen didn’t like that and made her displeasure known. Since she commanded the respect of her people—decorum has its advantages—the gents listened.
This doesn’t mean that they quit drinking entirely. But they certainly lightened up. Punch, based on rum, brandy, whisky, gin or arrack, was out. The “Cup” was in—as Benjamin Disraeli described its various types in 1845, “incomprehensible mixtures bearing aristocratic names; mystical combinations of French wines and German [i.e., seltzer] waters, flavoured with slices of Portugal fruits, and cooled with lumps of American ice.” If they weren’t based on wine, it was cider or beer.
Now, this sort of bait-and-switch has been known to drive the dedicated social drinker into paroxysms of rage. No doubt the Punch-sodden oldsters were pig-biting mad when they showed up at some shindig where they could reasonably expect there would be strong drink to help ease all the damned awkwardness of dealing with other people and were handed something so low-strength they would have to drink a gallon of it before their cravats began to loosen.
But times change and people adapt if they must—in those guys’ case, mostly by learning to drink that gallon (where Punch had been served in little two-ounce glasses, the preferred receptacle for Cup was a tankard).
The ruler of the Cup race was Badminton Cup, named not after the game, but rather after the place the game was named after. Badminton House, you see, was the seat of the Dukes of Beaufort, a palatial edifice deep in the southern Cotswolds. It was apparently there that, sometime between the end of 1835, when Henry Somerset became the Duke of Beaufort upon the death of his father, and 1843, when the drink first made it into print, claret—which is to say Bordeaux wine—was introduced to soda water, sugar, ice and a couple of other trimmings. It is unclear whether the new Duke himself made that introduction or it was made by an underling under his supervision. No matter—he immediately assumed the credit for it (another one of those traits). By 1843, the mixture was being served at fancy London gambling clubs. (Disraeli placed it at Crockford’s, the fanciest of them all.) By the end of the 1850s, it was considered to be the English gentleman’s drink par excellence—indeed, it was, as one peripatetic gent explained to an American hotelkeeper, the means by which one could “distinguish between the real Englishman, nobleman and gentleman,” and the “mere English adventurer.” If the Brit in question declined an offer of Badminton or didn’t know what it was, “then he was certainly no peer.”
Like any popular mixed drink, Badminton had its variations. Everyone more or less agreed that it contained a bottle of wine, a bottle of soda (back then, 10 ounces), a little sugar, and some ice. Some stiffened it with a splash of sherry, port or even brandy. Many liked a sprig or two of the herb borage in it. (When, during the Crimean War, the British troops set up an encampment near the Bulgarian village of Devnya, they found the area abounding in “a fragrant herb having a pretty pink-lilac flower”; they ignored it until some “practical botanist” (a gent, no doubt) identified it as borage. “The great discovery ran through the tents like a panic,” wrote a correspondent to Bell’s Life in London. “With the country wine, sugar, and spices, flavoured with the new discovery, ‘Badminton’ was constructed and disposed of to an unheard-of extent.”
Other botanicals included lemon verbena (occasionally), lemon balm (often) and cucumber peel (very often, as it was supposed to taste much like borage). Lemon juice and/or lemon peel also make their appearances, as do orange peel and nutmeg. Sometimes a splash of liqueur, such as maraschino or orange curaçao, found its way into the mixture.
If you add the herbs, it’s best to pull them out after ten or fifteen minutes, or they will come to dominate. Of course, if you make your badminton properly and serve it in tankards, the question will be moot, as by then those herbs will be sitting in an empty jug.
Badminton may be a simple drink, but it is indeed damned refreshing, and you can quaff it with gusto without losing your decorum. And Lord know, in times like these, you need that.
1 750-ml bottle Dry red wine
2 oz White sugar
2 sprigs Borage, if you can find it, or the peel of 1 medium cucumber (also, see above about balm or verbena).
2 oz Cream sherry or port (optional, but recommended)
2 oz Brandy, maraschino or orange curaçao (optional, but also recommended, only not quite so strongly)
Glass: Beer mugs or wine
Pour a half-cup or so of the wine into a 2-quart pitcher, add the sugar and stir. Add the rest of the wine, the fortified wines or spirits if desired, and the botanicals. Add a couple of healthy scoops of ice and the soda water. Stir and pour into wine glasses or, to be truly aristocratic, beer mugs. Repeat as needed (it is better to make several fresh batches than to make one large one).