“a great deal better than cracking a whole bottle”: A Brief History of Wine on Draft
The very first entry of the wine list I was reading began “On Draft, Pale Sherry” To come across Sherry on draft in New York City may not be too surprising these days. It was just in the summer of 2011 that Ashley Parker wrote about the Gotham Project in the article Partners Push a Tap Wine Manifesto. The wine list of the Metropolitan Hotel at 162 Pearl Street also includes a Madeira and Port on draft which seems like a natural extension to just white and red wines on tap. However, before you start searching online please realize that this wine list is 150 years old.
The three draft selections detailed for Wednesday, July 27, 1859, include Pale Sherry, London Particular Madeira, and London Dock Port. All of these wines were priced at $1.00 per pint and $1.50 per quart. They were the cheapest wines for each section where the prices topped out at $5.00 per quart both for 30 year old brown Sherry and 1835 Fine old St. Anna Madeira. I must admit I was taken aback by visions of a pre-Civil War bartender dispensing wine by pulling a handle. Wine has been dispensed from cask or racked into bottles and pitchers for quite some time. However, the term “on draft” or “on draught” appears to be quite specific and different than the Old Pedro Madeira “on tap” in 1811. Serving beer on draft through a beer engine has 17th century origins. In the effort to determine if wine “on draft” had the same implications as for beer this post takes a look at other period advertisements, books, and menus.
It is known that Champagne was served on draft from at least June 2, 1835, through September 17, 1836, in New York City. J. Mark consistently advertised his “Champagne Fountain” and his “Patent Self Igniting Segars” at his No. 4 Park Row establishment. The idea was to provide gentleman with a glass or two of Champagne so they did not have to purchase a whole or half bottle. The Champagne was “obtained from importers well known for their article” and sold at 1 Shilling per glass. The Champagne was drawn from a device designed by the chemist Dr. Chilton. The Champagne passed “through pipes encircled with ice, thus rendering it cool and pleasant.” It appears to have caused some sensation for there are several articles describing it. One early visitor observed in the “handsomely furnished room, with ottomans, marble jet d’eaux, gentlemen reclining at full length.” They were seen “extending their glasses to be replenished at the fountain with pure champagne” with a price considered “a great deal better than cracking a whole bottle for $3.”
One early advertisement from July 2, 1772, indicates that Blanchard’s Wine Cellar in Boston served “Very Old choice Sterling Madeira, in Bottles or on Draft.” On May 23, 1793, “Cider on draft and bottled” was available in Charleston, South Carolina. That very same month, also in Charleston, A. Jones sold “Train Oil, In casks or on draft” for making Indigo. Henry Calwell, jun. & Co. sold gin on draft, cases, and in jugs and James Murphy had Teneriffe wine on draft and in bottles. The indication is that “on draft” implied a variable volume, perhaps in the customer’s own container, and not a fixed volume such as a bottle or cask. It also did not imply any specific serving method of device. The variable volume definition is clearly born out in later advertisements such as at Snider’s in Philadelphia where various wines were “on draught by the gallon or wholesale by the cask.” This seems reasonable given that casks held several dozen gallons of wine and might be too much for someone without a cellar or thirsty appetite.
Whether the wines were dispensed by a stopper in a cask or by engine is typically unstated but the term draft applied to both over the centuries. At a wine auction held in London on June 23, 1709, lots of wine was sold by the pipe and hogshead. There were five pipes of red wine “for Draught, in a Vault” as well. Wine was clearly sold on draft in taverns for in the June 26, 1789, Debate in the Lords on the Wine Excise Bill it was noted that “small quantities of wines, because when on draught, it would be impossible…to prevent” sending them out. In 1824, Edward Bowles Symes sought to improve draught beer by replacing one of the fixed heads of a barrel with a piston. If the barrel was made of or lined with a non-absorbent material than his invention would be “equally great in the preservation of wine and spirits on draught.” William Phipps wrote in The Vintner’s Guide (1825) that “Wines will not keep on draught” unless quickly consumed. William Macarthur wrote in 1844 that wines in “draft” or “draught” had a cock inserted into the head of the cask. At the 1855 Paris Universal Exhibition the No. 17 Stocker’s Patent Lift Pump was displayed. It was “used in Wine and Spirit Stores, in Mansions.” It allowed ready access to the valves and gears, presumably of one of the four engines also at the exhibition. They also had a “Tapping Cock” for driving into a cask. In the Colonial Exhibition of wines in 1886 numerous selections of Campbell winery of Rothbury were noted as “will keep on draught.” This keeping quality was recognized in other wines for Charles Tovey wrote that several Sydney hotels kept casks of Cambden wine on draft “especially during the very hot weather.”
No other drinks were served on draft at the Metropolitan Hotel. Even the beer was served by the pint or quart. In fact very few 19th century menus list any drinks on draft. One other example is the 1865 menu of Parker House, Boston, which lists beer both by the bottle and “on draught.” We may never know how the draft selections were served at the Metropolitan Hotel. But we do know Champagne was served on draft in 1835 and 1836 and that inventors were patenting engines to dispense wine. The possibility that somewhere else in the 19th century wine was served by pulling a handle remains intriguing.