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The Game Changers

From groundbreaking inventions to fashion-changing legislation, from nuns to boffins and bottles to books… The team at Imbibe put their heads together to come up with the definitive list of people down the years who have most influenced the way we drink. Julie Sheppard shares the results. Prepare to disagree…


Here at Imbibe Towers, we like to think that we contribute a fair amount to the UK’s on-trade drinking scene. From cutting-edge trend features and top recommendations to breaking industry news and frankly unbeatable puns (remember ‘The Joy of Secs’?) we believe Imbibe does its bit to further the cause for better drinking in Britain. Huzzah!

But as we opened our fifth bottle of fizz to congratulate ourselves on a job well done, we wondered if there was anyone else we should be raising our glasses to. Who helped to make modern on-trade drinking the varied, exciting world it is today? Who decided when bars can open and close? Who invented lager? Who thought of putting wine in bottles?

So, we put our best thinking caps on, consulted many on-trade experts and generally asked around to see if we could come up with a list of ultimate game-changers. And after a good deal of research and heated debate, we whittled the contenders down to the list below. Including pioneers, inventors, legislators, a smattering of scientists and a nun, this is a roll call of drinks legends without whom we would probably all be unemployed and drinking water from a well.

Who made the grade? Read on and find out…

1. God
Let’s start with The Big One. Whatever your religious views (stand aside, non-believers), it’s impossible to overlook the connection between booze and religion. The Greeks and Romans kicked things off nicely by worshipping a god of wine; then Mohammed chucked a spanner in the works when he declared: ‘Wine and games of chance, idols and divining arrows are abominations devised by Satan. Avoid them so you may prosper!’ Whether abstaining like Muslims and teetotal Prohibitionists in the 20th century (more on them later) or drinking to honour a god (more on monks and nuns later, too) religion has influenced what we drink, why we drink and when we drink more than any other single factor. Besides, if we left Him out, we’d be damned for all eternity. 

2. Louis Pasteur
Switching to the world of science and things that, like, actually exist (we can all agree on the existence of yeast, right?) plaudits go to French scientist par excellence Louis Pasteur, an all-round brainbox when it comes to drink. In 1862, Emperor Napoleon had a problem: French wines were going bad in transit. Pasteur had already proved that alcoholic fermentation is caused by yeast cells reproducing; now he discovered that eliminating bacteria in wine, by heating it, meant that it wouldn’t go off. This technique of pasteurisation was widely applied to other drinks, meaning that today, bars can serve a refreshing bottle of J2O without the risk of customers contracting a rampant infection. What a relief.

  3. Dr John Pemberton 
You may not know his name, but you’ll know his drink.
Coca-Cola has dominated the soft drinks market throughout the 20th century and into the 21st, becoming the most widely recognised drinks product in the world. Pharmacist Dr John originally devised an alcoholic beverage called French Wine Coca to combat his own addiction to morphine. But due to US state temperance laws in 1886, he revised the coca leaf and kola nut-based recipe. The resulting drink was christened Coca-Cola by his secretary Frank Mason Robinson, and the rest, dear friends, is history.

  4. Margaret Thatcher 
Love her or hate her, the former prime minister was instrumental in deciding the trading hours for bars and restaurants today. Thatcher’s Licensing Act of 1988 legalised on-trade drinking hours as 11am-11pm, giving punters a deadline for last orders and giving rota managers everywhere a sense of purpose. Tony Blair’s Licensing Act of 2003 went on to legalise 24-hour on-trade drinking; although, as our quest to find a decent Martini at 3am in Nottingham has proved, its impact was less widespread.

‘Religion has influenced what we drink,

why we drink and when we drink more

than any other single factor’

  5. Hildegard of Bingen 
Something of a 12th-century overachiever, Hildegard was a German nun, prophet, poet, physician and composer. She could probably get a really high score on Angry Birds, too. She was the first person to recognise the preservative powers of the hop in brewing, noting: ‘As a result of its own bitterness it keeps some putrefactions from drinks, to which it may be added, so that they may last so much longer.’ Other writings reveal her to be an accomplished brewster and she allegedly enjoyed a daily ration of heartily hopped beer until she died, aged 81, in 1179. Amen to that!

  6. Dr John Gorrie 
Another American doctor who inadvertently sparked a drinks revolution, Gorrie built the world’s first ice machine to help treat yellow-fever patients. His invention was patented in 1851, though demand for frozen Margaritas was low at the time: business didn’t take off and he died penniless four years later. In 1867, a cooler customer, Andrew Muhl, patented a design for commercial ice-makers. An honourable mention also goes to Boston’s ‘Ice King’ Frederic Tudor, who began exporting ice around the world in 1806, founding the commercial ice industry and inspiring 1980s’ pop classic Ice Ice Baby. Probably.

  7. Sir Kenelm Digby 
English courtier, diplomat and part-time pirate, Digby didn’t invent Mahiki’s Treasure Chest cocktail, but he did know a thing or two about glass. In the 1630s, he developed a new manufacturing technique (involving a super-hot coal furnace, a wind tunnel and lots of sand) to make glass bottles that were thicker, stronger, heavier, darker – and cheaper – than anything else on the market. His bottles became an international hit, earning him the moniker ‘father of the modern wine bottle’. A clear contender (geddit) for our Hall of Fame, then.

  8. Henry Pelham 
Team Imbibe is partial to a Gin Fizz at cocktail hour, but we’d be hard pushed to match the gin consumption of your average Londoner in the 1730s – calculated at two pints per week.
At that time, anyone who could afford the necessary tax could distil their own gin, meaning availability and consumption had skyrocketed. To rein in gin sales, prime minister Pelham passed the 1751 Gin Act, introducing spirits licensing to the UK. What’s more, Pelham encouraged the import of tea as an alternative to gin, establishing the brew as a national favourite and giving us all a reason to buy more biscuits.

‘Coca-Cola has dominated the soft

drinks market throughout the

20th century, into the 21st’

  9. Émile Peynaud 
Dubbed the ‘father of modern winemaking’, Peynaud was a French oenologist who pioneered viticultural and vinicultural advances in the 1950s and 1960s. With the appliance of science, he revolutionised fermentation techniques as well as encouraging practices such as grape selection to ensure better quality wine. At the time critics sniped at his efforts, but global adoption of his techniques over the following decades proved them all wrong – and no doubt won him a few bets.

 10. Jerry Thomas 
We had to include the author of seminal 1862 cocktail book The Bar-Tender’s Guide in this list. The Professor lays claimto writing the first drink book ever published in the US,as well as inventing classic mixes such as his signature Blue Blazer – the cause of countless singed eyebrows. But it’s only right to give a shout out to the equally influential, though marginally less well-known, bartenders: Harry Johnson, author of the 1882 Bartender’s Manual, and Harry Craddock, who penned The Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930 and co-founded the UKBG. Gentlemen, we salute you.

 11. Dom Pérignon 
It’s fair to say that Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon had a cushy job at his monastery in Hautvillers, where he was cellarer until 1715. Wine became his passion; though he didn’t actually invent champagne – he didn’t say ‘Come quickly, I’m drinking the stars!’, either. But he did develop the idea of blending champagne grapes. Pub quiz fact: the first person to actually document the process for making champagne was an English scientist, Christopher Merret (just don’t tell the French…).

12. Aeneas Coffey
No, he didn’t invent coffee. As you’d expect from a native Irishman, Coffey was partial to a drop of the hard stuff and distilling spirits was his speciality. In 1830, he patented a single column still that surprisingly enough became known as the Coffey Still. Today, his design is the most widely used continuous still as it allows for large-batch commercial production of spirits. Remember that as you open your 50th bottle of house-pour Smirnoff. 

‘Henry Pelham encouraged the

import of tea as an alternative to gin’

13. Gabriel Sedlmayr 
The Sedlmayrs are to brewing what The Simpsons are to amusing animated sitcoms. Owners of Spaten, Munich’s largest brewery, they were the first to brew and store lagers all year round thanks to the miracle of refrigeration. Gabriel Jr had a eureka moment when he combined British pale-ale brewing techniques with German lagering methods to make a pale lager in 1894. Other brewers took note and pale lager rapidly grew in popularity, becoming the most widely consumed style of beer in the world today. Cheers, Gabe. 

14. Andrew Volstead 

Sometimes telling people to do one thing results in them doing the complete opposite. Reverse psychology, innit? That’s the case with Volstead, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in the US whose 1919 Volstead Act is better known as Prohibition. The bill, drafted by Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, prohibited intoxicating liquor. But telling people they couldn’t have booze just made them really fancy a drink. Speakeasies and illegal distilleries flourished, cocktails were the drink of choice for the rebellious ‘Lost Generation’ and wine production (for religious purposes, naturally) almost doubled. By the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it had unintentionally succeeded in normalising alcohol and ushering in a new era of spirits consumption that contagiously spread across the Atlantic to Britain. In your face, Volstead.

  15. Max Schubert 
When Schubert joined Penfolds winery in 1931 as a messenger boy, sweet and fortified wines were all the rage in Australia. But he had a Big Idea: to create a more European-style varietal dry wine. He went on to do exactly that, becoming chief winemaker and unveiling Grange Hermitage in 1955, thus single-handedly inventing Australian – and arguably New World – fine wine. Along with winemakers such as California’s Paul Draper and Mike Grgich (whose wines both triumphed against big-hitters from Bordeaux and Burgundy in Steven Spurrier’s 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting), Schubert demonstrated that New World wine could be serious wine, earning it a deserved place on modern UK wine lists. Ripper, mate! 


ILLUSTRATION: MATT HERRING

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – July/August 2013

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