In praise of the humble half-bottle

Why is a half-bottle of wine is a whole lot of fun? Jonathan Wells investigates the big deal with these little bottles...

(Words by)
Jonathan Wells

Never do things by halves — or so they say. But I’d have to disagree. Because a half-bottle of wine is a whole lot of fun. 

And I’m not the only person who thinks so. Last year, Nielsen dug up data that proves half-bottles have been soaring in popularity. October alone saw a 45.5% increase in sales. Since 2018, supermarkets have been steadily stocking more and more wines in these smaller-scale bottles. And George Clements, founder of London-based wine merchant The Magnum Company, even bowed to drinkers’ demands earlier this year when he established The Half Bottle Company. 

So what’s the big deal about these little bottles? Some believe that, since lockdown, we’re more comfortable drinking alone and therefore want ‘bottles for one’. Others think it shows the generational shift towards drinking less. For me, though, it’s all about the feel of a half-bottle. If you’ve ever held one in your hands, you’ll know what I mean. They’re delicately designed and perfectly weighted. They’re 375-millilitre measures of full-bodied, well-balanced happiness — at once delightfully dainty and dangerously easy to put away. 

But, because of this smaller size, you’ll never be hit with a hangover. Rather, these compact options will ease you into a sweet spot; the same slightly-buzzed, world-conquering state we achieve, enjoy — and usually overshoot. That won’t happen with a half-bottle. There’s no chance for overindulgence; no risk that you’ll be tricked or tempted into one glass too many. 

In fact, there’s no grandstanding, gloating or showboating with these bijou bottles whatsoever — and certainly none of the self-righteous, biblical bombast that comes with larger formats (the 4.5-litre Jeroboam, 6-litre Methuselah, 9-litre Salmanazar and 12-litre Balthazar bottle sizes are all named after ancient kings of Israel).

Plus, who’s got the time to order 15 litres of wine? You could see off a whole half-bottle faster than you could even say ‘Nebuchadnezzar’. Instead, like a spade is a spade, a half is a half. It’s an honest, does-what-it-says-on-its-little-label type of wine. Some call them ‘demi’ bottles, but that’s just the French calling un chat un chat. Others call them ‘splits’ (a term that can also be used for quarter bottles). And that they are: the ideal size to split over dinner or with a friend. 

"They’re 375-millilitre measures of full-bodied, well-balanced happiness..."

Champagne especially benefits from the half-size treatment. If you’ve got a full bottle of Lanson or Billecart-Salmon bubbling away in the fridge, no number of spoons stuffed into its neck will save the fizz from escaping. With a half-bottle, however, that’ll never be an issue — because who can’t see off a split? 

Just ask Churchill. A man who famously didn’t do anything by halves, Winnie’s penchant for champagne half-bottles was up there with his love of cigars and siren suits. When he wasn’t having a brandy-soaked breakfast or sinking endless scotch and sodas, our ex-Prime Minister was popping small-scale bottles of his prized Pol Roger by the boxful. He’d decant them into chilled silver tankards and drink up alongside lunch. 

During his lifetime, Churchill went through an estimated 42,000 bottles from the French brand (in fact, in 1908 alone, the politician’s financial records show he bought seven-dozen half-bottles of Pol Roger 1895, plus four-dozen half-bottles of Pol Roger 1900). 

But, while there are few such ardent ambassadors for the half-bottle still swigging, the stats clearly show a return to cork-popping popularity for the half-bottle. And it’s about time. Even in practical terms, they’re perfectly pocket-sized; which makes them ideal for al fresco park partying or smuggling into a venue. They’re small enough to sit on your table in a restaurant rather than perch precariously in one of those wobbly wine buckets. And, if you converted your entire collection to half-bottles today, it would immediately double in size, double in scope and make you feel like a giant in your own well-stocked wine cellar. 

Of course, there are some downsides to downscaling. In a smaller bottle, wine ages at speed. A big tannic red, for example, would need quaffing quickly. But something like a Berry Bros & Rudd Good Ordinary Claret — delicate of nature and dependably delicious — will stay happy in a half-bottle for plenty of time. Plus, at just £6.95 a pop, you’d be a fool not to pick up a couple of these bargain bottles. 

And that’s the last benefit of a ‘demi’. With prices halved, or near enough, you’ll finally be able to try every upmarket vintage vino you’ve ever dreamed of decanting. See? Doing things by halves never felt so good.

In praise of the humble half-bottle

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In praise of the humble half-bottle

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