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by Caryl de Trecesson/Carol Hanson
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On Appropriate Recipes

If you wish the recipes more than the discussion, there are a selection of original recipes (before 1700 CE) on this page and my own redactions and variations on this page.

On the Period Nature of Cordials

First, we must define cordials. Let us say a cordial is a sweetened and flavored distilled alcoholic spirit (a sweetened and flavored non-distilled alcohol is hippocras; a non-sweetened but flavored distilled alcohol is gin; a non-sweetened, non-flavored distilled alcohol is vodka). Then documentation (i.e., recipes) for such are indeed very late in the SCA time period, but they do exist. There are even modern liqueurs such as Benedictine that are known to have been created before 1600.

Most recipes treat the result as a "medicine" rather than as a drink for simple enjoyment and the majority appear in sections with soaps, ointments, poultices and "wound waters" and not with the cookery recipes. There are those who say therefore the recipes were more the equivalent of cough syrups than modern liqueurs, and we should not recreate them as the latter. I don't entirely quarrel with a medicinal definition: the choice of herbs and spices used in the flavorings is certainly related to their supposed therapeutic value. But there is a long history of humanity enjoying "tonics" and "medicinal compounds" sold as medicines but truly taken for their flavor and alcoholic content. Even today, many Europeans view a glass of schnapps as a "digestive" rather than as just an "after-dinner drink." Nicolas Culpeper in the chapter on "Compounds, Spirit and Compound Distilled Waters" in his Complete Herbal(1653) writes of such use:

Culpeper : Before I begin these, I thought good to premise a few words. They are all hot in operation, and therefore not to be meddled with by people of hot constitutions when they are in health, for fear of fevers and adustion of blood, but for people of cold constitutions, as melancholy and flegmatic people. If they drink of them moderately now and then for recreation, due consideration being had to the part of the body which is weakest, they may do them good: yet in diseases of melancholy, neither strong waters nor sack is to be drank, for they make the humour thin, and then up to the head it flies, where it fills the brain with foolish and fearful imaginations.

2. Let all young people forbear them whilst they are in health, for their blood is usually hot enough without them.

3. Have regard to the season of the year, so shall you find them more beneficial in Summer than in Winter, because in summer the body is always coldest within, and digestion weakest, and that is the reason why men and women eat less in Summer than in Winter.

Thus much for people in health, which drink strong waters for recreation.

The popularity of these recipes was such that when Thomas Dawson's The Second Part of the Good Hus-wives Jewell was published in 1597, the title page promised "Where is to be found most apt and readiest wayes to distill many wholsome and sweet waters" when in fact that book contains nothing of the sort.

On the Use of Sugar

The majority of early cordial recipes don't mention any sweetening agents at all. The resulting liqueurs are therefore more in the nature of a flavored brandy or schnapps than what we usually think of as a cordial. But there are exceptions...

"...and maketh fat folk to becom leane, or maketh fat the leane, if they drink it mixt with sugar." (1564?)
"...This water sweetened with sugar candy and drunk..." (1651)

In these examples the sugar isn't originally part of the liqueur but seems to be considered a common addition. Both of these cordials start with flavored wine (the second adds additional flavorings after distillation) and the sugar is added to a final distilled liqueur.

"...then draw out the spirit, and sweeten it with sugar. (1653)
"...strain them gently out and sweeten the water as you please with fine sugar; or else with perfume." (1655?)

I do not recommend the perfume. But in these cases the sweetening is done after the maceration/distillation and is left to the discretion of the cordial maker rather than the drinker.

"...to every pinte of water, you must put 2 ounces of white sugar candie..." (1550-1625?)
"...& halfe a pound of white sugar,..." (1550-1625?)
"...then take Suger minced,..." (1596)
"..., Suger a pound, ..." (1596)
"...adding thereto Cinnamon, Cloues, Maces, Ginger, Nutmegs, Sugar, ..." (1597)
"..., white sugar cany one pound, ..." (1609)
"Take of sugar candid, one pound; ..." (1651)
"Take of Sugar Candy a pound... (1653)
", sugar 1 pound,..." (1655?)

In all of these a quantity of sugar is added in the initial creation of the cordial. In all but one, the cordial base is a distilled spirit and not wine.

On the Type of Base

There are two methods for making cordials in early recipes. One has flavorings added to wine and the flavored liquid is then distilled. The other has flavorings added to "spirits of wine" or "aqua vita" and the liquid may or may not be distilled again. Since distillation is illegal in the United States without prohibitively expensive licensing and regulation, we must use the second method without a second distillation.

Initial research suggested that the distillation process in this period was not efficient enough to remove all flavorings from the wine base, so the distilled liquor would have been more like a brandy than otherwise. Alexis Lichine's Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967) states that a first distillation of wine in a pot-still results in a liquor of about 25% alcohol and a second distillation could get to 60-70% alcohol. Armagnac brandy uses continuous distillation from white wines and is about 52%-60% percent alcohol when first distilled (Armagnac Castarede, http://www.armagnac-castarede.fr/anglais/cepage.htm). Cognac is double-distilled and is 28-32% alcohol after the first and no more than 72% alcohol after the second (Bureau National Interprofesionnel du Cognac, http://www.cognac.fr/web_bnic_en/htm/cognac_elabo_distill_detail.htm). Brandy is then generally diluted to 40% alcohol for distribution. Modern vodka is multiply distilled to over 90% alcohol before being diluted to about 40-50% alcohol.

Further research finds that repeated multiple distillations were both known and used in period times so that they really could have achieved an unflavored liquor more like vodka. Now the question becomes: is it appropriate for cordials?

Vodka is certainly not appropriate for those recipes that add their flavorings to wine since those end with a single distillation. These are flavored brandies where some of the original grape must remain. They would also result in a fairly low alcohol level (20-30%). Even if a brandy is used, I'd strongly consider diluting it either before or after flavoring. Note that if you use a sugar syrup for sweetening instead of plain sugar, then there will be some dilution from the water in the syrup.

But recipes that start with a distilled liquor are more problematic. Most liquors are lower in alcohol content than even a second distillation of wine (100 proof vs. 120-140 proof) so if the early recipes are using a non-diluted multiple distillation, then the higher proof vodkas are closer. Also, brandy has additional flavors and color of the tannin from the oak barrels in which it's been aged for 2 or more years (a plus for brandy connossieurs, but a minus for period cordial-makers). Are there other alternatives?

Recently, I've made cordials using "grappa" which is an Italian liquor classified as a brandy because it's distilled from a grape base. It's actually distilled from the leftover residue from wine-making: grape pomace, skins, stems, and seeds, though the best grappas use residue with 30-40% wine or juice left in the grapes. Grappas are only aged from 6 months (minimum required by Italian law) to 1 year in glass or stainless steel. There are some aged in wooden barrels but these are easily distinguished by having a golden color, like a light-colored brandy, whereas most grappas are clear. Grappas are about 40-50% alcohol as sold (I haven't been able to confirm their original proof after distillation), or about the same proof as a standard vodka. Unfortunately, the grappas imported by American stores tend to be the better sort and run about $35-$40 a liter.

The French also make a "marc" or "pomace brandy" from leftover grape residue that's usually unaged; I'm not sure of the alcohol content. There's a Central and South American grape brandy called "pisco" that is usually not aged in wood and runs from 30-50% alcohol. There's another grape brandy which is made in both South America ("aguardiente") and Portugal ("aguardente"), is 30-40% alcohol, also occasionally aged in wood, and sometimes even flavored with anise. In the USA, there's a clear brandy made by Christian Brothers called "Frost White" which is 35% alcohol, not aged in wood, and has been recommended by several SCA cordiallers. There's also the Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon which makes both a grappa and a marc brandy. Each of these can be difficult to find.

And lastly, there is one recipe I've found (1596: "To make Aqua composita for a surset.") which uses "mightie strong Ale" as its base before distillation. So there is documentation for using a grain-based whiskey instead of a grape-based brandy. (Though the 1651 recipe for "USQUE - BATH OR IRISH AQUA VITAE" is not a whiskey!)

On the Heat of Distillation

It has been pointed out to me that there is an additional difference in modern versus period cordial-making. The heat of distillation would not only affect the amount of flavor extracted from a wine-based cordial, but might also affect the proportion of flavors since heat more easily extracts flavors from some herbs and spices (both form and variety) than from others.

I noted earlier that a single distillation of wine or ale would result in a spirit of lower proof than most vodkas, brandies, or whiskeys. So heating a redacted cordial based on one of the single distillation recipes would be very appropriate: it would mimic the heat of distillation and also reduce the proof as some of the alcohol evaporates. (Using a sugar syrup instead of plain sugar for sweetening is another way of reducing the proof to a more accurate level.)

On the Tools of Cordial-Making

Make sure all of your equipment is clean, without any soap or bleach residue, and reasonably sterile. You'll need a covered glass container of appropriate size for your batch. One with a tight-fitting top is preferable, especially if you want to shake up the ingredients now and then. You'll need another glass container of the same or larger size to strain the cordial into after flavoring, and permanent glass or ceramic containers in which to store the results. I tend not to trust corks, so I look for glass bottles with the metal wire & rubber seal tops (try specialty or discount stores: look for gourmet sauces and imported beverages).

For straining the cordial there are multiple options. Cheesecloth is traditional, and good for squeezing the liquid out of fruits, but it lets a lot of material through. Some people use muslin or linen, which might be better. Coffee filters have the opposite problem: they let nothing through and clog up quickly. You'll go through a lot of them unless the cordial is only flavored with hard spices. Paper coffee filters also have a tendency to break open just as you've almost finished and so the whole batch needs to be re-filtered. I'm currently having good results with a nylon-lined "permanent" coffee filter. It needs to be rinsed out often, but doesn't break and can be run through the dishwasher for cleaning. It doesn't seem quite as fine as a paper filter so I do a second filtering with doubled unbleached paper filters after. Most cordials should be filtered at least twice. If you see sediment in the final product after it's been sitting a few days, decant the clear liquid out and filter that again.

For sugar, I use either normal white granulated sugar or a mixture of half white sugar and half raw cane sugar. Brown sugar has molasses added and isn't appropriate. If your cordial wasn't made with sugar but you want it sweetened, either add sugar directly to the final result or add a syrup. For adding directly, "superfine" or "bartenders" sugar supposedly dissolves more easily than regular granulated sugar but I find it sometimes makes the cordial less clear. Sugar or "simple" syrups are made by heating granulated sugar in water until the water clears and the sugar has dissolved, being careful not to burn or caramelize the sugar. This can be stored in the refrigerator in a sealed jar without the sugar precipitating out of the solution. There are three common proportions: 1 part water to 1 part sugar makes a light syrup (which will significantly dilute your cordial), 1 part water to 2 part sugar makes a medium syrup, and 1 part water to 3 parts sugar makes a heavy syrup. I always use a medium strength syrup.

With their relatively high alcohol level, cordials last indefinitely but should be stored away from sunlight and heat. They're usually at their best flavor when aged for about one month but no more than a year old.


Original recipes (before 1700 CE) are on this page and my own redactions and variations on this page.

Further Reading

Stefan's Florilegium: Cordials

LIQUEURS and CORDIALS from Marc Shapiro's Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages, Compleat Anachronist #60.

Cordial Making
From the Gwyntarian Tunners Guild

Basic Brewing: Introduction to Meads, Wines, Beers, Cordials, and Exotics
By Lord Tadhg macAedain uiChonchobhair, University of Atlantia.

Precious Waters: A miscellany of early cordials
Forester Nigel FitzMaurice (Bruce Gordon)

SCA_Brew Historic Brewing Page

The Medieval/Renaissance Brewing Home Page

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text copyright 2002, 2004 by Carol Hanson (e-mail)

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