Pairings, Partridges, and Pear Trees—Drink Up #5


Pairings were NOT a thing in the 1860s. Red meat/red wine, white meat/ white wine, and pork/rose were about as far as anything went unless you were a sommelier and had to know extra things. One could afford imported wine from France or Germany if one were wealthy. The rest of America either did without, watered down what was available, or made wine at home. For instance, the recipe for something sounding vaguely French is:

Wine Bordeaux, Red

4 gallons of high-flavored red Bordeaux wine

6 gallons of plain wine

Mix and color to the same shade with a tincture of alderberries.

This sounds suspicious to me, frankly. There are similar recipes for champagne, combining some type of white wine, clear alcohol, and flavoring such as sugar. This mixture was put into either wine bottles or a keg and kept for an extended period. When ready to serve, the now-familiar combination of citric acid and bicarbonate of soda was added for fizz. My mother is, I am sure, rolling over in her grave at the thought of this being passed off as champagne. However, there are several recipes for fruit-based wines that sound like they might be tasty.

An old wine bottle dug near Richmond–North-South Trader

Cherry Wine

10 gallons of fresh-pressed cherry juice

5 pounds sugar

Dissolve the sugar into the cherry juice; put this juice into a keg and keep it constantly full of liquid during this process of fermentation. Filter it and fill a pitched cask or bottle.

Red Currant Wine

8 pounds of honey

10 pounds of sugar

7 1/2 gallons of water, boiled

Combine these ingredients, skim, and strain; then add 

1 3/8 gallons of red currant juice

1 pint of yeast

Put it in a keg and keep it full of the liquid during fermentation; filter; put in a clean cask or bottle and bung tight.

Generals Joseph Bartlett, Henry Slocum, William B. Franklin, William F. Barry, John Newton, and others gathered near a keg of beer at Cumberland Landing, Va, in May of 1862.  American Battlefield Trust

Some version of these two recipes is used for making wines from birch, elderberries, damson plums, ginger, grapes, juniper berries, lemons, raisins, oranges, parsnips, peaches, quince, raspberries, or just about anything else you may fancy. Still, this does not answer the question of what was actually on the table during the holidays. For most people, probably something homemade.

Lighter-colored fruit makes lighter-colored wine, so the same rules apply: the lighter the meat (in color), the more golden the wine (in color). So, if green grapes were used for raisin wine, it seems reasonable that a lovely, soft gold beverage might accompany Miss Sarah’s Fried Catfish or Roasted Pork at a formal dinner. Likewise, a plum or peach wine might accompany Rabbit. Again, however, the drinks might be whatever came to hand at a field mess–officers or otherwise. Many letters told soldiers that boxes from home included wine or fruit cordials. Alas, there were also many letters from soldiers informing disappointed family members of broken containers or outright theft of the goods. In one amusing anecdote from the many holiday-themed blog posts of the American Battlefield Trust, a Confederate prisoner related how the realities of war intruded on his Christmas celebrations:

A friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. On Christmas morning I quietly called several comrades up to my bunk to taste the precious fluid of…DISAPPOINTMENT! The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water…and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended.

Ohio wine from The Wine Curmudgeon

According to the Wine Curmudgeon the U. S. was not a wine-drinking country 160 plus years ago, but twice as much beer and twenty times as much distilled spirits were consumed. German soldiers probably preferred beer, and there was a marked preference for whiskey in the South. Soldiers on both sides drank hot toddies to keep warm and jiggers filled with spirits to clear their noses during the cold winters of the war. Back home, tables were set as well as possible, and toasts were drunk to the vacant chairs. Christmas during any wartime is always a little sad. We at Emerging Civil War hope your holidays are not sad but filled with love, light, and hope.  

I will end this series with the words of poet Walt Whitman, written several years after the war:

Sounds of the Winter

Sounds of the winter too,

Sunshine upon the mountains-many a distant strain

From cheery railroad train-from nearer field, barn, house

The whispering air-even the mute crops, garner’d apples, corn,

Children’s and women’s tones-rhythm of many a farmer and of flail,

And old man’s garrulous lips among the rest, Think not we give out yet,

Forth from these snowy hairs we keep up yet the lilt.

“Home From the War,” by Winslow Homer


The recipes for this series are all from a book that should be on the shelf of every Civil War historian: Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bartenders GuideDrink Up, You’uns! (Confederate for Drink Up!)

1 Response to Pairings, Partridges, and Pear Trees—Drink Up #5

  1. Meg,
    Have you run across a reference and/or a recipe for dandelion wine? Back in the mid nineteen fifties, a neighbor used to brew up that concoction. I was too young to taste the finished product, but I believe that it was a potent brew.

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