This is part of a class handout from a class on all things brewing that I taught in Fall 2008. In the future I’d break it out – this one was one long session! You’re welcome to use this, just please give me credit for it.
Almost all period cordials were medicinal, designed to improve your health. Most of what we modern folks make are sipping cordials, a later product. Unless you’re entering a brewing competition, don’t worry too much about period authentication – you may as well make cordials you find appealing!
If you are trying to reproduce a period cordial, please check the ingredient list very carefully. They frequently contained ingredients that can be harmful (or even deadly).
Period cordials were made by wine distillation, which is illegal in the U.S. Instead, the most common method we use is maceration, where we steep a flavoring agent in water or alcohol over a period of time to extract the desired flavors. The skill is in combining and balancing the desired flavors. This is no doubt somewhat different from steeping herbs in wine and then distilling the wine.
Note that for Atlantian purposes, and widely throughout the SCA, a cordial is any beverage where flavorings have been added to wine or distilled wine (brandy) or vodka. For example, hypocras is a cordial.
Alcohol: Most households probably distilled wine to get something like our modern brandy. SCA cordial-makers often use white brandy because of its low flavor profile: most brandies have distinctive flavors that you take into account when assembling your ingredients. Rum is just post-period, documented to 1624.
“Hot wine” (‘goryachoe vino’/горячое вино) is mentioned in the Domostroi a number of times. ‘Vodka’ is not. However, one chapter in particular instructs the homeowner to triple-distill the wine when making the aforementioned “hot wine.” That’s still what we would call a brandy.
Misha Novgorodets tells me that his economic source has hits as early as 1610 for ‘Vodka’ (by that name), and the price fluctuations almost exactly match those of rye. He does not think that this could be a coincidence.
Combine two parts sugar with one part water
Bring to a boil
Stir continuously to make sure sugar doesn’t scorch to the bottom of the pan
When the liquid clears, take it off the heat immediately
Allow to cool and thicken
Mason jar or wide-mouthed glass container that can be closed securely
Measuring cups and spoons
Funnels of various sizes
Cheesecloth or unbleached coffee filters
Clear glass bottles for storage, with corks (any food grade container with a tightly sealing lid or cork will do; avoid composite corks)
Dark cupboard or other dark place to store your beautiful beverage
Let’s assume you have chosen/created a recipe and you have all your ingredients and equipment together in one place.
1. Prepare your fruits/spices. You’ll want to bruise some spices (and hard fruits) or grind them (remember you’ll have to filter out the solids later). Wash the fruit well. If the fruit has a lot of liquid, you can freeze it first to extract the most juice. Cut your fruit into small pieces to maximize contact with the flavor-extracting alcohol.
2. Put your fruits/spices in a wide mouthed jar.
3. Completely cover the flavoring agents with distilled spirits.
4. Allow the ingredients to macerate for the indicated time (if you’re following a recipe) – this can be from a week to several months. Agitate the mixture twice daily to encourage a good blending of flavors. Keep the jar in a dark place out of direct sunlight.
5. Remove and strain out the flavor ingredients. Fruit should be removed when it loses its color to the alcohol, as most will. Most spices should be removed within a few days or you risk overpowering your cordial.
6. Finely strain your cordial until it is clear. Sediment has probably settled to the bottom of the jar, so you just need to siphon off the clear liquid. You can also filter using unbleached coffee filters – make sure that whatever supports the filter won’t leach coffee flavor into your cordial.
7. Make a batch of simple syrup – 1 part water with 2 parts sugar; boil the water and add the sugar, stirring until it dissolves (don’t let it caramelize or burn on the bottom of your pan).
8. Combine the syrup and the flavored alcohol to taste. This will probably about double the total volume of your beverage. It’s easy to make them overly sweet, so be cautious. You want to balance sweetness, flavor, and alcohol – no one of those should overpower the others.
9. Bottle it! Any food grade container will work, though a clear glass wine bottle with a taster cork is convenient and attractive.
10. Keep your cordial out of direct sunlight – sunlight can negatively affect the color.
NOTE: in some cases you may wish to cook spices in the simple syrup as you make it. Then you’re adding a flavored, strained simple syrup to your alcohol. My family’s recipe for hypocras is made this way.
Period recipe sources:
Delightes for Ladies, by Sir Hugh Plat, originally published 1609.
Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks, by Constance B. Hieatt, Brenda Hosington, and Sharon Butler, first printed 1976, most recently reprinted 2004.
The Closet of the Eminently Learned Sir Kenelme Digbie Kt. Opened, published by his son in 1669.
Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, transcribed by Karen Hess. In her possession from 1749, many of the recipes date back much further, as this was a family manuscript
A Sip Through Time, by Cindy Renfrow, 1997. Secondary but very useful.