Passing the Port

The passing of the port

by Ron Robb

This essay was awarded third prize in the Naval Officers Club Literary Prize competition, 2001, and was published in the Naval Officers Club Newsletter Number 47, 1 December 2001.

Ron Robb receives his prize for this essay from Vice President John Da Costa at the 12 July 2001 Members Luncheon at the Royal Automobile Club, Sydney.

The ‘passing of the port’ is a special precursor to a form of toast which will nowadays usually be found only at Defence Force dinners and a few traditional academic or political societies. But why do we call it a ‘toast’? and why do we call it ‘port’? And why some of the arcane rituals that go with it?

We drink a ‘toast’ when we want to wish someone well or accord honour. The custom goes back to unrecorded antiquity, but it is known that the ancient Jews did it (the Old Testament gives instructions for ‘drink offerings’), while the early Saxons and Britons observed it at least as early as the fifth century. The glass is held straight out from the right shoulder and here, right away, we find two traditions involved:

First – it is held in the right hand because to the ancients the right hand was the lucky one; if you held the drinking vessel in the left hand you would be insulting the one for whom the blessing was being invoked. (Generations of mariners have learned a part of their rules of the road by reciting “there is no red port left”).

Second – the arm held straight out showed that there was no concealed weapon, so no risk of some treacherous assassination plot with a friendly gesture being used as a cover. The proper method of holding the glass is by the base, with the outer edge between the thumb and forefinger, thumb uppermost.

Civilian toasts clinkingoften clink glasses together with as many as possible of those nearby. This custom originates from religious practice in the Middle Ages when it was believed that the Devil could not stand the sound of bells; if the glasses were touched together the effect would be like a ringing of bells. Churches having bells in their towers began in the Middle Ages and bells are still rung in some high church liturgies.

We can thank the British for the adoption of the word toast as applied to a drink. The toast of drinking is exactly the same one as applied to the slice of slightly burned bread that most of us eat each morning at breakfast. How come? The British have long been wine connoisseurs but until recently had no significant wine industry of their own. Their forefathers did not have the scientific knowledge that we have today, so continental vignerons and British wine merchants were not too successful at transporting wine over long distances.

Fortified wines (sherry, port, madeira, marsala, vermouth etc.) travelled well, but ordinary ‘still’ wine does not take kindly to moving around; any wine buff will know this and will attempt to leave his cellar slumbering in peace.

French tradition

The British traditionally got their best wine from France, because this was a relatively light disturbance after the short channel crossing. Moreover, at one stage they had hegemony over the Northern part of France so had access to the great wine fields there. However, by about the 17th century, the British and the French were not really the best of friends and to drink French wine required one to be both unpatriotic and friendly with smugglers, the latter being illegal.

Wine was readily available from Portugal and other places but generally it was likely to draw one’s teeth, so the British resorted to an old trick that had been known since late medieval times: if spiced toasted bread is soaked in poor quality wine for a time it will absorb the astringency and harsher flavours. This produced a passably drinkable wine and, as good wishes were usually invoked with a glass of wine, the practice became known as ‘drinking the toast’.

Speaking clubs

Most people are familiar with various public speaking societies and toasting clubs were around in England at least as early as the 17th century. In truth, some of them were simply an excuse for a night on the bottle and some dinners were openly advertised as a ‘drinking match’.

Nevertheleswaiters, Sir Richard Steele in 1709 wrote that a certain lady’s name flavoured the wine like spiced toast when her good health was called for. Originally, a toast was supposed to be short and witty – just the honoured person’s name or at most a short succinct rhyme. This tends to be the custom today as evidenced, for example, with the ‘loyal toast’ when we simply say “The Queen”.

However, between the late 17th and early 20th centuries, and particularly in the latter half of the 19th, the custom of toasting grew to gargantuan proportions and became the occasion for major speeches. In turn, that toast demanded a reply and then another and so it went on.

The American humorist and philosopher Mark Twain is famous for one of his recorded orations “General Grant and the Babies”, which was actually a reply to a toast in 1879 at the 13th reunion of the Army of Tennessee; it was the 15th toast of the evening and was delivered at 0330 in the early morning. Toasting clubs always had a special person responsible for the orderly progression of a dinner and control of the toasts (in naval messes, the Mess President). However, dinners tended to go on for a long time so unless he had a cast iron constitution the toastmaster might lose self-control – let alone control of the proceedings.

In some clubs three bottles of port per diner per evening were known and considerate hosts employed small boys to crawl under the tables to loosen the neckcloths of their guests who had given up the contest.

Toastmaster’s glass

Given this formidable task, how was the poor toastmaster to keep himself under control – let alone the whole dinner? The glassblower’s art came to his rescue and during the 18th century a special toastmaster’s glass was developed, which had a deceptive bowl that made a mere half fluid ounce look like a normal full glass. They’re collector’s items today.

The position of the Vice Toastmaster is also a long tradition dating back to about the 18th century and the term ‘Mr Vice’ was around long before the Navy stylised its mess dinners. Originally, his specific function was to act as a counterpoint for the calling of toasts.

In Service messes, the first toast is always what is often now called the ‘loyal toast’ but in British Commonwealth messes is more properly the ‘royal toast’ – its original name. The U.S. Navy unashamedly takes its dining tradition from its progenitor, the Royal Navy, but obviously cannot have a royal toast so coined the term ‘loyal’.

Sitting for loyal toast

Here, at least, is one part of the toast routine that the navy can claim as its own, and only navies of the British Commonwealth at that: we are entitled to do what would be a blasphemy in any other situation and remain seated during the toast to the reigning monarch. This comes about by virtue of the old wooden men-o’-war sailing ships having low headbeams at the sides and the guests sitting there would have to duck their head when they stood. Charles II was a bit taller than most of his countrymen and is known to have complained about this hazard when aboard the Naseby.

Many years later one of his successors, William lV, also a bit taller than usual, as Prince Regent and Lord High Admiral, cracked his skull against a beam when rising to drink the health of his father and vowed that when he became king he would allow Royal Navy officers to sit during his toast. He was as good as his word and the custom has been approved by every monarch since for all British naval officers (except at one stage, curiously, on board H.M. Royal Yacht).

However, the tradition is not observed if a band is present and the toast is accompanied by the playing of the national anthem. In 1914, the First Sea Lord, who later became the Marquis of Milford-Haven, modified the royal-toast-being-seated privilege by requiring officers to stand if a band played the national anthem. For this reason, some Royal Navy wardrooms used not play the national anthem for the royal toast, even if a Royal Marines band was present.

Impose fines

waitressOne of the customs observed at mess dinners is for the President to impose fines for certain offences. He does this by rapping the gavel, Hence the custom is known as ‘knocking’. However, this too predates naval usage and originally applied only before the royal toast, i.e. while the dinner was still formal and was for three specific offences: making a bet, mentioning a lady’s name or drawing a sword.

When the port has been passed, all await the President’s lead and Mr Vice’s response before partaking the toast. Observant diners will have noticed that the President and Mr Vice replace the stoppers before proposing the toast. There is a specific tradition behind this: originally, the wine provided for the royal toast was of high quality and for that purpose only; when all glasses were full the stoppers were replaced as a signal for the stewards to remove those particular decanters and the royal toast would proceed. If more toasts were to follow then decanters of lesser wine would be brought to the table.

Decanters remain

Nowadays we do not necessarily remove the decanters after the royal toast, but the stopper replacement is a mark of respect to the Queen and, at least up until recently, the RAN steward’s manual still allowed for the practice of removing the decanters after the royal toast. The ‘royal’ toast was not always a ‘loyal’ one to the British monarch. The Jacobites, and also those seditious Scottish who yearned after Bonnie Prince Charlie, could not bring themselves to toast another and so would surreptitiously hold their glass over a finger bowl full of water. In this way they were toasting the one whom they regarded as the true king ‘over the water’ (i.e. in France).

This practice eventually became so blatant that it was seen at the coronation banquet of George III, and for many years thereafter finger bowls were banned at any dinner at which the King was present. As any wine connoisseur will know, it is bad practice to completely fill a glass with wine as this spoils the nose. However, the toasting drink of port for the loyal toast is an exception and it is regarded as good form and practiced skill if one can fill the glass overfull to the extent that there is a distinct meniscus on the surface. Judging the port’s surface tension properly is the trick – too little and it does not have a visible curvature above the glass rim, too much and the tension will shear and the drinker be left with a messy hand and a puddle on the table for all to see.


portA glass so nicely filled is called a ‘bumper’. Why? In pre-Henry VIII England society was predominately Roman Catholic, so the first toast at a dinner would always be to honour the Pope; the glass would be generously filled and the toast would be “to our good Father”. Those who remember their high school French will soon be able to translate this to “au bon pere”. Older editions of the RAN steward’s manual actually drew attention to this protocol. However, if officers toast the Queen with an empty glass, they are, strictly speaking, barred from accepting a round of port from any other officer knocked for an offence.

Incidentally – if teetotallers or those on alcohol-free diets wish to avoid alcohol it is, strictly speaking, improper to partake a toast in water and the toast should be with an empty glass.

Wine quality

Toasts by mere mortals and forms of life lesser than the navy can drink their toasts in whatever wine they like. It could be argued that even for the army any good wine is acceptable. But not in the navy! Port is the traditional navy toast, though madeira was once popular. Madeira is legal as it has the same political background that gave rise to port as the preferred drink for the navy and is in fact a kind of port.

We noted earlier that the word toast came from the practice of soaking spiced toast in Portuguese wines, since it was unpatriotic to drink the better French wines. As Swift wrote:

Be sometime to your country true,
Have ever the public good in view;
Bravely despise Champagne at Court
And choose to dine at home with port.

However, port (and we can include madeira) was one kind of Portuguese wine that was good.

Port keeps well

Port keeps well after it is opened and doesn’t mind being moved around – indeed, one of the classic features of Madeira is that it is moved around. Traditionally, that sweet, smokey dessert wine from the Portuguese island of Madiera is sent south across the equator as ballast and back in the hold of a ship before marketing.

Notwithstanding the patriotic duty of the British to drink Portuguese wines, there were other good reasons for the navy to favour port: we have already noted that it is one of the few wines that travel well, so from the mid-18th century every Royal Navy ship proceeding to the West Indies Station was stored according to its complement with an appropriate number of pipes of port (a pipe is a cask holding about 56 dozen quarts – 168 gallons or 763 litres).

Passing clockwise

The passing of the port always ‘follows the sun’, i.e. it goes clockwise and passes to the left. The origins of this custom are obscure and various authorities have advanced the following possible reasons: At funerals, the ancient Greeks passed a mourning cup to the left as they moved to their right past the grave. The Celts particularly, but many others also, considered the right hand to be lucky. If wine was poured in a clockwise order, the servant would have his right hand towards the centre of the table.

The guest of honour traditionally sits at the right of the host, so if the wine moved to the left the guest could observe its effect on other guests before his turn (the ‘poisoned chalice’). If a decanter is passed to the left the friend to the right of the pourer has his right, i.e. sword-hand, free for protection of the temporarily distracted drinker.

Port origins

It may be of some interest to consider what port is and how it got its name. It is a fortified wine, which means it starts life as an ordinary still wine but at a certain point in the fermentation process has spirit brandy added. This stops the fermentation, so arresting the sugar conversion to alcohol and hence the sweetness. However, although all the sugar is not converted to alcohol the alcoholic content is very much higher than ordinary wine (typically 20 per cent vs 12 per cent), because of the addition of the brandy. The process of fortifying wine was invented in the 17th century, specifically for the purpose of transporting it to England from Portugal and for this reason port used to be known as ‘the English wine’. Reputedly, the Portuguese themselves drink very little of it and this is to be expected; port is better suited to cooler climates whereas Portugal is a hot country in most parts. White Port, however, can be chilled and is a good summer alternative for those who like port at any time.

Vintage port exception

Because of this fortification, port will not spoil when moved around and in all cases, except one, will keep quite happily for a long period once opened. The one exception is vintage port which, unlike all others, is aged in the bottle. Most other ports are made by the solera method whereby they are aged in the wood; the barrels are stacked high on top of each other, pyramid fashion, and the wine gradually siphoned down to the bottom over several years (the more barrel/years, the better – and more expensive) with new stock being added to the top each vintage. It is for this reason that non-vintage solera ports do not nowadays have a vintage year printed on the label (except in certain specially-controlled cases).

grapesTrue port is tightly controlled by Portuguese law; it comes only from the upper Douro River region and even then from a strictly limited area above 460 metres. Only specific grapes are allowed, principally Maurisco. It is moved and handled in a prescribed way and is crushed by treading in the traditional manner, crushers working four hour shifts, to music, in teams of four. Vines are planted on southern aspects of certain hills, which are composed largely of rock; the ground is therefore prepared by blasting so that the roots can find moisture during the blazing Portuguese summer. Maturation is rigidly controlled, the precise time of starting the picking judged to within hours.

After crushing, fermentation and fortifying, the liquid is sailed down the Douro River to the seaport town of Oporto – hence the name. There, it is blended by skilled tasters who have served a long apprenticeship and are specially licensed. Since taste is largely smell, the areas in which these tasters work is shielded by running water to block out any foreign aromas. Port is bottled under armed guard supervision and marketed by licence of the Portuguese Government. Madeira is made and marketed in much the same way as port, including the solera method. However, it comes from the eponymously-named Portuguese offshore island.

Island heavily wooded

When the original Portuguese colonisers went there, the island was heavily wooded, but the new settlers promptly burned most of it down. The resulting richly-ashed soil imparts the characteristic smokey flavour to the wine, boosted also by the unusual process of actually heating then cooling the wine over a period of several months during the fermentation. Originally, this was done by passing the wine through the tropics twice (i.e. out and back) in barrels as ship’s ballast. One surprise that will upset male chauvinists opposed to ladies attending a mess dinner is that the idea of ladies being associated with toasting has some antiquity. In 1780, a highly secret group within the Jacobites elected Lady Williams-Wynn to their dining club and her successors were similarly honoured.

These customs have a significance worth preserving. They remind us of a rich past and a colourful heritage and provide a continuous thread of the principles of comradeship and standing together through both good and bad times. Only to a few organisations, particularly in Australia, is given the privilege of having a strong, continuous, easily identified lineage stretching back beyond our own nationhood; the navy is one such organisation and the traditions associated with a mess night are worth maintaining well.


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