English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

I'm reading The Four Feathers by A.E.W.Mason, it contains a reference to a beverage consumed by one of the characters:-

It would have been strange, after all, he thought, if he had not been able to hoodwink poor old Durrance; and he returned to the smoking room and refreshed himself with a whisky and potass.

This drink also features in other books; here, for instance.

Searching for potass turned up no matches, but references to potash and potassium, neither of which (I would have thought) would be desirable ingredients in a cocktail.

So, what is potass?

share|improve this question
2  
Just a quick net search and I find it is older pharmaceutical nomenclature for potash/ potassium, as you mention. See dictionary.reference.com/browse/potass and en.wiktionary.org/wiki/potass for examples. – cobaltduck Feb 8 at 16:37
    
@cobaltduck, I didn't turn up either of those references. Grrr. I suppose it is the potassium analogue to whisky and soda (still not sure why you want that in your whisky, though). – Brian Hooper Feb 8 at 16:43
2  
On digging deeper, it seems like it might be, more specifically, one of the various salts of potassium, possibly potassium chlorate or carbonate. These have been used as disinfectants, diuretics, and even in the making of some spirits. I can't find a hard reference, though. – cobaltduck Feb 8 at 16:48
1  
I actually encountered a "low sodium club soda" which was, essentially, potass, i.e. carbonated water with potassium bicarbonate added. (Regular club soda is carbonated water with sodium bicarbonate added.) – Marthaª Feb 8 at 17:18
10  
It's basically a whiskey-and-soda: "Seltzer water and club soda are very similar, but there is a notable difference between the two. Unlike seltzer, mineral-like ingredients are added to club soda to enhance the flavor. If you look on the list of ingredients, you'll likely see potassium bicarbonate and potassium sulfate listed." --Huffington Post – StoneyB Feb 8 at 17:26
up vote 14 down vote accepted

The Oxford English Dictionary has potass from potash:

An alkaline substance obtained originally by lixiviating or leaching the ashes of terrestrial vegetables and evaporating the solution in large iron pans or pots (whence the name). Chemically, this is a crude form of potassium carbonate (more or less mixed with sulphate, chloride, and empyreumatic substances), but was long thought to be (when freed from impurities) a simple substance.

And further defines it as:

Used also to include the impure carbonate of soda, barilla. [Obscure]

barilla is defined as:

An impure alkali produced by burning the dried [maritime plant barilla (Salsola Soda) which grows extensively in Spain, Sicily, and the Canary Islands] and allied species; formerly imported in large quantities, and used in the manufacture of soda [...]

Emphasis mine.

So it's basically an old-time crude form of soda.

So he's having a (probably, by modern standards, quite disgusting and strong) whisky and soda.

The point the author might be making is it's not a lady's drink. But something a real man would drink to "refresh" himself. Perhaps with some intended irony.

share|improve this answer

As indicated by @RobSter, Potass/Potass water/Kali potass was an sparkling acid beverage composed of water and nitrate salts, supposed to have medicinal virtues.

enter image description here

Source: The new London dispensatory, containing a treaty of the Pharmacopœia by Thomas Cox - 1824.

share|improve this answer
1  
@anemone - Your remark is relevant. The potass water proposed as a drink may be similar to a Selzer water where the sodium bicarbonate is replaced by potassium bicarbonate. – Graffito Feb 8 at 22:23

The spelling of "whisky" sent me looking toward Britain. From the Aesclepiad Advertiser, 1891, comes this advert from a firm of beverage bottlers in Croydon:

enter image description here

I suppose one could mix it with whisky. It seems to be a brutal thing to do to good whiskey, though.

It's said that a certain Kentucky gentleman was asked why he always closed his eyes when drinking a mint julep. "Suh," he replied, "the sight of good liquor makes mah mouth water, and ah don't intend fo' mah drink to be diluted..."

share|improve this answer
    
+1, nice find fitting the context. – Mast Feb 8 at 21:20

I believe, due to an affection for British Victorian-era fiction, that this is a "period" allusion to mixing a drink by using an old-fashioned "soda siphon;" not the current style of seltzer-bottle that is recharged using pressurized cylinders of carbon dioxide. Potassium bicarbonate---"potass"---and an acetic agent combined with water in the wire-reinforced "carboy" or bottle and provided the "fizz."

The chap had a "whisky and soda," in other words. (Cheers!)

At a time when taking one's liquor at room temperature was normal, putting a bit of fizz (and, probably, a slight "tang" in the water, from the acetic agent used to generate the bubbles of gas) in one's liquor was the "sophisticated" way to have a "mixed drink."

share|improve this answer

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.