When I’m gathered, as my old granny used to say, I’d like to be remembered as the man who re-introduced the Imperial Pint of champagne. I’m not an ambitious creature, by and large. But we all want to leave our mark upon this world somehow, and that’s where I’ve set my sights. Now, after trying for almost 40 years, I might be a step closer to success. And it’s all thanks to Brexit.
The Imperial Pint was Churchill’s favourite way of drinking his beloved Pol Roger – there’s even one proudly displayed in the Cabinet War Rooms (which we supplied from the Berry Bros & Rudd private reserves). I also associate the pint with Duff Cooper. In his biography ‘Old Men Forget’, he writes: “I ordered an Imperial Pint of champagne, that admirable measure which like so many good things has disappeared from the world”. He is remembering a bleak Sunday night in the early stages of the First World War, when he is dining alone at his club, due to return to his army training camp and overcome by “a great cloud of depression”. But the pint bottle and a copy of Alice Through the Looking Glass accompany him through his dinner, and “as by enchantment my melancholy left me and I knew that I should not be unhappy again.”
It’s such a perfect sized bottle. You get four proper sized glasses from it – as opposed to six from a bottle, or three from a half-bottle. Champagne is designed to be shared, preferably with one other person. Six glasses between two is – if you’re carrying on to another bottle with dinner – too much . However three glasses are certainly too little to share between two people – one for me, one for you, and a dribble for us both to finish with? That’s just mean, and the one thing you should never associate with Champagne is meanness.
One of my first jobs in the wine trade, back in the dim and distant past we call the 1970s, was working for Moet & Chandon in Epernay. I told them then that the Imperial Pint was the way ahead. It was the first time I ever witnessed the Gallic shrug in person.
The Champenois, I discovered, don’t think much of the Imperial Pint. They claim that its reintroduction would threaten sales of the 75cl bottle – but this is nonsense. People would buy it instead of the mean half bottle, and so sales would increase. One producer even told me that the French would never favour a format that was named after the British Empire. It had never occurred to me that we had the exclusive rights to matters Empirical. Name it after the Napoleonic Empire, the Third Empire, the Empire Leicester Square for all I care. Just let us have the bloody bottle.
Unfortunately, the bloody bottle is part of the manufacturing process of champagne. If the young wine wasn’t put into a bottle a few weeks after the grapes were picked, halfway through the fermentation process, then champagne wouldn’t be fizzy. You then have to wait for a while – in practise, at least 3 years – before the champagne is ready to drink and can hit the shelves . You can’t change your mind once the clock has started ticking. And these bottles are not just any bottles, but strong enough to stand the pressure that builds up inside – the same as the tyre of a London Bus, as we told the punters we showed around the cellars at Moet & Chandon.
When I started work at Berry Bros, one of my colleagues in the St James’s Street shop was Rupert Clevely. We fantasised about the return of the pint. Fast forward 15 years, and Rupert became the worldwide marketing director for Veuve Clicquot. He called me one day, with the great news that Clicquot had come up with a new bottle size – not the imperial pint, exactly, but the half litre – 6 centilitres smaller, but the closest thing this rule-obsessed world of ours allows to it.
From that decision, to the procurement of a bottle that will work, to the filling, to the launch, took almost 5 years. By then, our Lords and Masters in Brussels had outlawed the sale of the bottle within the European Union. It could go on sale in Norway, or in Switzerland, or in Hong Kong, but if I put it on the Berry Bros. price list or on our website I would be breaking the law, and we ran the risk of having our license taken away from us. Somehow, the Eurocrats had won and we were once again denied the chance to drink our champagne from God’s own bottle size.
But now we are no longer beholden to Brussels. Newspaper reports are telling of a return to gallons, stones, pounds and ounces. And my friends at Pol Roger have decided that the time has come to re-introduce Churchill’s favourite bottle size, which is only fitting. It will take a few years before it hits the shelves, but then again we’re being told that it will be a few years before Article 50 will finally take effect. Possibly the two will coincide, and we will be able to toast Brexit (or drown our sorrows: cross out where not applicable) with an Imperial Pint or two.
Next, I’d like to revive the London Telephone Exchange names. But don’t get me started on that….
Simon Berry is the Chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd.