Jonathan Forester is a brewer and distiller in Maine. He writes about spirits and cocktails at Drinking the World.
Drinks in the 1600s? I saw this seminar title on the list for Tales of the Cocktail 2009 and said to myself, what the heck were they drinking back then? It sure wasn’t whiskey, when was gin invented? Rum? Brandy? More probably wine or beer was the drink of choice because this was centuries before cocktails came about. Modern stills hadn’t been invented yet and liquor was more likely medicine or tonics… than libations. Spirits were hard to make, hard to get your hands on, and much was unknown about them.
I had to know more so I got in touch with the presenter, Darcy O’Neil and asked. He said he would will talk about how, back in the 1600’s, herbal liqueurs and cordials, tonics and bitters, were being created to help cure ailments and diseases. Plague Waters were the early forms of Absinthe, and these and other tonics and waters were distilled with wormwood, anise, hyssop and fennel. Some of the ingredients have real, medicinal uses, like the above mentioned, (and the last three are still used effectively in homeopathic cough medicines today.) But most were useless for medical purposes. One of the passages Darcy came across in some early pharmacopoeia books was “that early doctors thought they could distill the essence out of something and give it to people as a cure. If they could catch it, they’d try to distill it. Things like spices, herbs, flowers, storks (yes the bird), frogs, dirt, mummies and even human brain were distilled.” (Gag! Sounds like a scene from a movie. Brainsss, give me brains.)
So this seminar will be looking back to the 1600s and how they were the beginning of the age of distilling, where spirits were becoming more than a way to make medicine, instead they became a way to make one feel better. But wait, isn’t that what medicine is all about? When I asked Darcy about that he told me, “the core of the session is about how alcohol transitioned through the 1600’s from medicine to hedonistic intoxicant.” Medicine to hedonistic intoxicant? Sounds interesting to me, especially the “hedonistic intoxicant part.”
The focus is on early distillation, mixed drinks like the Syllabub, and liqueurs. Many of these old tonics and waters developed through the years into cordials and liqueurs. Trappist monks created sweetened, herbal tonics which developed into Benedictine and Trappistine, of which some are still made today. Of course now they are drunk straight, as an aperitif or digestif, or as an ingredient in a fine cocktail. (One of the cocktails at the seminar is based on a recipe for Trappistine liqueur.)
So, if you’re as curious as I to find out how medicines developed into fine libations, which ones made the cut and which did not, how they came into popular use as “hedonistic intoxicants” and why, and about the development of drinks leading to cocktails; join us at Drink’s in the 1600’s at Tales of the Cocktail 2009.