Who, what, why: Why is champagne traditional for smashing on ships?

  • 4 July 2014
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A bottle of champagne smashing against a ship

The Queen will smash a bottle of whisky on the hull of the new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in a break from the traditional champagne. But how did champagne become the tradition, asks Lucy Townsend.

When Queen Victoria launched HMS Royal Arthur in 1891 she smashed a bottle of champagne against it. It is believed to be one of the first instances of the drink being used in this way.

"It was a very prestigious warship with a royal name so champagne would have seemed fitting, it's a celebratory drink, but before that it had been the tradition to use [other] wine," says John Graves, curator of ship history at the National Maritime Museum.

Launching a ship has always been accompanied by ceremony. The Babylonians would sacrifice oxen, while the Vikings sacrificed a slave to propitiate their sea god.

Wine became customary in England in the 15th Century when a representative of the king would drink a goblet of wine, sprinkle wine on the deck and then throw the goblet overboard.

"It would have been much cheaper to smash a bottle," Graves adds.

"In the 18th Century the Royal Navy launched so many ships that throwing a silver goblet overboard each time would have become very expensive - so they started using bottles.

"It's quite a clear progression. The red of the wine would have looked a bit like the blood from earlier centuries, and the move to champagne would have been all about the celebration - champagne is the aristocrat of wines."

The Duchess of Cambridge watches a bottle of champagne smash against the Royal Princess ship
The Duchess of Cambridge watches a bottle of champagne smash against the 'Royal Princess' ship
Mrs Leif Egeland, wife of the South African High Commissioner, smashes a bottle against the Intermediate Class liner MV 'Bloemfontein Castle' at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast
Mrs Leif Egeland, wife of the South African High Commissioner, breaks a bottle against the Intermediate Class liner MV 'Bloemfontein Castle' at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast
A boy prepares to smash a bottle against his boat
This is probably not champagne

In the US, whiskey has been used in the past - the USS Princeton and the USS Raritan were launched using whiskey in the 1845 and 43.

In 1797 the captain of the frigate USS Constitution broke a bottle of madeira wine to mark her launch, while in 1862, Commodore Charles Stewart christened the New Ironsides in Philadelphia by smashing a bottle of brandy over her bow.

"During prohibition water was used in the US to launch a ship," Graves adds. "It would be water from the sea the vessel was to be launched into."

But champagne is now the drink smashed against most ships - though Graves adds that there may be a better alternative.

"I have been told by many ship builders that cheap cava creates a more spectacular display - it's much bubblier that champagne."

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