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Why Do British Pubs Have Illustrated Signs Outside?

The traditional British pub is part of the landscape of British life. At a recent count, there are around 50,000 of them in the UK, some of which claim to trace their lineage back as far as the 5th and 6th centuries, through the oldest verified by Guinness—Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St. Albans—claims to have been established in 795 CE.

Because of their abundance, the names pubs take were designed to be memorable—but more than that, they were designed to be visual. Outside any traditional pub worthy of its title, you'll find a hanging signboard with a unique illustration that represents the name of the business. The practice is so entrenched that even new pubs copy it. But why do they exist at all?

The first British pub signs were created in the 12th century and were simple representations of tankards, hops and other brewing-related paraphernalia used to inform passersby that the establishments sold ale. This was Britain in the dark ages, when education—and in particular, literacy—was in short supply. Since most of the population were unable to read, pub signs were used to inform would-be customers that they could find a drink inside.

In 1393, King Richard II passed an act making it compulsory for pubs and inns to display his emblem, a White Hart, to identify them to the official ale taster, who would inspect the quality of the booze on sale. (Shakespeare's father, John Shakespeare, was one such inspector.) From that point on, pub signs diversified to reflect the names of their establishments, partly so people could distinguish them from similar drinking outfits in growing towns.

It's for this reason that the earliest uses of pub, inn and tavern names would reference the sign directly. People would arrange to meet "at the sign of the Eagle and Child" rather than "at the Eagle and Child." Patrons may not have been able to distinguish the phrase "Hart and Stag" from "Bear and Staff," but they could recognize a picture of these things whether they were a local or a passing traveler.

Or at least, they could most of the time. There are historical instances where signs were probably misinterpreted, resulting in an official change of name. An 18th century London pub known as "The Leg and Star" was probably supposed to be named for the prestigious Order of the Garter (whose emblem is a eight-pointed star) but was renamed by customers who looked at the sign and saw simply a leg (though it was clearly gartered) and a star.

As well as being a unique identifier of an establishment, a pub's sign was also an indicator of its license to operate. A law passed in 1431 said that if a pub owner didn't display a sign, their ale could be seized. Records also show that if a pub owner's license to sell ale was revoked, the pub's sign was removed as a form of sanction.

King Richard II wasn't the only monarch to put his stamp on the public house, either. When King Henry VIII split the UK away from the Catholic Church in the early 1500s to establish the monarch as head of the Church of England, pub names stopped favoring religious symbols and began featuring images of royal figures and iconography.

When King James I took the throne of both England and Scotland in 1603, he ordered that the heraldic red lion (one of Scotland's emblems) be added to all important buildings, including pubs. As a result of these actions, the two most common pub names in the UK are still "The Crown" and "The Red Lion".

Today the tradition remains intact largely out of respect for the past, but many pub signs do retain some functionality. Remote country pubs often use signboards to point the way to their doors from more trafficked paths. It's a part of British culture that's rapidly disappearing—more than 20,000 pubs have closed since 1980—but for now there are still more than enough around that you can take a moment to appreciate the history and symbolism behind a pub's sign the next time you see one.

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Courtesy New District
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Food
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Food
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.

PICKLEBACK HISTORY, AS WE KNOW IT

As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.

THE PICKLEBACK'S UNCLEAR ORIGIN

Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.

SO, WHY PICKLES?

Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.

WAYS TO PARTAKE

While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.

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