Nicholas Faith describes how members' clubs have shaped drinking habits
Members of London clubs have always been traditionalists. They might be prepared to try Rioja or Chianti at home, but once they step into their regular haunts they still tend to stick to historic favourites: sherry, port, claret, champagne and cognac. Of course habits varied.
Members of the 'professional' clubs – such as the Athenaeum, the Reform and the Oxford & Cambridge – founded in Pall Mall in the 19th century usually drank less (they could hardly have drunk more) than those in the 'social' – often gambling – clubs such as Brooks's and White's founded in St James's Street in the 18th century. But whatever the drink, it was – and is – substantially less expensive than in a restaurant.
Historically, when chaps sauntered into their clubs of a morning they refreshed their jaded palates with a glass or three of 'sherry wine', but until very recently they would never have dreamt of drinking table wine – the whites, in particular, being deemed worthy only of women and sexual deviants. Moreover, until late in the 19th century, champagne was so sweet that it was relegated to being either an aide to seduction or drunk with dessert. But there were two exceptions: in 1861 the barman at Brooks's combined champagne and Guinness to make Black Velvet, that "sour and refreshing draught", as Evelyn Waugh put it, to acknowledge the death of Prince Albert; and in the early 1920s Buck's Fizz, that even more refreshing blend of champagne and orange juice, was invented by the barman at Buck's Club, a character immortalised by P.G. Wodehouse as McGarry, who was behind the bar at Bertie Wooster's beloved Drones Club.
The preliminaries to a meal could be lengthy and liquid, though often included either scotch or, more recently, gin drunk with bitters or lime juice between the wars and later with tonic. Unfortunately, since the 1980s, a new trend for activity after lunch encroached on these pleasures for the 'toping' classes of journalists, City folk and members of both Houses of Parliament.
At the dining table claret reigned supreme. But it wasn't the drink we know today. Until well after 1945 even the finest products of Bordeaux had been strengthened with stronger wines – the best were Hermitagé blended with wines from the Rhône – to suit the palates of British clubmen, lovers, above all, of strength in their drink. And, of course, the clarets were almost invariably Classed Growths, with no nonsense about wines from the Right Bank or Crus Bourgeois.
The time for serious drinking was after lunch, with port and cognac – though until the end of the 19th century the latter was drunk with soda to provide the drinker with enough strength and stability to wend his way up to bed. The port was either basic club stuff or, more usually, vintage, with great show of the supposed knowledge of such venerated drinks Tuke Holdsworth '08 or Croft '12. At the Reform Club there was a measure known as a 'double Burgess' named after the substantial beakers favoured by Guy Burgess, Foreign Office official and Soviet spy.
The supply came from a handful of West End merchants only two of whom – Justerini & Brooks and Berry Bros – have survived. They entertained lavishly, knowing well the power not so much of the clubs' wine committees as of the secretary. (At White's the members would, it is said, chat for an hour and then tell the secretary to "buy the first growths as usual".) Indeed I remember a lunch where assembled secretaries blenched when told that at my club the secretary was merely one of the deciding voices. The secretaries were not, heaven forfend, corrupt, but they did seem to enjoy an unusual number of lunches – and by no means stressful long weekends in the vineyards of Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Nicholas Faith is the author of the award-winning book The Winemasters of Bordeaux.