“It looked like your average, everyday old wine bottle,” Aaron Mahnke says in “Bottled Up,” the Oct. 26 episode of Lore, his podcast devoted to all things spooky, macabre and mysterious. “But the contents were anyone’s guess.” And just like that, Mahnke brought new life to a stomach-turning tale of a very old wine bottle, a popular British TV series and literal brass tacks. But what, exactly, is the story behind this revived mystery?
In a 2016 episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, the show’s glass specialist and mainstay appraiser Andy McConnell was asked to put a price on a dark and presumably very old wine bottle, discovered underground (and upside down) on its owner’s property. McConnell estimated the bottle’s value at about $135. But the question remained: What was inside?
McConnell was working on the assumption that the presumably typical 19th-century wine bottle in fact contained wine. He even proposed that it might be Port, owing to the bottle's shape and then-recent discoveries of fantastically old bottles of the fortified wine. But fortune (supposedly) favors the bold, and there was no better way to tell what secrets the bottle held than to—yes—taste it.
“What an opportunity! To have a crack at it,” said McConnell. “We drew this bloody sludge out on camera. It was brilliant.” Using a syringe (medical staff are on-hand during production), McConnell extracted a droplet and, placing it on his finger, tasted it. “I think it’s Port,” he declared in the episode. “It’s Port or red wine. It’s one or the other. Or it’s full of rusty old nails and that’s rust.” Having performed his appraisal, McConnell could be forgiven for thinking he'd put the bottle in the past. Alas, some curses are destined to be revisited ….
After the TV show aired, Loughborough University chemist Dr. Alan Massey took the initiative to run an analysis of the bottle’s contents. And in 2019, McConnell, the mystery bottle and its owner met on Antiques Roadshow again at the National Botanic Garden of Wales, where the show’s host, Fiona Bruce, revealed the full extent of what lie inside the bottle: a handful of brass pins, a human hair, a small crustacean, a bit of alcohol and … a hearty glug of human urine. As Bruce explained, it wasn’t a bottle of wine at all, but rather a “witch’s bottle,” a folk-magic artifact intended to protect against supernatural forces of evil.
These witch bottles are well-documented in British and American history, going back hundreds of years. Dr. Massey’s report didn’t indicate if the alcohol in this particular bottle could be attributed to wine, but red wine is often indicated as an ingredient, at least in modern “recipes,” along with rosemary and other enchanting foodstuffs (plus a number of inedible items). “They represented an acceptable form of magic known as ‘counterspells,’” Mahnke reports on Lore, “used by fearful townsfolk to ward off the evil influence of the witches who threatened their existence.”
Despite their unusual contents, witch bottles aren’t the most unusual of folk-magic finds. They’re occasionally dug up in yards or found behind walls (hiding them is vital for their magic to work). Less common, however, is for someone to give them a taste, let alone to do so twice. After the cameras stopped rolling on the 2019 episode, McConnell jokingly held the bottle to his lips. “What I didn’t know,” McConnell shared, “was the bloody cork was loose!” The cork fell out, giving McConnell an even bigger second taste. “It was absolutely foul,” he said, “It was totally ghastly. It was utterly unpalatable. And the worst thing about it was the smell. It stank!”
“Sometimes, what lies within is entirely unexpected,” Mahnke says on “Bottled Up.” From one perspective, it’s an exciting sentiment that’s not entirely foreign to McConnell, who looks somewhat fondly on the saga as a “warm, great story.” He even indicated that if another mysterious bottle were brought to Antiques Roadshow in the future, he would do it all again. Of course, it seems unlikely that his opinion of this particular drink will change. “It’s a charming artifact from a bygone age,” McConnell said. “I’m just sorry that I had to swig it.”
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