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

A bottle of champagne smashing against a ship Image copyright Alamy

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."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The Duchess of Cambridge watches a bottle of champagne smash against the 'Royal Princess' ship
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 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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