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Cordial Waters

A glass of Usquebaugh Royal, a saffron coloured cordial containing tiny flecks of gold. Note how the glass is being gripped by the foot, the correct way of holding a glass in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle demonstrates how this was done. Producers of TV period dramas and history documentaries please take note, as actors never get this right.

Many cordial waters like rosolio had there origin in Renaissance Italy where the art if distilling was refined during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The complex still above, used for distilling many strong waters at the same time, is an illustration from Petrandrea Mattioli's, Bref Discours de la distillation des eaux (Lyon: 1619).

Mattioli (above) and his fellow alchemists and apothecaries spearheaded the main culinary contribution of the Renaissance; the rapid diffusion of strong alcoholic waters and sugar-based foods. Printed books of secrets, which revealed the mysteries of distillation and sugarwork to English gentlewomen start to appear from the middle of the sixteenth century. The earliest was by a contemporary of Mattioli, a monk called Girolomo Ruscelli, whose work The Secretes of Master Alexis of Piedmont was first published in London in 1558.

An eighteenth century trade card advertising Right (authentic), Green and Yellow Usquebaugh. Perseco, or persico, was a popular liqueur flavoured with peach kernels.


Brandy 2 pints, aniseed one ounce, true lemons, sugar one pound, corianders two ounces, fennel one ounce, angelica two drachms. Break up these ingredients, and put them in a jar, with two pints of brandy; peel the two lemons, which you must add to the mixture, and squeeze in the juice; break the sugar, dissolve it in water, and put it into the jar; let it stand for a fortnight, then strain it through a flannel bag, filter, and bottle it.

From: G.A. Jarrin, The Italian Confectioner (London: 1820)

Above: The carnivorous plant Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia L.) was used to create a bright yellow cordial water called rosa solis or rosolio. This strong spirit seems to have originated in Renaissance Turin and was initially esteemed as a medicine and aphrodisiac before it became a popular drink.

On their first arrival in England in the late 1400s, distilled cordial waters had been strictly used as alcoholic medicines, prescribed in small doses to invigorate the heart and revitalise the spirits. By 1700, these forerunners of modern liqueurs were being imbibed for their intoxicating effects as well as their medicinal virtues, and most eventually became recreational drinks. Cordials containing precious ingredients like gold and pearls were thought “to renew the natural heat, recreate and revive the Spirits, and free the whole Body from the malignity of diseases”. Such were the now forgotten stillroom preparations like Royal Usquebaugh, a spicy liqueur fortified with flecks of gold leaf, descended from the Aureum potabile (drinkable gold) of the alchemists. Other early varieties of alcoholic cordials were flavoured with spices and herbal ingredients which were thought to settle the stomach after excessive eating, leading to the collective name of ‘surfeit waters’.

Many cordials were also considered to act as aphrodisiacs, a view which encouraged their consumption in a social rather than medical context. Most important of these was Rosa Solis or Rosolio, a drink that probably originated in Renaissance Turin. Distilled over large quantities of the insectivorous bog plant sundew, it included hot provocative spices like cubebs, grains of paradise and galingale. According to the seventeenth century medical writer William Salmon, sundew “stirs up lust”. He goes on to say that the distilled water “is of a glittering yellow, like Gold, and colours Silver of a Golden Colour if put therein”. In Salmon’s time, rosa solis was used in England at the banquet course to wash down other venerous food items such as kissing comfits and candied eryngo roots. Rosolio, or Resoil, is still produced in some European countries, notably Italy and Spain, though it no longer contains sundew as an ingredient.


Take of the hearbe Rosa-Solis, gathered in Iulie one gallon, pick out all the black moats from the leaues, dates halfe a pound, Cinamon, Ginger, Cloues of each one ounce, grains halfe an ounce, fine sugar a pound and a halfe, red rose leaues, greene or dried foure handfuls, steepe all these in a gallon of good Aqua Composita in a glasse close stopped with wax, during twenty dayes, shake it well together once euerie two dayes. Your sugar mutt be powdred, your spices brused onely or grosselie beaten, your dates cut in long slices the stones taken away. If you add two or three graines of Ambergreece, and as much muske in your glasse amongst the rest of the Ingredients , it will have a pleasant smell. Some adde the gum amber with coral and pearle finely poudred , and fine leafe golde. Some vse to boyle Ferdinando bucke in Rosewater, till they haue purchased a faire deepe crimson colour, and when the same is cold, they colour their Rosa solis and Aqua Rubea therewith.

From Sir Hugh Platt, Delightes for Ladies (London: 1600)

With their flecks of gold leaf and their bright yellow hue, rosolio, usquebaugh and other golden waters were thought by the alchemists to encapsulate the 'cordial vertues' of the rays of the sun.
Usquebaugh is one of the earliest English cordial waters and dates from the Tudor period. It retained its popularity well into the nineteenth century. By this time it had become a popular drink on the continent. It even turned up in eighteenth century Naples, where it was known in the cafes as scumba all' inglese. Most cordials were of continental origin and many, like rosa solis, were first produced by Italian Renaissance apothecaries. This explains why they are frequently referred to in French confectionery texts as Liqueurs d’ltalie. However, a number of British ‘sweet drams’ achieved popularity on the other side of the Channel. Most important of these was a more down-market relative of Royal Usquebaugh. Known in France as Escubac d’Angleterre, this lacked the flecks of gold leaf, but was nevertheless a popular drink. The word whisky is derived from the Irish usquebaugh, which is literally the Gaelic translation of Latin aqua vitae, the water of life. But usquebaugh consumed in seventeenth and eighteenth century England and France bore no resemblance to the spirit we now call whisky. It was a spicy, bright yellow cordial, usually flavoured with aniseed, liquorice and saffron and sweetened with fruit sugar extracted from figs and raisins by maceration. Below are two different recipes for this interesting drink, one early Georgian, the other from the Regency period. The manuscript recipe from Lady Fletcher Vane's receipt book (c.1770 ) is really an orange shrub flecked with gold leaf. The final recipe is for Vespitro, another popular liqueur d’ltalie, this time flavoured with anise, angelica and lemon. It is actually far superior to modern anise-flavoured drinks.
Royal Usquebaugh

You must take Raisins stoned two Pounds, Figs sliced half a Pound, Cinnamon two Ounces and a half, Nutmegs one ounce, cloves half an Ounce, Mace half an Ounce, Liquorice three Ounces, Saffron half an ounce; bruise the Spices, slice the Liquorice, etc. and pull the Saffron in Pieces, and infuse them all in a Gallon of the best Brandy for seven or eight Days, ‘till the whole Virtues be extractedfrom them; then filter them, putting thereto a Quart of Canary wine, and half a Dram of Essence of Ambergrease, and 12 Leaves of Gold broken in Pieces, which reserve for Use.

From: The Whole Duty of a Woman (London: 1737).


Yellow Escubac

One ounce of saffron, one ounce of Damascus raisins, one ounce of cinnamon, three pounds of sugar, one ounce of liquorice, one ounce of corianders, three pints of brandy, two pints of water. Pound these ingredients, and dissolve the sugar in two pints of water; put the whole in ajar to infuse for a month, taking care to stir it up every second day, or third at farthest.

From: G.A. Jarrin, The Italian Confectioner (London: 1820)


A recipe from Lady Fletcher Vane's manuscript receipt book c.1770. Lady Vane lived at Hutton in the Forest in Cumberland. Her recipe is based on a Seville orange shrub, but more unusually contains the red colouring alkermes.
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