Let’s end the year with some obscure but entertaining words that might just be of value to you as you prepare for your undoubtedly festive New Year’s Eve.
Have you ever heard of a murgatroyd? How about a salmanazar? A melchizidek?
Maybe a jeroboam? Or a clavelin? Or a magnum?
That last group probably began to sound familiar. All of the above – and more, below – are different sizes of champagne bottles. (Actually, this applies to any wine, but since we’re being especially festive today, I’m sticking to champagne.)
There are, by most accounts (you’ll find some variation), standard sizes and traditional names for champagne bottles, from the very small to the very, very large. It’s a veritable cornucopia of colorful and rarely used words. Here’s the best list I could pull together, based on the sources I consulted online (with some annotations and clarifications):
- Mignonette – non-standard, used for samples – 50 to 250ml
- Piccolo (also called a Split) – 1/4 standard bottle – 187.5 ml
- Chopine – 1/3 standard bottle – 250 ml
- Demi (also called a Half) – 1/2 standard bottle – 375 ml
(in the Loire Valley, known as a Fillette)
- Bottle (or Standard Bottle) – 750ml
- Magnum – two standard bottles – 1.5L
- Marie-Jeanne (also Dame-Jeanne) – 2.25L or 3.0L, depending on region
- Jeroboam (or Double Magnum) – 3.0L (4.5L in some regions of France)
- Rehoboam – 4.5L
- Methuselah (or Mathusalem or Imperial) – 6.0L
- Salmanazar (or Mordechai) – 9.0L
- Balthazar – 12.0L
- Nebuchadnezzar – 15.0L
- Melchior – 18.0L
- Solomon – 20.0L
- Sovereign – 25.0L
- Primat – 27.0l
- Melchizedek – 30.0l
- Murgatroyd – 50.0l
(I’ve listed all of the wine bottle sizes I could find; the ones in bold are used with champagne. I’ve excluded sizes no longer used – tenth, fifth, etc.)
Bottle sizes above jeroboam are unusual, becoming more rare as size increases. Some have claimed that any bottle larger than sovereign or solomon is mythical. This tragic story might dispel some disbelief. While Maison Drappier claims to be the only producer of bottles above jeroboam size, this is obviously not true (until perhaps very recently).
If many of the large names sound biblical, that’s because they are. The majority of them are named after old testament characters. Champagne bottlers have an odd sensibility, to which they’re entitled. The murgatroyd, however, is non-biblical. It was allegedly named in honor of John Blackburn Murgatroyd, engineer(?), inventor, glass manufacturer(?).
He developed a process for strengthening the base of glass bottles manufactured in quantity. This page shows what might be the actual patent for what became known as the murgatroyd belt, which made it possible to reliably produce a really large bottle. (If you looked at the patent: extra points if you could define a “lehr” without looking it up; but no points if you made any joke about “passing glass.”) It’s a bizarre coincidence that the name of a piece of glassmaking equipment – lehr – is so close to the name of the actor who created the phrase that begins this post.
Topping the murgatroyd in size was a unique bottle displayed in Staffordshire, England, in 1958. Filled with sherry, it held approximately 97.5L and was called an adelaide. I’ve never considered sherry particularly festive, but I hope they had a hell of a party.
A word of caution: while all of the above has been verified to the best of my ability, I was forced to rely solely on online (and non-scholarly) sources for this post. The subscription sources I wanted to use were unavailable while I was researching and composing this. Despite what I have heard in the past (and what appears on the web), I was unable to determine anything conclusive about the murgatroyd – were any such bottles ever produced, or is it a mere legend? The adelaide is also suspect: every source uses essentially the same three sentences and no photo seems to exist of this wonder. It, too, begins to drift into the mists of unproven legend.
These uncertainties make it entirely possible that some of my information is wrong. If so, I apologize for perpetuating misinformation. But…if you celebrate with a magnum or more this weekend, you probably won’t remember any of this, anyway. Cheers!