Tag Archives: alcohol

Tales from the Archives: DISTILLING THE ESSENCE OF HEAVEN: HOW ALCOHOL COULD DEFEAT THE ANTICHRIST

In September 2016, The Recipes Project celebrated its fourth birthday. We now have over 500 posts in our archives and over 120 pages for readers to sift through. That’s a lot of material! (And thank you so much to our contributors for sharing such a wealth of knowledge on recipes.) But with so much material on the site, it’s easy for earlier pieces to be forgotten. So, the editors have decided that, every now and then, we’ll pull something out of the archives to share with our readers anew.

This month I’d like to share a 2013 post by Tillmann Taape.  In this timely post, as we all recover from a bit of holiday indulgence, Taape discusses how some early modern people believed in the health-giving properties of alcohol — and that it could help to purify both body and soul.  We hope that you enjoy this latest installment from our Recipes Project Archives, and if you have any posts that you’d like for us to revisit, please send in your nominations
AH (editor)

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by Tillmann Taape

In a previous post, I introduced Hieronymus Brunschwig’s Small book of distillation and considered how it presented medical knowledge. Here, I explore how Brunschwig’s reading of alchemical ideas shaped his concept of distilled remedies.

Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strassburg : Johann Grüninger, 1512).  Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de compositis (Strassburg : Johann Grüninger, 1512). Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Like anyone living in medieval or early modern times, Brunschwig knew that the world was strictly divided into two separate realms: heaven and earth. While the celestial spheres were perfect and unchanging, revolving in harmonious circles with clockwork precision, the sublunar world was rather different.  All earthly matter was made up of the four elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Unless their qualities were perfectly balanced, they were volatile, prone to haphazard permutations. This was why everything in nature was thought to be constantly changing or decomposing, posing a major health threat to the human body which was also made of earthly matter. In fact, it was governed by bodily humours which corresponded to the four elements, and were just as difficult to balance.

Seeking to keep physical corruption at bay, it is not surprising that Brunschwig turned to alchemy, especially distillation. As he wrote in his Small book, this was a powerful way of transforming and purifying matter (see, for example, Jonathan Cey’s post on alchemy and fecal matter). While Brunschwig did not get much more specific in this particular work, we can look to the Large book of distillation which he published in 1512 for more detailed insights into his alchemical worldview. Numerous references and quotations suggest that the fourteenth-century alchemical writings of the Franciscan John of Rupescissa had a particularly important influence on his concept of distillation.

Haunted by apocalyptic visions, Rupescissa was convinced that the coming of Antichrist was near. In order to prevail in the final battle, evangelical men needed to search for the panacea, a universal medicine which cures all illnesses by adjusting any imbalance of the four humours. According to Rupescissa, the only substance fitting the bill was “quintessence of wine”– alcohol distilled many times over, the stronger the better.

This marvellous liquid was not, like all other earthly things, imbued with the qualities of the four sublunar elements and thus doomed to decay. Instead, it was perfectly balanced, much like the fifth element which made up the heavenly spheres, and therefore incorruptible. Rupescissa also called it “man’s heaven”, indicating that while it did not actually amount to a swig of celestial matter, it could confer the incorruptibility of the heavenly spheres to the human body to keep it healthy. This miraculous substance was hard-won through demanding alchemical processes. Multiple distillation at different carefully-regulated temperatures was followed by “circulation” of the substance in specially made glass vessels to remove any remaining traces of the corruptible elemental qualities. Distillation thus emerges as a process capable of profoundly changing physical matter.

From the many quotations in Brunschwig’s Large book, we can see that Rupescissa’s ideas about distillation and quintessence were central to Brunschwig’s medicine-making. Bearing this in mind, the distilled remedies in the Small book appear in a new light. Like Rupescissa, Brunschwig thought of distillation as a process with some cosmological significance which made sublunary matter “incorruptible” and more “like a heavenly thing” [1].

It is important to note though, that he never referred to the remedies described in the Small book as “quintessences”, and the techniques for their production were mostly quite straightforward. They certainly didn’t appear to be geared towards anything as complex and esoteric as Rupescissa’s celestial panacea. They did not remove all elemental qualities from Brunschwig’s distilled waters, although they did separate the plant’s healing virtues from its material dross, and thus produced more standardised remedies with a predictable effect on the human body and its humours.

Far from Rupescissa’s ideal of incorruptibility, the shelf life of Brunschwig’s waters was clearly limited, and most of them went off after three years. Even before their use-by date, the power of distilled remedies declined over time. This, however, occurred at a highly predictable rate: some, like water of mandrake or water lily, were initially so powerful that they should only be applied externally, but after one year their power was tempered sufficiently to be taken internally. This suggests that, although Brunschwig’s Small book aimed considerably lower than “man’s heaven”, Rupescissa’s concept of distillation was at work here. It did not go all the way to yield the perfect balance and incorruptibility of heaven, but it channelled some of heaven’s clockwork regularity and thus made Brunschwig’s remedies more reliable. The remedies would have a well-defined effect on the patient’s humoural balance, and even though their power would decay over time, it did so at a predictable rate, allowing the practitioner to keep track of its current state.

[1] “unzerstörlichen” and “gleich dem hymelischen”. Hieronymus Brunschwig, Liber de arte distillandi de simplicibus (Strasbourg: Johann Grüninger, 1509).

Hans Sloane: Eighteenth-Century Mixologist

Amanda E. Herbert

Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, 1736, National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Hans Sloane by Stephen Slaughter, 1736, National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When it comes to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century culinary recipes, Hans Sloane (1660-1753), the famed doctor, naturalist, and collector, is best known for his chocolate. Sloane lived briefly in Jamaica, where he observed many people drinking liquid cacao; upon his return to Britain, Sloane adapted the recipe for metropolitan consumers. (This was apparently such a success that Sloane’s recipe was later used by Cadbury.) But Sloane was interested in drinks of all kinds, and wrote extensively on the fruity Caribbean cocktails which were apparently made and consumed by people in the eighteenth-century West Indies. In his 1707 treatise, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, Sloane described seven of these sweet concoctions: Cool Drink, Corn Drink, Cane Drink, Acajou Wine, Plantain Drink, Perino, and Rum-Punch.

Title page of "Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St. Christophers and Jamaica." Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Title page of “Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbadoes, Nieves, St. Christophers and Jamaica.” Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Sloane explained that the first three of these – Cool Drink, Corn Drink, and Cane Drink – were very simple, containing herbs or plants like “Sorrel or Pines,” a sweetening agent like molasses (plentiful in the eighteenth-century Caribbean), and water. These ingredients were allowed to ferment, “they turning sower in twelve or twenty four hours.” Cool Drink contained just two ingredients, “Molossus and Water,” and Sloane wrote that “To make cool Drink, Take three Gallons of fair water, more than a Pint of Molossus, mix them together in a Jar; it works in twelve hours time sufficiently, put to it a little more Molossus, and immediately Bottle it, in six hours time ‘tis ready to drink, and in a day it is turn’d sowr.” This produced a mildly alcoholic, mead-like drink which Sloane dismissed as “unwholesome.” Drinks made by fermenting fruit and water together, such as Acajou – an eighteenth-century term for cashew – and Plantain wines were, in contrast, “very strong,” but Sloane warned that they “keep not long, and cause vomiting.”

Sloane had better things to say about Perino, which was made from old loaves of cassava (Manihot utilissima) root bread. Sloane instructed his readers to “Take a Cake of bad Cassada Bread, about a Foot over, and half an Inch thick, burnt black on one side, break it to pieces, and put it to steep in two Gallons of water, let it stand open in a Tub twelve hours, then add to it the froth of an Egg, and three Gallons more water, and one pound of Sugar, let it work twelve hours, and Bottle it; it will keep good for a week.” Sloane said that Perino was “a Drink much used here” – not a ringing endorsement, but it was apparently better than Rum-Punch, which Sloane despised.

Punch bowl of porcelain, painted en grisaille and gilt. Outside are two scenes, one showing a sea battle and the other, ladies in an English park. Made in Jingdezhen, China, ca. 1785. Artist/maker unknown. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Punch bowl of porcelain, painted en grisaille and gilt. Outside are two scenes, one showing a sea battle and the other, ladies in an English park. Made in Jingdezhen, China, ca. 1785. Artist/maker unknown. Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sloane’s feelings about Rum-Punch weren’t necessarily based on the drink’s ingredients or taste. He explained that the cocktail was made up of “Rum, Water, Lime-juice, Sugar, and a little Nutmeg scrap’d on the top of it.” Although this might sound, at least to modern readers, like the most appealing of all of the cocktails described in this post, Sloane was unconvinced.  He explained that Rum-Punch was made from burnt or very low-quality sugar, scraped from “the Sugar-Pot-bottoms” of colonial refineries.  But, Sloane explained, “because ’tis cheap, Servants, and other of the poorer sort” could afford it.  Rum-Punch was a bargain, and Sloane believed that for this reason, it was problematic.

For Sloane, the consumption of Rum-Punch was bound up with assumptions about poverty, self-determination, and social status.  He explained that if lower-status people drank in Rum-Punch, they risked falling “into a fast Sleep, whereby they fall off their Horses in going home, and lie sometimes whole nights expos’d to the injuries of the Air, whereby they fall into Consumptions, Dropsies, &c., if they miss Apopleptic Fits.”  This might seem like a pretty elaborate (and perhaps unlikely) scenario, but it fit precisely with Sloane’s prejudices about the poor: that they were unable to control how much they drank, that they didn’t know how to take care of their own bodies, and that they could not monitor and treat themselves if they fell ill.  For this reason, Sloane declared, Rum-Punch was off-limits, and he finished by asserting that because lower-status people could become “very easily fuddled with it,” the drink should be classified as “very unhealthy.”

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Quotations in this post come from Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica… 2 Vols. (London, 1707), xxix-xxx.

American Bitters

By David Shields 

Nowadays bitters are an aroma and a flavor used in building cocktails, or a digestif taken in small doses after heavy meals. Prior to the twentieth century they were a medicinal infusion of vegetable material in alcohol. In the Galenic humoral system, they countered an excess of choler or bile in one’s system.

After the Islamic invention of the distillation of alcohol, distillates of bitter herbs could be preserved and volatilized more efficiently than in a water solution. Bitters became a standard stomachic in Renaissance pharmacology. Physicians had such faith in the power of bitter plant matter to right disorders of the stomach that they gave a general prescription for Extractum amarum, not specifying which bitter plant should be used, or what variety of gastrointestinal disorder was being dosed.

From the 1750s to the 1850s bitters were patent medicines prepared according to secret proprietary formulae. American newspapers brimmed with ads for improbable tonics: Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilious and Stomachic Bitters; Dennison’s Improved Jaundice Bitters; Plantation Bitters; Stoughton’s Bitters; James Gartland’s Genuine Herbaceous Bitters.

StoughtonsBitterslabel

What did these elixirs promise?

“These Bitters stimulate and strengthen the coats of the stomach and intestines, expel wind, correct the bile, remove redundancies, assimilate the nourishment, and possess a suitable proportion of nervine and diaphoretic properties; which, by restoring to the nerves their tone and firmness, and acting on the surface of the body by insensible perspiration, restore that balance and equilibrium so necessary to health.” [“Dr. Rawson’s Genuine Anti-Bilius & Stomachic Bitters,” Norfolk Commercial Register (November 29, 1802), 3.]

When Dyspepsia (acid reflux indigestion) became a cultural obsession in the early nineteenth century, bitters enjoyed an efflorescence in popularity.

In North America, the flora differed from that of Europe, Asia, and Africa, and so the materia medica ready to hand for concocting bitters recommended a change in formulae. In William P. C. Barton’s Vegetable Materia Medica of the United States the bitter medicinal plants are flagged: tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera; marsh pink, Sabbatia angularis; bloodroot, Sanguinaria Canadensis; flowering dogwood, Cornus florida; feverwort, Triosteum perfoliatum; small magnolia, Magnolia glauca; stinking chamomile, Anthenis catula; checkerberry, Gaultheria procumbens; black alder, Prinos verticillatus; yaupon holly, Ilex vomitorium. Yet the one repeatedly published recipe in American newspapers from the 1780s to the 1830s used none of these common bitter plants. Furthermore, it had a curious set of features: water as a liquid base rather than alcohol; and calamus as the principle bitter agent, rather than gentian (the favorite old world bitter).

Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.
Common calamus. Source: Wikipedia.

“Take the common meadow calamus, cut into small pieces, or rue, wormwood, and chamomile or centaury of hore-hound, or each two ounces, add to them a quart of spring-water, and take a wine glass full of it every morning fasting.” (1788) [“A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3].

Calamus as the central ingredient of bitters became a peculiarly American choice. Even enormously famous British bitters formulae—Stoughton’s Bitters,a gentian and sour orange peel brew dating from the second quarter of the eighteenth century, would be transformed in the United States by the substitution of sweet flag for gentian. Here is the recipe for the transmuted American version of the Stoughton’s Bitters found in The Independent Liquorist.

½ pound wormwood

1 dozen canella bark

1 dozen cassia

1 dozen coriander

1 dozen grains of paradise

¾ dozen cardamoms

1 ¼ dozen chamomile flowers

4 dozen orange peel

½ dozen calamus

The ingredients were infused ten days in ten gallons of 20% spirits; “then take 60 gallons spirits proof and run it through a felt filter containing 9 pounds red sanders, after which you run the infusion through; then add one quart white syrup and 10 gallons water.” (p. 62).

If gentian was the hallmark of European Bitters, and the prime ingredient of Angostura Bitters (1822) , the preference for calamus was not universal in America. In that most European of American cities, New Orleans, tastes tended rather toward gentian. Peychaud Bitters (New Orleans 1830), the city’s historical cocktail concoction, made the taste central in its amalgamation of orange oil, caramel, oil of cloves, and maybe cinnamon oil to spirits. Some thought a synthesis of bittering agents—a formula using both gentian and calamus such as Seaman’s Bitters, doubled the tonic effects.

The non-alcoholic recipe calling for calamus, rue, wormwood and chamomile first appeared in the Pennsylvania newspapers toward the end of summer in 1788. In 1812 it appeared again in St. Louis. In 1826 it found its way into papers in South Carolina and was reprinted in state’s first cook book, The Carolina Receipt Book by “A Lady of Charleston” in 1832.

Why the firm retention of water as the base of the decoction, despite its comparatively modest capacity to volatilize? I suspect it may have to do with children as much as the rising popularity of temperance. Water based bitters can be administered to children without qualms about the effects of alcohol. The number of recipes devoted to stomach problems in household manuals cue the acute cultural concern for the digestive health of offspring.

Sources: “A Receipt for Bitters,” Carlisle Gazette (September 3, 1788), 3.

David Dennison & John Parker Whitwell, His Majesty’s Royal Letters Patent. Improved Jaundice Bitters (Boston, [1800-1813). Charles Julias Hempel, A New and Comprehensive System of Materia Medica and Therapeutics (New York: William Radde, 1865), 2: 570. L. Monzert, The Independent Liquorist (New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1866), 95.

David S Shields is the Carolina Distinguished Professor at the University of South Carolina and the Chair of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation.  He publishes monographs in the fields of early American literature and culture, the history of photography, and Food Studies.