Charles Dickens’ Particular “Warm Stuff” Recipe

It’s no surprise that Dickens infused much of his writing with drink

Old Ruby Port

Few writers in the English language have proved as timeless or as important as Charles Dickens, whose works were emblematic of the Victorian era in all of its excess, propriety, and intrigue. His work also highlighted the poor treatment of the disadvantaged, as Dickens himself came from such a background, forced to work in a bootblack factory in order to help free his father from debtors’ prison.

It’s no surprise that Dickens infused much of his writing with drink

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

His two best-known works, A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol, both contain libations. They are particularly found in scenes during the cold winter months when the Victorian upper classes fortified themselves with heated wine drinks similar to sangria. The lower classes primarily drank beer and gin, holdovers from a time when nearly everyone drank alcohol because it was safer than drinking possibly contaminated water.

Warmed alcoholic drinks were very much in vogue, especially during Christmas

It is wine that makes a memorable appearance in A Tale of Two Cities. Sydney Carton mulls over legal papers in service to the lawyer Mr. Stryver while drinking his troubles away with a port wine “punch.” This was a heated, spiced drink very different from the modern concept of punch. And as the scene occurred in March when it would have been quite chilly at night, iced punch would have been out of the question. Warmed alcoholic drinks were very much in vogue in this era, particularly in the winter, and they’re still traditional in Europe to this day, especially during Christmas time.

Old Ruby Port, Old Liquors Collection
Old Ruby Port, Old Liquors Collection

Port Wine Punch

1 bottle ruby port
1 bottle Bordeaux
1 cup water
1/2 cup honey
1/4 tsp candied ginger
1/4 tsp grated allspice
1/4 tsp grated cinnamon
4 oranges
16 whole cloves

Preheat your oven to 350°

Poke the cloves into the top of the oranges and roast them in a deep-bottom roast pan for about an hour, until they just start to color and smell delicious! Remove the oranges and set aside when done. You can do this in advance, so they have time to cool.

Place the roast pan on the stovetop and add the remaining ingredients, bringing them to a low simmer. Squeeze the oranges to release their juices and place them in the pan with the wine mixture, while retaining some for garnish. Simmer for a while, letting the flavors mingle, maybe 20 to 30 minutes (depending on how strong you like your mixture). Serve with an orange-slice garnish studded with a clove. If you’re using a punch bowl at a party, you can garnish the bowl with orange slices and wrap a towel around the sides to keep the heat in.

Mulled Wine
Mulled Wine

With advances in sanitation and the availability of running water, alcohol began to be seen by many as an unnecessary evil. Yet it was still very much ingrained in English culture, with local pubs important social centers for their communities. It’s, therefore, no surprise that Dickens infused much of his writing with drink, both in a positive and a negative light, as well as showing it as a mundane, ordinary part of English life in the Victorian era.

It’s no surprise that Dickens infused much of his writing with drink

Prohibitionists took umbrage with this portrayal, and would often write Dickens letters regarding the presence of alcohol in his works. In an 1857 letter answering one of the many critical letters he received, Dickens wrote:

I have no doubt whatever that the warm stuff in the jug at Bob Cratchit’s Christmas dinner had a very pleasant effect on the simple party. I am certain that if I had been at Mr. Fezziwig’s ball, I should have taken a little negus — and possibly not a little beer — and been none the worse for it, in heart or head.

Charles Dickens had a particular recipe for that “warm stuff” that was found in his collected letters. Unlike the port wine punch that Stryver and Carton drank, this beverage is made of a mixture of rum and brandy, which would surely have been just as warming!

Victorian Warming Tonic

1 tsp fresh lemon zest
2 tsp lump or crystal sugar
1 part brandy
2 parts rum
3 parts very hot water
juice of 1/2 lemon

In a small metal pot, combine the sugar, lemon zest, rum, and brandy. Muddle with a wooden spoon over high heat. Rums commonly available in the mid-Victorian era would have been dark, heavy ones, though in the latter half of the 119th-century double distillation and barrel aging were producing rums more like the ones we’re familiar with today. The choice is yours, but I prefer Kraken rum for this recipe.

Once it begins to bubble, use a long lighter to ignite the mixture, keeping close at hand the lid for the pot. Allow it to burn for a minute or two before quashing the flames with the lid. Uncover and pour in the hot water and lemon juice. Cut the heat and allow the mixture to steep for five minutes. Give it a stir, strain, and serve in an Irish coffee glass. Garnish with lemon.

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Written by Jarret Herrmann

Jarret is a chef, traveler, and drink enthusiast from Virginia. He got his start mingling behind the bar at the restaurant of his mentor, Chef Lucas Woodruff, and then moved on to take over food and beverage management at Jordan Hollow Inn where he created several fine cocktails. When it comes to beverages he tends towards the sweeter, more drinkable ones, but he has come to appreciate a good brandy or a nice, peaty Scotch as well.

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