These days in the US, distillers are prohibited from making health claims about any product they make, especially when they’re labeling or naming their spirits. We cannot call anything a “potion”, an “elixir” or similarly suggestive name. But it’s no surprise that, when we peer into even the relatively recent past, we quickly find these terms being used to describe a range of spirits and liqueurs. Only in the modern era would we consider these terms deceptive or misleading.
What did the average person look to for health or healing before scientific medicine? One place they found comfort was in herbal remedies. Unsurprisingly, some of these remedies became famous, and traditional, and highly refined. Some well-known spirits and liqueurs of today started this way: Absinthe (remedy sold by Henriod sisters of Couvet in Switzerland) or Chartreuse (Carthusian monks of Grenoble region in France). We still use the terms eau-de-vie and aquavit (both = Water of Life), cordial (from “heart” in Latin), and digestif (an aid to digestion) freely. It’s easy to see how closely related these classes of beverage were to the overall idea of health and well-being.
Lesser known or “Long Lost” liqueurs such as Eau Vluneraire (Switzerland), Eau des Jacobins de Rouen, Liqueur Hygienique de Raspail, or Eau des Melisse des Carmes. As a general class, these were known as “Hygienic Liqueurs” or liqueurs for the preservation of health. Much care once went into making these “medicines” taste good (in other posts, we’ll talk about the intersection of pharmacy, distillation, medicine and liqueurs) by using expensive spices and a spectrum of herbs and flavorings. And just like Coca Cola, when it’s no longer a medicine…it’s just a great tasting beverage.
It makes sense that these frequently came out of monasteries and convents. During the centuries when these were developed these institutions were more common than universities. They served as farms, hospitals, pharmacies, schools, and libraries. Distillation as a technology worked its way into western culture during this period (late middle ages to early modern period).
We’ve just distilled a batch of Eau de Melisse at Waterpocket® in our small still using fresh lemon balm and hyssop. So what is this stuff? Melissa is another name for lemon balm, but is derived from the Greek word for honeybee (who are understandably attracted to this highly aromatic plant). References to Eau de Melisse des Carmes go back to at least the 14th century. French Carmelite convents produced this famous elixir, of which there are some regional variations (particularly Lyon). It was prescribed for things like “apoplexy and vapors”.
Many variations emerged because some versions of the formula became public in the 18th century. But in general the preparation will include lemon balm, hyssop, lemon peel, nutmeg (and/or mace), cinnamon, and coriander (another citrus-like spice). Our version is focused on lemon and more lemon. We used both fresh and dried lemon peel and variety of fresh and dried herbs. We created only a small batch of this LONG LOST™ liqueur. And what a history behind this fascinating distillate.
We’ll explore this subject more in future posts!