You may know the word balderdash from the name of the bluffing game that came out in 1986. Basically, you were supposed to talk some convincing nonsense, or what most of us call BS, but do it well enough that the other players couldn’t tell whether you were bluffing or not. Something like that. And that is what balderdash refers to, a jumble of nonsense words and ideas. Things that don’t make sense. Kind of like gobbledygook, which his my favorite term for nonsense, but hokum has something going for it as well, and not just because that’s the word Sheldon uses on Big Bang Theory.
However, in the 1600’s balderdash did not originally refer to words, instead, it referred to a co-mingling of liquids that just didn’t go together. Things that didn’t mix, like beer and milk, or beer and wine, or ale and water (now that is a crime). You would use to refer to any mixture of liquids that just should never be put in the same glass, or tankard, as it were. Before that, though, it could have referred to any frothy liquid. 1 2
The poet Ben Johnson, used the word in 1629: “Beer or butter-milk mingled together…It is against my free-hold…To drink such balderdash.” From this original meaning, the word somehow became a metaphor for nonsense speech. The etymology of the word itself is not really known. However, some sources say that the meaning of a jumble of senseless words may actually have been the original meaning, but that we don’t find it in print because it would have been considered too vulgar. A few possibilities exist. It may have been a combination of the word balder meaning to use coarse language and the word dash, meaning to smack together. Or, balderdash may have derived from the Welsh word baldarddus, meaning idle talk. Another possibility is the Medieval Latin balducta, which referred to a drink of hot milk with wine. 3
Curiously, although beer and milk and beer and all sorts of other drinks mixed together may have been balderdash in those days, today there are all sorts of beer cocktails emerging, and believe it or not, beer milkshakes. But that does not mean that beer didn’t find it’s way into mixed drinks earlier. What we call the cocktail today was a specific category of drinks, along with drinks like slings, juleps, punches, and coolers. And it’s true that most such drinks were based on spirits or perhaps wines. Beer had little place in mixology.
Jerry Thomas’s famous bartending book from 1862, How to Mix Drinks, which was the first book of its kind to be published on a large scale and which became a sort of foundational bible for the bartending profession, had around 230 drink recipes in it. 4 Of those, only eight have beer in them. And all of those are holdovers from an earlier age, probably something that would not actually have been served. There was an Ale Flip, which was a spiced and sweetened ale with rum and eggs, and an Ale Sangaree, which was basically the same thing without the rum and egg. However, there is also a reference to sour beer being used as a substitute for lemon juice in A.V Bevill’s Barkeeper’s Ready Reference. 5
Since then, many creative bartenders have begun embracing beer as an ingredient rather than just a drink, and some bars have whole menus devoted just to beer drinks, which can be highly technical and really, the height of mixology. they haven’t caught on much with patrons, but I think their time will come. I’ve tried a few and really enjoyed them. Beer can mix with other things, even milk, but you really have to know what you’re doing to pull it off!
Long before all this, during the middle ages, people drank possets which seems to have been warm milk curdled with ale, sherry, rum, or whatever might be on hand, and often sweetened and/or spiced. These were especially popular as warming drinks during the winter. A posset is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Posset seems to have referred to adding an acidic ingredient to a liquid. The fact that adding any acidic ingredient into milk will cause the milk to curdle might explain why some called in balderdash.
However, although it is hard to be sure exactly what possets were, they may well have been related to the later drinks such as White Wine Whey. If so, the process for making possets was meant to remove the solid casein from the milk, which easily coagulates, making basically a more watery whey and wine, or brandy, or ale posset. For instance, you might put an amount of milk into a pan and bring it to a boil, then add white wine and continue to boil it till hard curds form. Then, you strain the mixture through a very fine sieve, or cheesecloth, and add sweetener and other flavorings, such as nutmeg.
- Smith, Christi M. Verbivore’s Feast: Second Course : More Word & Phrase Origins. Helena, MT: Farcountry, 2006.
- Dunkling, Leslie. The Guinness Drinking Companion. New York, NY: Lyons & Burford, 1995.
- Morton, Mark. Cupboard Love 2 a Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities. Toronto: Insomniac, 2004.
- Other such books were small with only a few recipes, by comparison.
- Oliver, Garret. The Oxford Companion to Beer. New York: Oxford UP, 2012.