P is for Pick Your Poison: Alcohol in Post-Roman Celtic Britain

Reconstruction drawing of a Celtic feast in full flight in Iron Age Britain, by Chris Evans (English Heritage Graphics Team).

What would a Celtic feast be without a bit of drink? (Okay, a lot of drink – the Celts knew how to have fun!) Even though distillation and the spirits it produced didn’t come along in Ireland and Scotland until the 1400s (at least as far as written records show), the Celtic people had plenty of alcohol to keep them in a partying (and sometimes fighting) mood. Alcohol played an important role in both feasting (especially after battle) and religious ritual. The following is a brief synopsis, taken primarily from Food in Roman Britain by Joan Alcock, A History of Beer and Brewing by Ian Spencer Hornsey and Who Were the Celts? by Kevin Duffy.

Wine – Perhaps one of the most ancient forms of alcohol, wine was used by the Celts both for cooking and drinking. While the climate of Britain wasn’t hospitable to vineyards, the Celts (southern tribes) were importing wine as early as the Iron Age from places like Italy, Rhodes and Southern Gaul. By the 3rd century, it was coming from North Africa and from the Mediterranean by the 5th and 6th centuries. Remnants of attempted British vineyards have been found in various parts of the country and it is believed that was grown in them was consumed locally, but not fit for export or trade.

Mosaic showing a slave with wine amphorae

Unlike the Romans, the Celts didn’t water their wine and were said by some to get quite drunk and rowdy.The Romans even commented that the long, thick mustaches of the Celtic men acted as strainers as they drank (I know, ewwww!). Duffy says wine was reserved for nobility, while commoners drink mead or beer. Wine quality varied depending on the number of pressings the fruit went through. The lowest quality was the fourth and final press, which was mixed with water and sold to soldiers and slaves. Some wines were flavored with gypsum or lime or had fruit or fruit juice (raisins were popular), herbs (such as wormwood or oil of black myrtle), spices (like pepper) or honey added. The taste of the wine was also affected by the substance used to coat the inside of the amphorae in which it was stored. Common coatings included bitumen, wood pitch and resin. Some wines, especially those sent to forts, were mixed with medication (like horehound) to help cure disease. (See, drinking really can be for medicinal purposes!)

Mead/ale/beer – The wording on this beverage is tricky. Many people call what the Celts drank beer, but others argue that beer is really mead with hops, which weren’t introduced into Britain until the 15th century by the Flemish. However, Roman records note the popularity of Corma, a type of wheat beer prepared with honey that was consumed by the lower classes. They passed around a common cup and drank only a mouthful at a time. And – fun fact – Pliny noted that the froth of beer was used to wash hair, a practice that continues today.

Mead

Mead is a different drink, one made from diluted honey that is left to ferment and them flavored with herbs and fruit. Like wine, it can be dry, semi-dry or sweet. It has an alcohol content of 8%-18%.

Ale, on the other hand, is barley left to ferment, converted to malt and steeped in water to produce wort, a sweet, brown liquid that is then boiled with honey, wormwood or herbs (costmany/alecost was popular, introduced to Britain by the Romans). Ale had to be brewed often because it didn’t last long, and was a  good source of income on large villas and farms.

Cider – The Celts were also known to make cider from crushed and fermented apples (3%-7% alcohol content). Pears, although not native to Britain, were cultivated there, so Alcock speculates they could have produced a pear cider as well.

When I was in Ireland, one of our hosts told me about a strong spirit native to Scotland that pre-dates distillation. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called. I think it started with a “p.” Can anyone help jog my memory?

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to try mead. Have any of you ever had it? I’ve never had alcoholic cider either. What do you think about the Celts’ choices in drink? Have you heard of any others?

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6 thoughts on “P is for Pick Your Poison: Alcohol in Post-Roman Celtic Britain

  1. I’ve had mead a couple of times when on holiday in rural Wales. It tastes like watered down honey, which I suppose isn’t surprising! Although I’ve no idea how similar that is to the stuff they drank two thousand years ago.

    Although I’ve only lurked up to now, I do enjoy your posts.

    • Hi Andrew,

      I’m so glad you decided to comment! (I love my lurkers, too, but it’s always nice to hear from people.) Glad you enjoy the posts.

      Mead sounds wonderful. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t sound like the process for making it has changed all that much, but I’m no expert. I’ll have to put “drink mead” on my to-do list whenever I make it back to England again.

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