Q: Why does a wine critic say a Bordeaux “drinks well”? A food critic wouldn’t say the carpaccio “eats well.” Does this usage have a history or is it just recent jargon?
A: Yes, the usage has a history—a long history!
The verb “drink” has been used intransitively (that is, without an object) since the early 1600s to mean “have a specified flavour when drunk,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
All six examples of the usage in the OED refer to wine, though one of the wines is made from fermented plantains, not grapes.
The earliest Oxford citation is from A Woman Kilde With Kindnesse, a play by Thomas Heywood that was first performed in 1603 and published in 1607:
“Another sipped to give the wine his due / And saide unto the rest it drunke too flat.” (We’ve gone to the original text to expand on the dictionary’s citation.)
And here’s an 18th-century example from John Armstrong’s Sketches or Essays on Various Subjects (1758): “The Burgundy drinks as flat as Port.”
The dictionary’s most recent citation is from the May 23, 1969, issue of the Guardian: “Every one of these wines will drink well now: most of them will improve by keeping.”
This use of “drink” is often referred to as “mediopassive,” a middle voice somewhere in between active and passive. In a post last year, we discussed mediopassives like “My new silk blouse washes beautifully” … “Your house will sell in a week” … “The car drives smoothly.” A friend recently sent us her favorite example: “That dress buttons up the back.”
Why, you ask, is this usage common among wine critics, but not other food critics?
The OED suggests that it may have been influenced by the passive use of se boire (the reflexive form of the French verb “drink”).
Other than that, we don’t know. Some questions can’t be answered. That’s one reason why etymology is so fascinating. Let’s drink to that.
The verb “drink” itself is of Germanic origin (drincan in Old English, drinkan in Old Saxon, trinkan or trinchan in Old High German, drekka, in Old Norse, and so on).
When the verb showed up in Old English around the year 1000, it was transitive (a transitive verb needs an object to make sense). It meant “to swallow down, imbibe, quaff” a liquid, according to the OED.
Oxford’s first example of the usage is from the Book of Luke in the West Saxon Gospels: He ne drinco win ne beor. (He drinks neither wine nor beer.)
We’ll end by returning to the usage you asked about. Here’s a poetic example from The Compleat Imbiber: An Entertainment (1967), by the wine and food writer Cyril Ray: “I sipped the wine, which drank like velvet.”
[Update, Feb. 13, 2015. A retired English teacher writes: “I was reminded of an old rural Alabama saying, circa 1940-’50, used by cooks who may have overcooked, over salted, or otherwise prepared food not up to their usual standards, but needed to serve said food anyway. ‘This will eat,’ or ‘It’ll eat,’ was used in those cases as a slight apology for the less than perfect dish.” We can think of another example, the advertising slogan for Campbell’s Chunky Soup: “The soup that eats like a meal.”]