Drinking Downton Abbey: The Drinks in Britain's Most Popular Drama

Drinking in History

The stories and history surrounding what we sip.


Highclere Castle in Hampshire, which was used for the filming of the show. [Photograph: Wikimedia Commons]

You could probably design a pretty good drinking game around Downton Abbey. Just take a drink every time Lady Grantham says, "Poor Edith," Bates falls on his sword, or Thomas reminds you of a vampire.

But what do you drink while watching? During the first two seasons, the answer was clearly Scotch. Lord Grantham always seemed to be pouring one from a giant decanter into a heavy crystal tumbler, its weight an anchor keeping his inflated sense of purpose from carrying him away. We see other drinks in the first two seasons, of course—after-dinner digestifs and Carson pouring wine through cheesecloth, but Scotch is a perfect fit for the show; its old age serving as a symbol of Downton's tradition and history. Other drinks are always put aside for Scotch whenever a serious decision needs to be made in that one room that's full of old books and expensive rugs.

And then season three comes along and changes everything...with cocktails. When the season opens, WWI has ended and Europe lies in tatters. The sun is rising over America's emerging power and setting on the British Empire. Downton's legacy and thereby the Old Order are threatened with financial troubles.

Amidst this backdrop, Lady Grantham's American mother, Martha Levinson (played by Shirley Maclaine), comes for a visit. At a party celebrating her arrival, Lord Grantham for once isn't holding scotch in his hand when he asks the Dowager Countess, "Can I tempt you to one of these new cocktails?"

"I don't think so," she replies. "They look too exciting for so early in the evening."

Grantham's drink looks very much like a martini, the quintessential American cocktail and a perfect way to introduce Levinson and this season's coming changes. America is the land of reinvention, and the cocktail has always been a way to reinvent old spirits; or, in the case of bootlegged hooch during Prohibition, mask their awful flavor. The martini's place in America was put best by the classicist Lowell Edmunds when wrote that it is "a permanent fixture of American life, of the American imagination, of America's image in the rest of the world."

Sometimes that image is brassy and doesn't care about custom. As America erupts into its own cocktail-fueled Jazz Age, Levinson brings to Downton a potion of change. The old Countess, having refused her martini, tells Levinson, "You Americans never understand the importance of tradition."

Levinson replies, "Yes, we do, we just don't give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand."

The Countess responds with her typical harrumph, but as the world changes around them, the rest of Downton gulps down the biggest martinis you've ever seen.

About the Author: Reid Mitenbuler is a Washington, DC-based writer. He's currently working on a book about bourbon. Find him online at The Bourbon Empire.