Passing the port


The history of drinking port in Britain is shrouded in the mists of time.

This fortified wine was first produced in Portugal during the 1600s, but it was probably in the 1700s that, thanks to the mercantile marine, port was brought to this country.

Contemporary literature gives examples of its being consumed in the 1800s in the east end of London as a favoured tipple of the poor when mixed with 'lemon'. Society also enjoyed consuming it after a meal, when the ladies had retired to powder their noses, and it was taken together with the cheese, coffee and cigars; sometimes with a degree of ribaldry.

It would be very surprising if Wellington's army had not enjoyed it during the Peninsular Wars, when there was space to hold mess dinners attended by many officers. This was unlike the Royal Navy, which in those days seldom had enough room to accommodate such gatherings.

Society, the military and the Royal Navy took the drinking of port to their hearts. It is from these origins that different organisations, and indeed divisions within those organisations, have developed their own customs and traditions.

There are those who believe that the decanter should not touch the table (those who like to keep the sediment in suspension?) and those who keep the decanter in contact with the table (as an initiative test?). However, one thread of custom seems to be consistent: port is always passed to the left, or clockwise round the table. There are no good grounds for believing that this has anything to do with the port side of a ship being on the left. This clockwise cycle is quite convenient for right-handed people.

Over the years it has become accepted for madeira, another fortified wine, (and occasionally oloroso sherry) to be offered as well as port. Similarly it has become normal practice for these wines to be consumed after the food has been finished and the tables cleared completely.

In the Royal Navy, and in many other organisations, at formal dinners the Mess President (or the host in charge of the dinner) has the principal guest sitting on his right.

After the clearing of the tables, stewards place glasses for the port for each diner, and conclude by placing the stoppered decanters containing the port (and madeira) dependant on table configuration as described below.

Top Table Alone

Two stoppered decanters are placed, one in front of the President and the other in front of A. The Mess President removes the stopper which he retains, and without serving himself, passes the decanter to the person on his left who serves himself, and then slides it to his left. The person in position A mirrors the moves of the President.

In due course the principal guest receives a decanter from his right side, serves himself, and passes it to the President who then serves himself before replacing the stopper. This not only ensures that the principal guest has been served, but will wait a very short time before the toasts begin; and the President has looked after all his guests before helping himself!

When the President stoppers his decanter A follows suit.

Top Table with Two Sprigs

Six stoppered decanters are placed, one in front of the President and the others in front of A, the number 1 positions and the number 4 positions. The Mess President removes the stopper which he retains, and without serving himself, passes the decanter to the person on his left who serves himself, and then slides it to his left. When that arrives at position B arrangements are in hand to move that decanter to position A.

The people in position A, and those in the number 1 and 4 positions all mirror the moves of the President. Those in positions 2, 3, 5 and 6 should be acquainted with the procedure. When the decanters arrive at the next stopper position they cease being passed.

In due course the principal guest receives a decanter from his right side, serves himself, and passes it to the President who then serves himself before replacing the stopper. This not only ensures that the principal guest has been served, but will wait a very short time before the toasts begin; and the President has looked after all his guests before helping himself!

When the President stoppers his decanter all others follow suit.

When there are ladies dining who are not members of the mess, it is customary for a diner to serve himself and then the lady on his left before passing the decanter on to the gentleman on her left, always continuing the clockwise rotation. When madeira or sherry are being offered as well as port, the decanters travel together and remain in the same order.

It is said that, because in the old days port at dinner was free, poor midshipmen used to take advantage of this by filling their glasses to the very brim, forming a positive meniscus like that of mercury in a barometer. This is referred to as a 'midshipman's meniscus'.

The President can then proceed to the Loyal Toast Routine as follows:
The President will say, 'Mr Vice - The Queen'. If present, the band will then play the National Anthem. Unless on board a commissioned ship or establishment, all stand. The Vice President will then say, '(Ladies and) gentlemen - The Queen'. All then drink the toast with the words 'The Queen'. Do not add 'God bless her'.

If there is no Vice President, the President simply stands and says '(Ladies and) gentlemen - The Queen'.

If a diner misbehaves, he or she can be fined an appropriate quantity of port. For a simple breach of port etiquette, a fine of a glass for the President and principal guest is probably sufficient. For major breaches, this can amount to a fine of port for the whole table. This does not have to be drunk there and then as extra port. It can be much more effective to charge the offender for the appropriate quantity, thus reducing the bill for other diners.

It is sometimes appropriate to include the toast of the day after the Loyal Toast. These are:

Monday

Our Ships at Sea

Tuesday

Our Men

Wednesday

Ourselves (as no one else is likely to concern himself with us)

Thursday

A Bloody War & a Sickly Season

Friday

A Willing Foe & Sea Room

Saturday

Wives & Sweethearts (May they never meet)

Sunday

Absent Friends

If, as one hopes, the port is passed again, the same routine is repeated, until the President replaces his stopper to indicate that the passing of the port has finished. All holders of stoppers follow the President.

The stewards must ensure that decanters are replenished as necessary between each passing to ensure that there is never a drought half-way round

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