Is making a cordial really brewing?

three mason jars with cordials

Making cordials is often lumped in with brewing.  Should it be?  Is making a cordial, with modern restrictions and requirements, really a brewing activity?  Why do people make cordials, anyway?

Now, whether you’re pro or con, you’ll find I have a number of cordials recipes on this site.  Most are pure sipping pleasure, but there is also documentation from making actual medieval tonic recipes.  Search on “cordial” or follow the menu links from the bar at the top of the page.

Most of the people who call themselves brewers manage yeast fermentation processes to create alcoholic beverages, or even wine vinegars (often having made the wine first).  In fact, one of the most complex, interesting vinegars I’ve ever had was Misha Suggs’  “beeregar” at a Royal Brewer competition…but I digress.  Commercial cordials usually involve yeast fermentation and distillation, but distilling alcohol at home is illegal in the U.S.  At home, you make a cordial by choosing an alcohol base (vodka, brandy, bourbon, etc) and infusing fruits and/or spices and then aging them to get a nice flavor.  Does that sound like brewing to you?

Let’s get technical first.  Is cordial-making “brewing” by definition?  In most of the dictionaries I’ve consulted, the first definition of brewing includes mentions of steeping, boiling, and fermenting malt and hops.  However, they also include definitions such as “To make or prepare (a beverage, as tea) by mixing, steeping, soaking, or boiling a solid in water.” and “to concoct, mix, or cook (a beverage or food, especially one containing unmeasured or unusual ingredients): She brewed a pot of soup from the leftovers.”.  Those definitions would include cordial-making, so any nay-sayers are out of luck there.

The beer, wine, and mead makers I know generally agree, finessing the delicate process of yeast fermentation accounts for a lot of the effort and knowledge involved.  It is the element that, for many brewers, keeps it interesting.  Cordials don’t have that, so why do people enjoy cordial-making?  I make a few cordials myself, for SCA competitions, mostly, but I’m not a fair representative; my primary interests are in mead, wine, and beer.  I put the question out to a couple of brewers’ lists to see what folks would say, especially some of the dyed-in-the-wool cordial makers, who don’t “brew” anything else alcoholic.  Some of the responses I anticipated:

  • takes less space
  • easier to assemble; less complicated to make
  • pretty in the bottle
  • allows you to control ingredients if you have food sensitivities
  • easily portable

Sherrill Abramson, who makes a lot of cordials and sekanjubins (a Persian vinegar-based syrup for a very refreshing hot-weather drink) writes that she has a small apartment with no room for the equipment or process of brewing.  Too, she loves the mouth feel of cordials, the “weight and presence is phenomenal”.  (Sherrill has made the only sake cordial I’ve ever tasted, and it was surprisingly wonderful).

Kathy Gildemeister wrote to say that she likes cordials because “you don’t have to deal with the sometimes vexing nature of yeast”.  Also, it allows her to control the ingredients of what she drinks, both for personal preferences and to avoid food allergies.

Carl Swan,  beermeister extraordinaire, points out that cordials take a lot less storage space, less advance planning (this is a man who really thinks through his beers), less time investment, is not susceptible to bacterial infections, gives intense flavor in a small volume, often has a striking appearance, and a large base of people willing to consume them.

Craig Daniel makes cordials because of flavors he can’t see capturing any other way.  Carl agreed, pointing out there’s always a malt profile to deal with in beer.

And last but not least, one of my favorite cordial mavens, Lorelei Elkins, said she started making cordials at first because

  • it required less investment of equipment and time
  • the process is easier to understand than brewing yeast beers
  • she’s not a beer drinker and only occasionally indulges in wine, but likes harder alcohols (particularly things mixed in coffee and poured over ice cream)
  • she loves the way cordials look displayed in bottles
  • and she loves people’s reactions as “that sweet yumminess passes their lips”.

She says she has more friends when she brings cordials with her, “so maybe that’s what it comes down to.”  I think that’s one factor in why any of us brew…


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1 Comment

  1. Should making cordials be lumped in with brewing? It depends on your definition of “brewing.”

    The short answer is: To me (and I am by no means an expert), brewing is all about making an environment for yeast to create alcohol in. Beer, wine and mead are ALIVE. If you do things that make the yeast happy, they will reward you. If you do things that piss them off, they will do the same in return, giving you something you will not like.

    Making cordials is, to me, just mixing ingredients. Making a strawberry cordial is really no different than making the topping for strawberry shortcake.

    I don’t mean to put down cordial-makers. It’s not their fault that distilling is illegal 🙂

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