For centuries Bristol was an important wine shipping port bringing in vast quantities of Sherry since Tudor times. It arrived in butts generally as a vintage wine, in the old days anyway, and was matured and blended in cellars in Bristol. The earliest known reference to Bristol Milk is from 1634 in a manuscript at the British Museum, and there are many other references too.
Samuel Pepys enjoyed it in the XVII century when visiting Bristol, and recorded it in his diary: “They did give us… plenty of brave wine… and above all, Bristol Milk.” In the same century Thomas Fuller, a clergyman who wrote “History of the Worthies of England”, was convinced that the wine’s name originated thus: “Some will have called it milk because such wine is the first moisture given to infants in this city.” It was not uncommon to use it on teething babies. It is said that Manuel María González Ángel, founder of González Byass, being a rather sickly child received from his mother a daily spoonful of Sherry, and he then lived to 75, founding a Sherry empire on the way. The Price of Wales (later Edward VII) remarked that Bristol “must have damn’ fine cows.” This style of Sherry was extremely popular, being mainly drunk in the morning, and was as likely as not a direct descendant of Sack.
Bristol Milk was, naturally, mainly produced in Bristol, though its Amoroso characteristics were not unique. Bristolians had no legal protection for the name and others did produce it, for example González Byass had a “Sedoso Bristol Milk” and Eduardo Delage had a “London Milk”. The only protection for the wine in the earlier days was a 1651 order that sledges be used to carry goods through the streets lest the vibrations of wagons disturb the Bristol Milk! The principal producers were Harveys (est. 1796), JR Phillips (est. 1739), Howells (est. 1786) and Averys (est. 1793), none of whom sell Bristol Milk any longer. In fact nobody does.
|A beermat from brewery-owned JR Phillips (foto:ebay.ie)|
The main reason it has disappeared, of course was the arrival in the 1880s of a much more complex blend which Harveys came up with and registered as a trademark: “Bristol Cream.” It could thus not be produced by anyone else. One can see the wisdom of this as it went on to become the world’s best- selling Sherry. They did not register the word “Cream”, however, and a new style of Sherry was born, open to all.
It is quite simply an Oloroso of no great age blended with PX to form a sweet golden amber wine. In those days the wines were aged separately and blended before sale, but the longer the blend spent in its butt, the better it became. Harveys Bristol Milk was labelled “Extra Superior Golden Sherry” and they went one step further by bottling the wine unfiltered and with a two inch driven cork so that it could be matured in bottle. It was magnificent but difficult to sell and they ceased bottling it in the 1970s, selling much off at auction. Bristol Milk itself ceased in the 1980s. What a shame!
|Advert for Harveys Bristol Milk (foto:uk.storeslider.com)|
Jan Read quotes a wonderful story about John Harvey & Sons. In 1949 the Ministry of Food wrote to them reminding them that under the regulations it was an offence to mislead the public as to the nature or nutritional value of food. This implied that Bristol Milk was not in fact milk. Harveys replied courteously if slightly mischievously that Bristol Milk had been in existence for 300 years longer than the Ministry and presumed that the same objection must logically be applied to Bristol Cream and thus to shaving cream, hair cream, shoe cream etc. suggesting that they too have a nutritional value.
So there it is: a historic tradition of nearly 350 years: gone. None of the few surviving Bristol wine merchants blend Sherry there now, but at least Bristol Cream survives, now produced in Jerez.