A Note on Liqueurs
by Sir Avram the Jew

This article first appeared in The Baronial Shaft, the newsletter of al-Barran, in April 1997.
Avram the Jew is also known as Michael Klein.

The worst thing about liqueurs is having to spell it. I have something of an interest in liqueur. Liqueur-making and -drinking are definitely period activities. Indeed, most liqueurs we make nowadays are closer to their medieval counterparts than are our beers and meads.

You may be asking at this point, "just what in hell is a liqueur, anyhow?" Well: a liqueur is an alcoholic beverage, generally 60-70 proof, flavored with herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, flower petals, coffee, tea, chocolate, Colonel Sanders' secret recipe, or what-have-you. A key factor is that a liqueur is sweetened, generally with sugar or honey. While some liqueurs have an alcoholic content in the vicinity of 40 proof, a few go to the other end of the spectrum: green Chartreuse is a most princely and powerful 110 proof. As a practical matter the term "cordial" is synonymous with "liqueur." It's easier to spell, too.

The alcoholic base for liqueurs is produced by distillation, which first became widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages. Alchemists employed distillation in attempts to reach their two main goals: turning base metals into gold, and creating an elixir that would prolong life. These experiments, together with efforts to create love potions, aphrodisiacs, and cures for various medical conditions, resulted in the first cordials. They were not originally designed to be particularly tasty, but human nature soon came to the rescue. Following are a few of the facts and legends concerning liqueurs with their roots in the Middle Ages.

The Chartreuse family of liqueurs (green, yellow, and a no-longer-made white) has been made for centuries by, who else, Carthusian monks at their abbey near Grenoble. We don't know just when Chartreuse was first produced, but the order has been at that location since 1084. The liqueurs were used by the monks, primarily for medicinal purposes, and were little known outside the abbey until the mid-19th century. The secret recipe for Chartreuse contains over 50 ingredients, most of them medicinal herbs. Delicious as Chartreuse is, you can taste its medicinal origins even today, in the Current Middle Ages.

Benedictine, so the story goes, was developed by a Benedictine monk (were you expecting a Franciscan, perhaps?), Dom Bernardo Vincelli, in 1510. He was seeking an elixir to treat the malarial fevers which beset the monks and peasants in the vicinity of the abbey of Fecamp. The liqueur quickly became famous, and was sampled and praised by no less than Francis I of France in 1534. While the abbey was destroyed in the French Revolution, the recipe for the liqueur was saved, thank God.

Goldwasser, from Germany, has an obvious pedigree dating back to the age of alchemists and healers. In the days when medicinal ingredients' effectiveness was rated by how expensive or disgusting they were (powdered pearls, urine from a small boy, and so on) what better medicine could there be than gold, the noblest metal? This beautiful drink has flecks of pure gold in it, and was originally designed as a delivery vehicle to get the precious metal into the human body. Chaucer mentions, in the Canterbury Tales, "Gold in phisik is a cordial." Who are we to argue with Chaucer?

In Renaissance times, it was fashionable among the nobility to employ a liqueurmaker whose job it was to produce cordials where flavor was emphasized. These tasty drinks were served at the ceremonies surrounding the signing of treaties and other pacts, and thereby became known as ratafias. Catherine de' Medici was especially known for the fine liqueurs she had served.

I'd like to related one final story concerning liqueurs in period and would ask anyone interested in recreating this event to get in touch with me. As related in the Larousse Gastronomique, in 1552 Sir Edward Kennel, commander of the English navy, threw a little party for his friends. He had a huge bowl constructed... I mean huge...into which was poured 80 barrels of brandy, over 1000 pounds of sugar, and a great deal of citrus fruit and Malaga wine. The guests were served by a ship's boy who ladled it out while afloat in a rosewood boat, cruising the Booze Sea. No boy could take it for more than a quarter of an hour, and one after another they became intoxicated from the vapors and heady fumes given off by the liqueur, and had to be replaced. Quite a recipe! Does anyone know where we could get a good deal on some rosewood? Some brandy? If you are interested in making liqueurs, I will be happy to share what little knowledge I have.

Some information on Sir Avram

More reading and references:

Medieval/Renaissance Brewing Homepage

Ian Gourdon of Glen Awe: "On behalf of the Gwyntarian Tunners Guild, the research I've done for Cordial making regarding sugar, fruit, and aqua vitae..." (archived copy)

The Theory Behind Distillation, a brief illustrated article on alchemy

Note: this link had gone bad. PERHAPS this has the same illustrations:

History of the Chartreuse Liqueurs (archived copy)