It is a cliché that Shakespeare ranks among the great inventors of the English language, a commonly-believed fallacy that his vocabulary was larger than that of any other writer, and a simple fact that he is likely the single most-cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary. What is less known is his contribution to the language of German drinking.
One of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters is the great rogue Falstaff, an incorrigible rascal whose taste for drink is matched only by his obesity. In early 19th century Germany, no actor was better known in the part than Ludwig Devrient, whose later life shows what might be called either a strong sympathy for his character’s style–or an early example of tenacious method acting. It was Devrient’s habit, on leaving the stage after playing Falstaff and, as actors tend to do, joining the others at the pub, to enter and bellow one of his character’s defining lines–namely, “Bring me a cup of sack!”
Sack was a very popular type of sherry in Shakespeare’s day, and his drunkards’ drink of choice. But it was not a common drink in the type of taverns that actors could patronise in Germany at the time, and what Devrient was actually calling for was the Bohemian drink of choice of the day–sparkling wine, most likely Champagne.
Champagne is now thought of as a high-class drink, but in the Romantic era it was quaffed in great quantities among artists, whose budget kept them from truly decent drinks. Devrient, touring throughout Germany, repeated his entrance in pub after pub–and as a result, cheap, barely-drinkable sparkling wine is still known in German today as ‘sekt’.
[Ed Note: In a historical parallel, in America’s early colonial days, lobsters were extremely abundant on the east coast, so much so that wealthy residents had no interest in eating the stuff. Lobster tails were served primarily to prisoners and servants, often despite protest. It wasn’t until railways began to serve this cheap foodstuff to inland passengers–passing it off as an exotic east coast delicacy–that it began its rise to the fine dining scene. Ultimately, America accepted the inevitable deliciousness of lobster during World War 2, when lobster was not rationed like other meats. -AB]