Old Fezziwig, bless his soul, knew how to throw a Christmas party. Young Scrooge’s cheerful boss led the way through dances and more dances. He served up cake and “a great piece of Cold Roast” together with “mince-pies, and plenty of beer.” Oh yes, he also served negus.
I suspect that for most modern readers of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, negus is something of an obscurity. But it is a mystery easily solved by turning to what may well be the first book ever devoted to the making of mixed drinks: Oxford Night Caps: Being a Collection of Receipts for Making Various Beverages.
According to Oxford Night Caps, negus was “a modern beverage.” Which isn’t quite true, if by “modern” the author meant “newly minted.” The drink, in one form or another, had been around for about a century when Oxford Night Caps was published in 1827. Negus evolved significantly from its Georgian origins to become a staple of Victorian Christmas parties.
The drink was, at first, nothing but watered-down wine. Let us cast our gaze back to the days of George I, when Whigs and Tories were in an endless, drunken row with one another. “On an occasion when party politicians were discussing politics and wine very extensively and intensively, they quarreled seriously,” according to the British periodical Notes and Queries. “Mr. Negus reproved them, and exhibited himself cool and reasonable, as the effect of diluting his wine freely with water.” Francis Negus, a colonel of the Foot Guards, was a “wine and water bibber,” one of those careful drinkers who were mocked as “half-and-half men.” Given that Col. Negus was a prominent advocate of diluting wine with water, that mixture rather derisively came to be called “negus.”
The colonel had the political connections to spread the practice of cutting one’s wine with hot water. In the court of King George I, Negus was Master of the Privy Buckhounds, meaning he was in charge of the King’s stables. He was also commissioner for the Office of Master of the Horse. And when he wasn’t busy with horses and hounds, Negus was a member of Parliament for Ipswich.
For all the good colonel’s sway, wine with water was not exactly the most exciting of quaffs. And so, the drink was altered, and then altered again. The first permutation of negus was to sweeten the mixture of hot water and wine. That was an improvement, certainly, but not nearly enough to win the drink a place in the pantheon. Negus drinkers began to balance the sweetness with tart citrus. At long last, it came to be mulled, with the addition of cinnamon, mace, cloves, and all-spice, which is how the drink came to holiday fame.
Here’s how they used to make negus at Oxford University in the 1820s: Begin by peeling two lemons; muddle the peel in the bottom of a jug; cut the peeled lemons into thin slices and put them in the jug. Add cinnamon, mace, cloves, and all-spice. Pour a quart of boiling-hot water over the mixture. While it steeps for about 15 minutes, pour a bottle of white wine into a saucepan and heat it until it is just short of boiling. Add the hot wine to the mix and then sweeten with sugar or simple syrup to taste. Strain into a pitcher. Serve in punch cups and grate a little nutmeg on the top of each drink. It is now, as Oxford Night Caps declares, “fit for use.”
Negus can also be made with port wine and oranges, which is the way Dickens describes the drink in The Pickwick Papers. That version of negus is a close cousin to another hot punch, bishop (the drink the reformed Scrooge gleefully serves an astonished Bob Cratchit).
Here’s wishing you happy holidays, and some negus to facilitate the fun.
Eric Felten is the James Beard Award-winning author of How’s Your Drink?