Never mind a Cosmopolitan, how about some Horlicks?

The sophisticated drink of the moment has more to do with bedtime than Sex and the City-style nightlife. Terry Kirby salutes the return of a soporific stalwart
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The Independent Online

Picture the scene: it is late in one of central London's more fashionable watering holes, haunt of celebrities and showbusiness types, plus the odd Big Brother contestant. In one corner of the gleaming bar, a clutch of models surround a pair of Premiership footballers, all drinking expensive Roederer Cristal champagne.

Picture the scene: it is late in one of central London's more fashionable watering holes, haunt of celebrities and showbusiness types, plus the odd Big Brother contestant. In one corner of the gleaming bar, a clutch of models surround a pair of Premiership footballers, all drinking expensive Roederer Cristal champagne.

Finding the bottle empty, one of the footballers - he's wearing lots of jewellery and a Gucci suit - leans across the bar to order another. "Not for me,'' says his friend. "I'm training tomorrow and need to chill out tonight. I'll have a Horlicks instead.''

Is this request greeted with shock and horror by the rest of the crowd? Is this a 21st-century equivalent of the famous H M Bateman cartoon, The Girl Who Ordered a Glass of Milk at The Café Royal, in which a young woman's non-alcoholic request sparks ridicule all round?

In fact, it is greeted with equanimity. "Good idea,'' says the other footballer. "Think I'll join you. I need a decent kip.'' And with that, both are soon sipping steaming cups of a malt and wheat milky drink, brewed to a largely unchanged recipe for 130 years, that began as a drink for babies. Ridiculous? You may think so. But Horlicks, they say, is back.

According to several London hotspots, it is the late-night tipple of choice for a large number of the capital's beau monde.

How different it used to be. Horlicks was up there with Ovaltine and Bovril as the epitome of a certain type of unbearably suburban, unfashionable, pipe-and-slippers cosiness. It was, however old you were, something you remembered your parents drinking, usually while listening to the Home Service on the wireless or watching The Epilogue on a black-and-white television set. It was something kept at the back of the kitchen cupboard and reserved for the elderly or the invalid, something you probably thought they stopped making in the late Sixties.

True, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, appeared to be doing his bit to breathe new life into the brand last year when he described one of the Government's much maligned dossiers on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, as "a complete Horlicks''. (The expression originated in the 1930s as an alternative exclamation to "bollocks", in much the same way that some people say "sugar" instead of "shit").

But it is hardly something that you would expect to find on sale in London's hipper venues, such as the Groucho Club or Soho House (both private members' clubs and media hangouts) or the Zetter Hotel, the recently opened hotel in fashionable Clerkenwell, voted one of the top 50 hip hotels in the world by Conde Nast Traveller.

But, like bucket and spade holidays, what was once way out is now well in. At such places, Horlicks is being offered as an aid to getting a "better quality of sleep" in our overworked, Red Bull-fuelled frantic lifestyles.

Dougal Spratt, the restaurant manager of the Zetter, says that the hotel is a modern design in an area full of heritage, adding: "Horlicks fits with our ethos of mixing old and new. A soothing mug of Horlicks helps our guests unwind after a stressful day.'' Horlicks is available in the bar, in bedrooms and on room service.

Guy Halliday, bar manager of the Groucho, where Horlicks is available from both the bar and room service, says: "When you sleep as little as we do, anything to improve the quality of those few hours is a major bonus. We've used Horlicks for years - the chef has even used it to make ice-cream." Apparently, Colin Farrell, the Irish actor, was recently overhead ordering a Horlicks in the Groucho.

Horlicks is also on the bar menu at the Rivington Grill in hip Shoreditch, which specialises in modern British food. "Horlicks offers the 'comfort' factor to after-dinner drinking that many have associated with our food."

At the Embassy Club, haunt of footballers and celebrities, it is now on the menu in the Private Members' Bar. Mark Fuller, the restaurateur, says: "I'm glad Horlicks is fashionable again.''

Much of this market is, of course, a particularly clever sort of product placement which has been created at the instigation of Horlicks themselves, anxious to explore fresh ways of expanding their core of consumers, preferably in that Holy Grail of advertising, the "young and funky" generation.

Angela Wilson, senior brand manager for Horlicks, admits as much. "Horlicks is an iconic British brand that is very relevant for modern society so we thought it appropriate that we should be offering it in contemporary venues. Horlicks is a perfect way to unwind and relax after partying the night away and can help anyone get a good night's sleep."

If you think Horlicks isn't a very catchy name, at least it has a comforting ring. Try getting warm and sleepy with a cup of Diastoid. It sounds more like a something you smear on a nasty boil, but Diastoid was the name originally given to the drink in the 1870s by the immigrant brothers William and James Horlick.

Originally from the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, William Horlicks gave up his job as a saddlemaker, his father's trade, and sought a new life in the New World, where he went to work in a Chicago quarry run by a cousin in 1869. Four years later, his younger brother James, a pharmacist who had been apprenticed to a baby-food company in England, arrived with an idea intended to capitalise on the area's growing dairy industry. This was Diastoid, a nutritional supplement for children made from wheat flour and malted barley, which was then mixed with milk and water.

Their product was an instant success and two years later the Horlick brothers had their own factory in Racine, Wisconsin, chosen because of its abundant spring water. By the early 1880s they had made the critical leap and developed and patented a method for mixing the malted barley and wheat with whole milk and turning it into a powder by evaporation; this was then mixed with water. The new drink was named Horlicks.

Doctors endorsed it for babies and patients with digestive problems, while its sweet taste led to use in cakes and confectionery. It was also soon being sold in tablet form. By 1890, James had returned to England, where he began to import his product to a grateful nation; by 1908 a British factory had been built at Slough, the first of many around the world.

Horlicks soon found its way into many corners of life. As a lightweight, non-perishable, high-calorie food supplement, it was highly suitable for emergency packs. Polar explorers began taking it on expeditions and Richard Byrd even named the Horlicks Mountains on the Ross Ice Shelf in honour of the company's $30,000 sponsorship. The First World War saw it endorsed as a nutritional drink at home and on the front. In 1921, James, by now a baronet, died and the company split. William remained in charge in the Americas, by now developing a slightly different market based around soda fountains. The sons of James retained control in the rest of the world, with Horlicks increasingly being regarded as synonymous with a soothing night-time relaxant.

The two companies eventually reunited in 1945 and Horlicks has gone on to become a global brand, first as part of the Beecham group and, since 2001, part of the British-based multinational GlaxoSmithKline. Around 1,000 million servings are made each year and although the basic formula remains the same, there are some regional variations. In the Philippines it is sold as a sweet in packets of chocolate-flavoured discs, while in India, the world's largest consumer of Horlicks since 1975, it is made with buffalo milk. In the United Kingdom it remains the biggest seller in what, in marketing speak, is called the HMD (Hot Milky Drink) sector, with sales rising at around 8 per cent a year. There's now a chocolate version, to add to the instant, with water, and original, with milk, versions.

Production at Racine ceased in 1975. But earlier this year the local museum staged an exhibition featuring photographs and artefacts from the era - including some of the first electric drinks mixers, US Navy ration tins of Horlicks and a wrapper from the 1920s containing an endorsement from Polar explorer Roald Amundsen. David Driscoll, an industrial historian and curator of the exhibition, admits surprise at the drink's newfound fashionability: "I know in Asia they've made efforts to re-brand Horlicks recently, but I'm surprised at it still being successful in England. Then again, it's amazing what marketing companies are capable of nowadays."

Actually, it isn't such a mad idea after all. In the 1930s, as the photograph on this page shows, footballers were being encouraged to enjoy a healthy mug of Horlicks after their training sessions. But presumably not to wash down the Roederer Cristal.


In the bad old days, doctors used to dish out Mogadon sleeping tablets like sweets. That was before anyone knew that they were addictive. But sleeping tablets are out and "sleep hygiene" is in.

If you ask any self-respecting doctor what to do about insomnia, you will be told to improve your sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene involves lots of preparatory rituals before getting into bed. You must make sure the room is comfortably warm and dark, and not drink coffee or tea in the evening. Another suggestion is to have a light carbohydrate snack before bedtime as a way of making sure blood sugar levels are high enough, giving a sense of well-being.

One of the most important rules is to make sure that you are warm, de-stressed and relaxed. And this is where Horlicks comes into its own. Horlicks may not be very sexy, but it's warm, it's milky, it's got plenty of sugar in it - about 19.6g in a cupful (roughly the same as five teaspoons of sugar) - packing the same calorific content (186 calories) as a Cadbury's Creme Egg.

It is easy to digest, and doesn't contain any stimulants like caffeine or nicotine. It is made of wheat flour, malted barley, dried skimmed milk, two types of sugar, and 20 other ingredients, including hydrogenated vegetable fat, salt, a variety of vitamins, and zinc oxide.

Scientific studies into whether Horlicks makes you sleep better are notoriously difficult to perform. In the 1970s, one study compared a cup of Horlicks with a yellow capsule that contained sugar. People who drank Horlicks slept a bit better than those who took the capsule, but it could be that those who took the capsule were worrying about what they had just swallowed.

GlaxoSmithKline tells inquiring customers, with a surprising degree of honesty: "While ... research indicates that Horlicks drinks can help you to sleep better, the exact way in which Horlicks works is not clear."

Dr Fred Kavalier