The Sipsmith Blog

British Drinking Traditions: A Brief History of Winter Warmers

in Articles December 18, 2015

To get you in the mood for some hot gin sipping, our Master Distiller Jared has put together a potted history of the winter warmer. Rich, sweet, and boozy: in winter we tend to gravitate towards specific flavours and styles of serve. From punches to hot toddies, it’s no coincidence that many of our favourite winter warmers also have plenty of history behind them.

Winter Warmers

When looking for traditionally British winter serves, it’s important to pay attention to temperature. Although we enjoy a number of chilled winter cocktails these days – from traditional punch to navy-strength negronis – that’s only a recent development. The popularity of cocktails with ice didn’t arise in London until roughly the turn of the century, when the concept of the “American bar” first made its way across the Atlantic.

No, back in the day, boozy winter tipples were almost exclusively served warm. As our Head Distiller Jared Brown says, “Britain has a surprising number of traditional hot serves, from the wassail bowl to hot gin punch, the dog’s nose to the toddy.” And that isn’t just down to matters of taste: as he points out, central heating only became ubiquitous in the UK in the 1970s. Warm drinks weren’t just a matter of taste: they were a cosy way to get through the long, cold nights.

Gin and Gingerbread

Gin itself has been embraced as a winter warmer for centuries. By the beginning of the 18th century, gin was sold by street vendors in steaming cups – and was frequently paired with gingerbread (a natural choice, given that ginger has warming properties of its own). The combination was especially popular during the Thames Frost Fairs of the 16th-19th centuries, when strikingly low temperatures caused a “Little Ice Age” and froze the river solid. During those chilly years, Londoners ventured onto the ice in droves, and gin and gingerbread vendors followed.

Here We Come A-wassailing

Beyond the gin and gingerbread, you simply can’t discuss British winter warmers without mentioning wassail – one of our oldest and most idiosyncratic drinking traditions. Far from being standardised, wassail is typically apple cider-based but can include wine, ale, spices, and all manner of other ingredients (even toast!). But the tradition goes well beyond the serve: wassailing involved old-fashioned ceremonies that celebrated the fruitfulness of apple trees, and wassail is still often enjoyed alongside song and communal toasts. It may not be ginful, but this is another British drinking tradition that’s worth raising a glass to.

The Hot Gin Twist

Back to matters of gin: the Hot Gin Twist is one more notable entry amongst the British winter warmers. The serve reached peak popularity in 1823, and was commonly extolled in newspapers and poems. A mix of gin, tea, simple syrup and lemon zest, it’s delicious and wonderfully simple to make at home.

So, as Christmas draws closer, it’s worth remembering: as Jared says, “Today we may not need to gather around a stove or peat fire to keep warm, but we can still enjoy a piping hot mug on a frosty evening.” Cheers!

Features images © duncan1890/iStock; Pretti/iStock

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