Bag Wine: Bottling Wine From the Bottom of the Cask
In my Murder and Thieves posts I first mentioned the case of Richard King who was found guilty of stealing Madeira, Port, and Hungary wine from Robert Ireland in 1773. Richard King was cellarman to Robert Ireland and claimed that the bottles of wine which were found at his lodgings contained bag wine. Robert Ireland had tasted the wine and found it was too good to be bag wine; Richard King was found guilty of theft. At the time wine was typically stored in cask until it was drawn off into bottles. As the wine rested in the cask, the lees or dead yeast, slowly fell out to settle on the bottom of the cask. In bottling the cask care was taken to draw off the wine without disturbing the lees. Once all of the clear wine had been drawn off what was left in the cask was a lees-rich mixture of wine known as the dregs or bottoms. This wine would then be drawn out using a fabric bag to filter out as much of the lees as possible. This bag wine was drinkable but of inferior quality to the clear wine drawn from the first part of the cask.
The drawing of wine off of the lees into bottle is an old concept. One French and English dictionary from 1611 defines “Frelaté. vin frelaté. That is shifted out of old into new vessels; or drawne off the lees, and kept in bottles; we say, racked.” There are scattered early references to using a bag for filtration. One book from 1668 refers to filtering during the production of perry and cider as well as the production of Hippocras, “let it run through a wollen bag for the purpose”. Hippocras is an artificial wine made by infusing claret or white wine with spices which is filtered through a Hippocrates’s Sleeve. In 1706 John Kersey defined filter as “to strain thro’ a Bag, Felt, brown Paper, &c.” as well as the Latin Filtrum, “a Strainer, through which Liquors are pass’d to clarify, a Wine-l[r]ack that draws Wine from the Lees”. One century later in 1807, John Davies recommends in racking “Foreign wine” to “straining the lees or bottoms through a flannel or linen bag.” He writes that Hippocrates Sleeve or filtering bag “is a very necessary thing for wine and spirit merchants.” The conical bag itself is made from a yard of linen or flannel with the bottom running to a point and the top as broad as possible. It must be well sewed with the upper part attached around a wooden hoop. This wooden hoop may be suspended by a cord then placed over a pail. After being used it should be rinsed three or four times then hung to dry in an airy place so it will not get musty. It is recommended that a wine dealer have two bags, one for red and the other for white wine.
Cyrus Redding in Every Man His Own Butler recommended that “all wine improves in bottle, and should finish there.” He recommended that everyone who keeps a good cellar should have their own imperial quart and imperial half-quart bottles made with “his name, arms, or cipher upon them.” These bottles should be cleaned twenty four hours in advance. A flask of Florence oil should be poured into the cask through the bung to preserve the wine as it is drawn off. The wine should be drawn off without moving the cask, so as not to disturb the lees. As Cyrus Redding was writing for a gentleman bottling his own wine, he did not recommend giving away the lees. Once the bottom of the casks was reached the final dozen bottles, presumably rich in lees, should be set aside. New and firm corks, free of defects may then be hammered into the necks. Having a mark on the cork itself did not deter theft or spoilage so all of the bottles were to be dipped in wax. Once the bottles were placed in the cellar the top side should be marked with chalk so if moved they could be placed in the same orientation.
Jonathan Swift was less ingenuous in describing how to bottle a master’s hogshead in 1745. Right before the wine became cloudy and slowed down he recommended shaking the cask then drawing off a glass of cloudy wine. Upon showing the glass to the master he will “give you the rest as a perquisite to your place.” After leaving the casks tilted for two weeks one to two dozen bottles of “good clear wine” may be drawn off.
This lees rich wine from the bottoms of casks appears in four Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Known as bag wine or foul wine, it is directly mentioned as an element of theft in three cases and the general business of a wine merchant in one case. Wine was bottled by merchants in their wine vaults and in a private cellar by a wine cooper or servant of the household. This was an involving task for a pipe of port would yield 460 imperial quart bottles.
In 1800 John Gourd was indicted for stealing eleven gallons of wine from the wine merchant Thomas Wigzell. John Gouard was cellarman to Thomas Wigzell. In June 1799 Thomas Wigzell noticed a permit drawn from his stock for 26 bottles each of “foreign red wine, not French” and “foreign white wine, not French” comprising a total of 11 gallons. Thomas Wigzell then applied to the Commissioners of Excise to see the permit request note of which he recognized John Gouard’s handwriting. Thomas Wigzell had John Gourd bottle wine both in his vaults and occasionally in the cellars of his customers. Thomas Wigzell stated that the customer owned the lees at the bottom of the cask and was unaware of anyone giving the bottler the lees. He also was not aware of the bottler purchasing the casks with the lees still in them.
On June 10, 1799 John Philpot received two dozen bottles each of “red wine, not French” and “white wine, not French” from John Gourd. These were accompanied by an Excise permit and bill of sales. John Philpot tasted the wine with his companion Mr. Close. Upon finding the wine “flat” John Gourd suggested they were “bottoms.” John Gourd offered John Philpot 29 shillings per dozen for the bottom wine instead of the 33 or 34 shillings asking price and bought the wine.
In his defense at the Old Bailey, John Gouard states he had habitually bottled of wine for several gentlemen, bought the casks with the bottoms in them, then took them to his cellar. Through management he had brought the wines round so as to be suitable for drinking. After producing three dozen bottles both of red and white wine John Gourd had informed Mr. Close he had the bottoms for sale. Mr. Close then brought John Philpot over to taste the wine.
Six witnesses stated it was customary for gentleman to give the lees to the bottler. William Cheny stated by keeping the lees for some time, bottling them, corking them well, then letting them age the wine could come round. It typically took four to six months for them to become drinkable. Thomas Crowsie stated wine could be obtained from the bottoms by draining it through a bag. John Early stated that John Gourd was capable of obtaining wine from the bottoms. Thomas Browne, a dealer in casks and bottles, stated that the butler frequently sells the casks and the bottler takes the lees. John Gouard was found not guilty of theft.
In 1827 Thomas Bradford was indicted for stealing wine from Captain John Jones, Esquire. Thomas Bradford claimed that the six or seven bottles found in his box were “from the lees.” John Jones had recently bottled a cask of Madeira leaving the lees to Thomas Bradford. He had never given Thomas Bradford the lees from wine. In tasting one of the purported Sherry bottles at the time, Captain John Jones felt it was his 15 year old Madeira which he “gave a very high price for it.” In the court room he presumably identified the very same bottle he had opened then apparently tasted it again finding, “As far as I can judge from the taste, this is sherry.” Presumably because the wine was actually Sherry and not the 15 year old Madeira, Thomas Bradford was found not guilty of theft.