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A dram of whiskey with breakfast used to be de rigueur—until marmalade came along

Heather Arndt Anderson
Updated: June 12, 2018

When essayist Samuel “Dr.” Johnson wrote about the breakfast habits of the people of the Hebrides (the series of small isles off the coast of Scotland which he visited in 1773), there were warm oat cakes with butter, honey, and all manner of conserves; there were rustic quick breads and ripe cheeses, and to set the stage for it all, there was whiskey. Every blessed morning, a nip of whiskey, the dram, was taken to greet the day and warm the stomach, and no matter their temperance during any other hour, “…no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram.”

Booze enjoyed a 9,000-year run as the breakfast beverage of choice across Europe, until the 18th century, when caffeinated beverages took their place. Most of Europe was beside itself with delight over the advent of coffee and tea, but it came as an utter abomination to Jacobite leader Mackintosh of Borlum, who groused in 1729 that instead of the dram of good, wholesome Scots spirits followed by a big old mug of ale with toast, he was now lamentably offered “marmalet, cream, and cold tea.” (Brandy was still sometimes added to the tea, but his outrage was nonetheless justified.)

Within a few decades of arriving to the British Isles in the 1700s, tea replaced the formerly de rigueur tankard of “strong ale.” (It might not come as much of a shock, but things got a lot more productive in the British Isles when folks stopped downing all that booze for breakfast. Uncoincidentally, the Industrial Revolution began soon after caffeine showed up.) But in 18th-century Scotland, there was another issue at play. Marmalade had been around for millennia as an afternoon sweet, but Scots were the first to put orange marmalade on the breakfast table. The disruption of morning habits by replacing ale with tea set in motion a shift toward caffeine and away from alcohol.

Though they were the first to eat orange marmalade at breakfast, the idea of serving morning marmalade wasn’t a Scottish one; the original morning marmalade just wasn’t made of oranges. The first marmalades were made of quince—the Portuguese word for quince is marmelo—and dated back to antiquity. A conserve of quince and honey (somewhat like dulce de membrillo) was prescribed by ancient Greek physicians to stir the morning stomach, and in ancient Greece and Rome, at least, marmalade and wine were both part of a complete breakfast.

Marmalade as we know it came much later. Citrus-based marmalades of pounded oranges with finely shredded rinds began their ascent in popularity in England in the 1660s, when the first sugar-boiling houses were established in the British Isles (including four in Scotland). Early confectioners sold sugar-preserved fruits and candied oranges, along with potted orange marmalades for those too busy or posh to make their own. Quinces and apples were still often added simply for their pectin until the 1710s, when the earliest English recipe determined the gelling properties of citrus pith alone to be sufficient to set a marmalade.

And in the early 1500s—centuries before our friend Mackintosh of Borlum harrumphed over the loss of his dram—a slice of orange peel “condite (candied) with sugar, and taken fasting in a small quantity” was the daily amuse-bouche recommended by English physician Sir Thomas Elyot.

Even as the fruits used for the conserve shifted, belief in marmalade’s medicinal qualities never wavered. Marmalade was effective against dry and cold humors; “the Elevation of the Vapours of the head is much checked by taking of Marmalade of Quinces,” wrote English doctor William Salmon in 1681, while recommending “candied Orange, Limon, and Citron-Peels” for the stomach and to cure headaches caused by melancholic humors.

Ale had been relatively easy to ditch for tea, but whiskey shared marmalade’s medicinal properties as a general morning invigorator and it took much longer for it to disappear. The morning dram wasn’t just a warming stomachic, it was stoic and rugged—Scottish. For a long while, whiskey was much more widespread as an everyman’s aperitif. Whereas the morning dram was for the masses, oranges were bougie, and once marmalade became more accessible to the working classes, its allure as a piece of the good life was evidently too great.

Though the morning dram was a sacred “institution with all the ordinary workmen” and “decent gentlewomen” still began the day with a wee nip well into the 1800s, by the time Elizabeth Grant Smith got around to beginning her Memoirs of a Highland Lady in 1845, she deemed the morning dram a “pernicious habit” and other writing of the era echoes that the practice had largely fallen out of favor. For a spell, the dram and marmalade peacefully coexisted on the breakfast table, but for some, the dram was on its way out.

Finally, the Forbes Mackenzie Act (aka the Public Houses Act) of 1853 closed the case for good, shutting down pubs on Sundays and between 10:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. the rest of the week. Though it remained the subject of much heated debate for many years to come, the morning dram was particularly mourned as the Act’s greatest casualty. Luckily, the bitter restorative of marmalade was there to soften the blow. 

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