Steeped in Rebellious Spirits

AQF9PRUyC12vbwAAAVDdbCunShACslAd21GrGbA3P8uQofKF5PlVnpPzt-pNLBff-xmYIMI-SzutX1RmTQGi8saqnZJSK098gUYg3rVlgPMPSDzS80Du4I54q0-vUApGQnIROPlOCMjNDVilveBW2DnVHaTzOg9MT8M2SZHUIm9z6fLtIDkENIqcuzQXw_YVoIa821n--0ayVQ87O5rKMSv5Alchemist and drinks genius Ruth Ball has written a thrilling history of people and events surrounding the intoxicating world of spirits. Her book, Rebellious Spirits: The Illicit History of Booze in Britain, is a treasure trove for the curious drinker.

From the gin dispensed from a cat’s paw at the Puss and Mew shop, which could have been the world’s first vending machine, to whole funeral cortèges staged just to move a coffin filled with whisky, the stories show off all the wonderful wit and ingenuity required to stay one drink ahead of the law. The accompanying recipes are just as intriguing: how did we drink gin before tonic? Was punch really made with curdled milk, or breakfast served with brandy porridge, and gin mixed into hot ale? What did the past really taste like?

To celebrate the launch of Rebellious Spirits, her first book, Ruth is presenting a series of evening events in London from now until Saturday 7th November, 2015.

She is inviting us to enjoy six recreated historical cocktails while being entertained with tales of the secret, exciting and often dangerous world of illicit spirits brought to life from within the pages of her book.

Guests will sip a spiced wine from a recipe first used almost two millennia ago while hearing about the mystery cults of ancient Greece; sample creamy Atholl Brose over tales of Scots outwitting dastardly English gaugers (taxmen!); try a Milk Punch, the surprisingly delicious result of a recipe involving curdled milk, typically drunk while protest and rebellion broke out on the streets of eighteenth century London.

Then they will learn the history of the cruellest and most corrupt official in Donegal to the accompaniment of a fiery glass of sloe poitín; drink the Wassail to honour daring smugglers bringing in the brandy used to toast Christmas and finally try a Wartime Gimlet scraped together with preserved limes.

Six drinks anda copy of the book are included in the price of £50 (Weds-Thurs) and £70 (Fri-Sat). The first and last drinks are full sized, but the middle four are half sized, to ensure the audience is still able to stand at the end of the evening.

Drink through History with Rebellious Spirits will take place in The Spare Room at The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities in Hackney, east London.

Twitter: @alchemistdreams

Here are two delicious recipes from Ruth’s book, Rebellious Spirits. Enjoy in moderation !!


A wassail cup
A wassail cup

4 large cooking apples
300g sugar
50g butter
250ml brandy
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped fine
½ a whole nutmeg (or ½ tsp ground nutmeg)
6 pints (3 litres) of dark ale or cider.

First remove the cores from the apples and stand them up in a small roasting dish.

Weigh out 75g of the sugar and put a quarter of that sugar, plus a quarter of the butter, into each apple.

Cover the dish with foil and bake at 200°C for half an hour, or until the apples are almost falling apart.

Meanwhile, put the remaining 225g of sugar into a large bowl with the ginger, grate over the nutmeg and stir it all up together.

Heat one pint (500ml) of the ale or cider until it is just starting to steam, then add it to the bowl and stir well until the sugar dissolves.

Add the rest of the ale or cider, as well as the brandy, cover with a clean tea towel and leave to sit for two hours while the apples are also cooling.

When your guests arrive, add the apples to the bowl and give it a good stir.

Little fluffy bits of apple will float to the surface – these give the drink its older name, Lambswool.

Share with friends, family neighbours and enjoy by a roaring yule fire.



Highland bitters, Whisky in a jar
Highland bitters, Whisky in a jar

4 tsp dried chamomile flowers or 4 chamomile teabags
Zest of 2 oranges (Seville or marmalade oranges if you can get them)
2 tbsp dried juniper berries
½ bottle of cheap whisky (the younger the better, although anything younger than three years can’t legally be called whisky).

If you want to be really authentic, you can buy unaged whisky direct from a distillery, but they have to call it ‘new-made spirit’).

Add everything to the whisky (this will be easier with a full size bottle which is half empty than a half size bottle so you might want to get some help to drink the first half), and leave it in the bottle for 2–3 weeks.

Keep it on the sideboard and strain into your glass with a tea strainer whenever you want a dram, leaving the rest in the bottle to steep even longer.

A glass before breakfast is, apparently, excellent to settle the stomach.


Bruce McMichael

Food writing, discovering food stories, meeting producers, chefs and food enthusiasts are all part of desire to inspire, inform my readers and fellow food lovers. I am a freelance writer, journalist and published author focusing on the international world of food and drink, culture and travel. In 2019 I graduated from the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy with a Masters in Food Culture, Communication and Marketing. I am now a visiting Professor at the university teaching Food & Drink Writing. Based in London I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur. In 2017 I won an episode of the ITV (the UK-based national television channel) cooking competition show, 'Gordon Ramsay's Culinary Genius'. I took my children on holiday to Sicily with the prize money. As an experienced farmers' market manager and operator of a small marmalade/ preserves company, I am very familiar with the issues surrounding local food, farming, enterprise and the environment.