PRINCE CHARMING was dead. Death, of course, is the unspoken ending to every fairy tale, the “after” part of “happily ever after,” but the passing of Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobert and Gotha, consort of her majesty Queen Victoria, still hit his wife like a black cloud of doom.
The queen, always short of stature and increasingly round with age, became a shadow of herself, floating through the corridors draped in head-to-toe black crepe silk, her effervescent soul weighed down by crushing grief. Her union with Albert was that rarest of phenomena — an arranged marriage that also was a love match, producing nine living children and an eponymous era that became shorthand for “prudish, despite Victoria and Albert being a vigorously affectionate couple (hence the nine children).”
Victorians also turned up the dial on the already-strictly codified British system of upper-class grieving, with its black-to-gray-to-lavender clothing for women and ubiquitous black armbands for men, adding mementos, like jewelry made from the hair of the deceased, casket photos and paid mourners, to the cultural milieu.
And while the queen publicly and privately mourned her life’s true love in the highly formal fashion she helped create, across the city, at one of London’s most exclusive gentleman’s clubs, the nation’s high-rolling, cravat-wearing, title-bearing toffs were mourning their beloved queen’s late beloved in their usual fashion: with a drink.
There, in the leather-bound, cigar-scented chambers of Brooks’s club on Pall Mall, some now-forgotten bartender or steward concocted a liturgy in liquor, a potable poem in honor of their fallen leader meant to evoke those same black armbands that the city’s top .01% percent were sporting around their boxing-thickened biceps.
The drink was called the Black Velvet, and it was simple — a one-to-one combination of that most sturdy of beers, dark stout (most often, Guinness), and Champagne, a drink even associated with celebration. These choices say nothing about Victoria and Albert particularly — Irish stout and French bubbly are hardly relevant to the death of a nobleman born in Germany. No; the composition of the Black Velvet is entirely poetic, a conceptual and visual koan of a drink reduced down to the phrase that was oft-repeated in that sad moment: “Even the Champagne should be in mourning.”
The Black Velvet is still a simple recipe calling for two ingredients, both chilled, but even so, there is some disagreement about the order in which to layer them. Some say the stout should be poured first and the Champagne added on top, drizzled over the back of a spoon to keep it from mixing, while others insist that, no, the Champagne belongs at the bottom, and the stout should be added afterward (this is supposedly the historical recipe), causing a blend of gorgeous, mahogany-colored liquid with a thick head of foam. However, a third school of thought suggests pouring the Champagne in the bottom and then pouring the Guinness over the back of a spoon to allow it to float on top.
Any fan of black and tans (aka a half and half) knows that Guinness is a low-density beer and will float on a much denser ale, such as Bass. This is certainly true of the Poor Man’s Black Velvet, a variation that swaps the Champagne for more working-class cider or perry, which invariably is made with the Guinness floating on top.
I could not get it to work with Champagne or sparkling wine, however, though your mileage may vary, depending on the sweetness (and therefore, density) of your wine — a dry Champagne can be around .995, causing the Guinness to sink, but a sweeter Prosecco will be a bit higher and more likely to sit obligingly in the bottom of your glass.
The Black Velvet falls into the category of drinks called Shandies, in which beer is mixed with other drinks, like cider, soda or even orange juice. Shandies go in and out of fashion as the influence of beer purists waxes and wanes with the times, but I encourage you to try the Black Velvet, a delicious concoction that tastes like a wintry version of a mimosa, like a surprisingly light, drinkable fruity dark chocolate bar with notes of cocoa and berries.
The drink ends up tasting the same whichever way you choose to pour the ingredients. The order really affects only the poetry of it: With the Champagne on top, it suggests grief like a dark pool of sadness weighing down the effervescent glitter of an outwardly happy life, like a widow out of the weeds but still privately missing the man she lost. With the Guinness on top, one is left with the image of a thick cloud of woe floating above the sparkling pool of a sweet life previously untouched by death, like a London pea-soup fog surrounding the gleaming lights of a cotillion ball.
Fully mixed, the drink suggests that life is an inseparable combination of grief and joy, the latter no less sweet and perhaps a bit more rounded by the addition of the former. The Queen herself wore black to mourn for Albert for the remaining 40 years of her life, so one imagines that this third option would have spoken to her sensibilities, should she, in a thirsty moment, have wished to raise an ornate glass to Albert’s dear memory.