Classic Liquors

A Little History of Liqueur-Making

The discovery of distillation is ascribed to a certain Arnaud de Villeneuve, a physician to the pope, a professor of medicine, an alchemist and a monk, who lived during the late thirteenth century.

In truth he discovered nothing. As a youth, Arnaud had studied at Muslim Cordova, in Spain, and while there, he would have read the works of Zosime the Panapolitan who lived and worked in the delta of the Nile in the third century AD. Among others, this Greek, considered by many to be the father of alchemy, wrote a treatise on "the art of distillation", wherein he described the whole process of distillation as practised by the ancient Egyptians for, oh, the last few millenia. So Arnaud, in fact discovered nothing, but merely introduced the art of distillation into Europe.

Actually, it is now well-known that the Chinese were already using crude distillation methods to produce fortified spirits from fermented rice wine as early as 800 BC. Egyptians and Greeks were distilling grape wine in 400 BC. (Aristotle wrote of using distillation to produce fresh water from seawater). At a push, one could say that the first liqueurs were combinations of wine, growing abundantly in Greece, with honey and fruits. Hippocrates was one of these early Greeks, adding cinnamon to fermented honey, so that even today a Mead (honey wine) with added fruit or spices is called a 'Hippocras'. It was still fashionable to drink Hippocras during the reign of Louis XIV. The Arabs are known to have used the technique, but the earliest reference to distillation in Europe was associated with alchemists and monks (Arnaud) in the early thirteenth century.

During the time of the alchemists, it was thought that everything in the world was composed of four "essences": earth, fire, air and water. Everything was considered to be mixtures of some or all of these four. Our friend Arnaud was so impressed by the incredible properties of this new fiery liquid he had created, that he called it the fifth essence: 'la quinte essence'; hence the derivation of our English word: quintessence, meaning the 'heart' or the 'core'. It was the firm belief of Raymond Lully, a student of de Villeneuve's, and also a monk, that so vital and life restoring were these waters, that their production was a divinely inspired gift from Heaven.

Being an alchemist, and therefore inquisitive, he was impressed by this clear and limpid liquid, like rainwater, that had extraordinary properties. When he applied it, soaked on a cloth to open sores and wounds, they miraculously healed. So taken was he by the virtues of this liquid that he prescribed that the body be rubbed daily with it and called it "eau-de-vie" - the water of life.

Now, during and after the Dark Ages, it was only in the monasteries where any shred of civilization and knowledge survived. It was the monks who took on the role of savior of the body as well as the soul. As the alchemists were interested in transmuting base metal into gold, the monks were interested in finding the elixir of eternal life, which, it was thought, the Good Lord had hidden on earth. In their gardens they grew all manner of herbs, spices, weeds, etc., reputed from ancient times to have medicinal properties. At this time, medicine consisted of (among other more sanguine practices) the use of herbs and flowers, bark and roots applied as poultices or drunk as teas totally without regard to taste. The group that had the most "free" time to experiment along these lines, were the various orders of monks.

During these thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, physicians believed that herb liqueurs could treat and/or prevent illnesses. Probably in most cases they had some value for even today some tonics and similar extracts, such as cough syrup, have alcoholic bases. Certainly, these potions were not developed to please the palate but to cure some ill. These elixirs and extracts were almost always bitter, sour, or disagreeable to swallow in some way. However, they were the state of the art in curative medications.

As mentioned above, the newly discovered 'eau-de-vie' was thought to have magical curative powers. It did not take long before the two concepts were married, producing alcoholic elixirs (the monks and alchemists had discovered that the medicinal properties of the various Herbs, Spices, Fruit and Bark were preserved longer when infused into alcohol instead of water) but of equally horrible taste (at least it made you feel good÷ temporarily). Remember also that distillation was not the fine art it is today, but more closely resembled moonshine: rotgut of uneven and typically unpleasant taste.

What was needed to make these bitter concoctions more palatable were sweeteners and aromatic spices like cinnamon. The problem was that both of these were in very short supply. Cane sugar was not yet known of - honey was the only sweetener. Spices, such as black pepper, arriving via caravans from the Orient, and by ship from the Middle East, were exorbitantly priced, worth their weight in gold, and incidentally, made the principality of Venice an economic and military powerhouse of its time - its navy controlled the commerce of the Mediterranean.

Finding a cheap source of spices and cutting out the Muslim middle-men was critical for our History of Liqueurs. Portugal and Spain; France and England all set out to circumvent the usury imposed by the caravanserai, and, in the process discovered the motherlode. India and Indonesia were reached. America and the West Indies were colonized and soon a flood of new and amazing spices and herbs were available for our monks and apothecaries and at a reasonable price. Cheap sugar from sugar cane, coffee, cocoa, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, cloves, mace, nutmeg, quinine, vanilla÷A cornucopia to add new flavors to old recipes.

In addition there was a whole new range of fruit discovered: bitter oranges (the sweet varieties were hybrids developed in later centuries), bananas, grapefuit, breadfruit, mangoes...

Interestingly, during all this time, no one had thought of distilling wine, although a large quantity had always been available from ancient times. For example, no self-respecting Roman household would be without ample sup plies of wine.

Fast forward to the time of our friend, Arnaud, the thirteenth century. By this time wine was made in quantity. In 1308, the region of Bordeaux exported to England the staggering quantity of 90 million liters (quarts) of wine, a sum that was not equaled again until 1972. This glut of wine proved, at times, difficult to sell and spoiled quickly. Some Dutchman (they were the pre-eminent merchants of the day) thought he had a brilliant idea. Let's distill the wine, thereby concentrating it, and later it could be reconstituted merely by the addition of water. Of course the result of the experiment was far from what was expected, BUT commercial distillation of wine had been born.

The enterprising Dutch were the first to commercialize distillation. In the sixteenth century there were about 100 distilleries in just the little town of Schiedam<. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Holland sported 500 distilleries using both white and red wines as starting materials. So, these 'eaux-de-vie' were in the process of passing from the domain of the monks and apothecaries into the hands of the Dutch merchants. For example, it was the Dutch that first fortified cheap wine from Italy and Languedoc with alcohol.

So, back to the spices and fruit newly discovered and imported from overseas. What to do with that portion of the bitter oranges imported into Holland from CuraŃao in the West Indies that always spoiled during the voyage? Some smart cookie suggested adding them to distilled alcohol to camouflage the vile taste of the rotgut alcohol. Of course, now it tasted vile and bitter - so they decided to add another novelty: cane sugar, to make it more palatable.

Then they discovered that if they redistilled the rotgut alcohol a couple or more times, the vile flavor disappeared. Voila, Orange Liqueur had been invented. Other varieties and flavors quickly followed.

It is no exaggeration to state that the Dutch invented Liqueurs.

The news spread quickly. England was bowled over with this marvel, other countries followed. By the fourteenth century, the drinking of liqueurs had become popular in Italy and spread into France. This popularity is often attributed to Catherine de Medici, who, along with her Court, brought the use of these liqueurs with her to France from her native Tuscany. There is, however, some evidence of an earlier diffusion of liqueurs, or an independent outgrowth of these drinks prior to their introduction by Catherine. There can be little doubt, however, that the Court of Catherine certainly increased the popularity and acceptance of these potables among the nobility of France. Some of today's liqueurs have a parentage traceable to those times.

Between the fourteenth century and the early seventeenth century a considerable portion of the production of these liqueurs was still by the monastic orders. Although liqueurs were entering the mainstream as a delicious drink, its medicinal roots were still much in evidence in the eighteenth century. For example, in 1750 a Doctor Cornelius Bontekoe is known to have prescribed a Liqueur for use against scurvy. This Liqueur is believed to have been a blend using Mace, Nutmeg, Cloves, with the peel of Lemons and Oranges, laced with Brandy and sweetened with sugar. At curing scurvy, it was probably very effective. Another example: even at the beginning of the twentieth century Anisette was being recommended for young mothers as a 'Maternity Aniseed'.

Benedictine, (see below) as the name indicates dates to the Benedictine monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli, in the Abbey of Fecamp about the year 1510, and was a liqueur of health. The recipe for Chartreuse was originally an 'Elixir de longue Vie' (an elixir of long life), given in 1605 to a Carthusian monastery near Paris by the Marechal d'Estrees, a captain under Henri IV. Cusenier Mazarine, a French Anise liqueur, dates to a 1637 recipe of the Abbaye de Montbenoit. Recipes, too, for the herbal liqueurs of Aiguebelle, Carmeline, La Senancole, and Trappastine were also originally monastic elixirs.

As mentioned above, by the middle to the end of the sixteenth century several distilleries had been formed which were producing commercial quantities of liqueurs. These included the Dutch distillery of Bols (the Dutch again÷), founded in 1575 and Der Lachs, a German distillery which began producing Danzig Goldwasser in 1598. The first of the liqueurs produced by Bols was an Anisette liqueur which they began producing shortly after the founding of the distillery.

Up until this time, these sweet concoctions continued by the name of "elixir", even though it was well-known by the populace that medicinal elixirs ought to taste foul. Well then, these new-fangled concoctions could not be elixirs. The debate raged as to what they really were, until the appearance in 1755 of a small pamphlet by a clever popularizer of the time, a certain Mr. Poncelet by name, called: "The alchemy of flavor and smell, or, guiding principles for blending easily and at little cost, liqueurs to drink and waters to smell." The word liqueur had been born.