Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bon Aperitif!

by Anne Clinard Barnhill

     I first became interested in cordial-making while doing research for my second historical novel, Against the Queen’s Command (working title), which will, hopefully, come out from St. Martin’s Press later this year or early 2014.  I wanted my main character, Mary Shelton, to have a hobby that went beyond the stereotypical needlework most women did.  So, I explored the idea of the cordial.

     Just what is a cordial?  The dictionary definition is that a cordial is a liqueur, a flavored, syrupy alcoholic drink.  Often, we think of cordials being served with dessert, or mixed with other alcoholic beverages to create tasty concoctions.  But, when cordials first appeared in the Late Middle Ages, they were considered more of a medicine; indeed, one of the definitions of the word ‘cordial’ means invigorating the heart.  One of the first cordial-makers was Arnold de Vila Nova, an alchemist in Spain and then later, France.  He was born in 1240 and wrote The Boke of Wine.  He was very enthusiastic about the restorative powers of his concoctions. For the next hundred years or so, cordial making was the domain of alchemists.  Eventually, monasteries learned the art and were distilling ‘elixir de longue vie,’ elixir of long life.

     By the Renaissance, cordials had travelled from Italy to the French court.  Catherine de Medici introduced them when she came to France from Tuscany, and drinking a cordial became accepted practice for French nobility.  From there, they continued to spread west.

     Most of the early recipes that appear in old books will not be found in the cooking sections.  Instead, cordial making will be found in sections with recipes for soaps, ointments, poultices and “wound waters.”  In Nicolas Culpeper’s book, Complete Herbal (1653), he warns of using cordials inappropriately.  He tells the reader that those with hot constitutions should not drink cordials because they will “fill the brain with foolish and fearful imaginations.”  He also cautions young people to avoid the use of cordials.  Evidently, their blood is “hot enough without them.”

     Sugar is a major component of making cordials.  Many of the earliest recipes do not mention adding sugar; however, there are several that suggest the maker “draws out the spirit and sweeten it with sugar.” (1653)  Others give more specific directions.  “…to every pinte of water, you must put 2 ounces of white sugar candie…” (1550-1625?)  “sugar a pound.” (1596) and so forth.  It is easy to see that, while the makers were very much aware of the supposed health qualities of the cordials, they also considered the taste.

     Early cordial makers would have had two bases in which to make their brew.  In one method, they would add flavorings to wine (spices, herbs, fruits) and then distill the liquid.  In the second, flavorings would be added to ‘aqua vita” (brandy or other strong liquor) and this may or may not be distilled again. Using fruits, herbs and spices, plus a lot of sugar, cordial-makers could serve their fellows by providing a healthy and tasty drink. 

     Bon aperitif!


 Anne Clinard Barnhill's debut novel, At The Mercy of the Queen is available online and at your local bookstore.  She is also author of At Home in the Land of Oz: Autism, My Sister and Me (memoir), What You Long For (short story collection) and Coal, Baby (poetry chapbook).  She is currently working on another historical novel set in West Virginia in the 1960's.  You can visit her at or on facebook, Anne Clinard Barnhill-Writer.


  1. What a great topic. Cordials are delightful! In my debut novel, toward the end I needed something for my protagonist to do with the remainder of her life, so I gave her a still along the Spey. I have no idea how to distill single malt so my idea is not nearly as ambitious and satisfying as yours, but I do know how to enjoy good Scotch. Anne, I am going to share this post with my husband, who enjoys making honey wine and mead. Perhaps he'll try his hand at cordials.


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