A seventeenth-century miner’s brandy recipe

A mine, print from Goossen van Vreeswijck, Cabinet der Mineralen, Amsterdam 1675
A mine, print from Goossen van Vreeswijck, Cabinet der Mineralen, Amsterdam 1675

By Marieke Hendriksen

Recently, I’ve been studying, amongst others, the works of a seventeenth-century Dutch bergwerker, freely translated a miner, or rather a mining specialist. Goossen van Vreeswijck (ca. 1626- after 1689) was an adventurous man, who worked in the Low Countries, the German lands, Sweden, England, and even in regions presently in Surinam and Canada. He published a number of works on mining and alchemy in Dutch – a unique body of work that has been given little attention by historians of chemistry so far. Although Van Vreeswijck probably did not have a university education, he was well versed in the important alchemical and mining literature of his time, as he frequently discusses and criticizes authors such as Basil Valentine and Georg Agricola. His books are clearly aimed at other Dutchmen who will have to work in mines in faraway regions; they offer all kinds of practical and technical advice regarding the establishment and operation of a mine and the subtraction and chemistry of metals.

I am primarily interested in the use of metals in early modern chemistry and medicine, yet Van Vreeswijck’s work contains so many other gems that I could not withstand sharing one of them with you here. Probably because Van Vreeswijck’s audience was likely to spend long periods away from civilization, he also included recipes for the production of staples, such as brandy. In his book De Roode Leeuw, of het Sout der Philosophen (The Red Lion, or the Salt of the Philosophers, 1672), the title of which suggests a treatise on the matter of the Tincture or the Philosoher’s Stone, Van Vreeswijck discusses a wide variety of topics, ranging from the production of saltpetre from charcoal to the explanation of dreams and the best way to make brandy. Dutch brandy was usually made from grains like wheat or rye, but, Van Vreeswijck warned, this was not such a good idea as it might induce God’s wrath. He based this admonition on Isaiah 55:2, which says:

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

Exactly why it would be a better idea to make brandy from all other kinds of fruits and vegetables, as Van Vreeswijck continues to argue, does not become entirely clear – but he seems to imply he did not find these satisfying or good to eat (fattening) as such, and brandy was seen as a necessity with medicinal qualities. It was used, amongst others, as a diuretic and purgative.

Van Vreeswijck illustrated most of his work with images he had copied from the popular emblem books of Jacob Cats - who used this image of a hand picking up grapes as an emblem of virginity, rather than  to refer to brandy.
Van Vreeswijck illustrated most of his work with images he had copied from the popular emblem books of Jacob Cats – who used this image of a hand picking up grapes as an emblem of virginity, rather than to refer to brandy. Source: Jacob Cats, Maechden-plicht, Middelburg, 1618.

The list that follows, of what can be used as a basis for brandy, is impressive: anything from grapes, apples, pears, prunes, to raspberries and cherries, even cabbage will do. As grapes can be grown in most mild climates, instructions are given on how to set up and manage a vineyard. Another benefit of using grapes for brandy was the appearance of tartar and lees as by-products, which, Van Vreeswijck points out, are used in medicine, dying, and many other crafts. Yet if grapes were not available almost any other fruit would do. The fermentation process might need some encouragement, for which yeast, sourdough, tartar, alkaline salt, wine vinegar, saltpetre, or antimony could be used. Amounts are not mentioned, as they would have depended on the kind and amount of fruit used, nor are there any specific instructions for distillation. Goossen van Vreeswijck’s brandy ‘recipe’ should thus be seen in the context of his works – a set of practical pointers for miners and others who needed to produce things they otherwise would have bought. By including some Biblical references and illustrating his work with copies of emblems from the works of the hugely popular Dutch author Jacob Cats (1577-1660), he stressed his reliability.


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