Derivation of Term - Eichhoff - Gregory of Tours - Liqueur Wines - Herb Wines - Scot's Ivanhoe - Hydromel - Murrey - Delille - Montaigne - Monastical Liqueurs - Arnold de Villeneuve - Catherine de Medicis - Elixir Ratafia.
The word liqueur has been traced by Eichhoff to a Sanskrit root, viz., laks or lauc, to see, appear. It is now commonly understood of a drink obtained by distillation, a beverage of which alcohol is the base.
To the ancients liqueurs appear to have been unknown. The art of distillation on which they depend was not apparently discovered till the middle ages. Fermented wines, of which some description will be found in another part of this book, occupied their place at dinner and dessert. Old Falernian when mixed with honey probably bore some near resemblance to what is now understood by liqueur. But this drink was found to have such disastrous effects by way of intoxication that it was forbidden to women to drink of it.
Our ancestors, perhaps in imitation of the ancients, composed a sort of liqueur with the must of wine, in which they had infused berries of the lentiscus, or a portion of its tender wood. The artificial wines made either with this lentiscus, or with other aromatic herbs, called by Gregory of Tours vina odoramentis immixta, were the only approaches to the modern liqueurs, even some time after the discovery of the process of distillation.
Among these liqueur wines must be mentioned that species of cooked wine which was the result of a portion of must reduced to half or a third of its original bulk by boiling. The capitularies of Charlemagne speak of this drink as vinum coctum, and the southern provinces called it Sabe, from the Latin sapa, which with the Romans had the same signification. Both Galen and Hippocrates refer to a Greek composition called Siraeum or Hepsema, which, says Pliny, we call sapa. The fashion in which this wine was cooked is shown in the Pitture antiche d' Ercolano, t. I., tab. 35.
Those artificial wines which consisted solely of infusions of aromatic or medicinal plants, such as absinthe, aloes, anise, rosemary, hyssop, and so on, were called herb wines, and were frequently employed as remedies and preventives. With a herb wine, the wine of a honied absinthe, it was that Fredegonda poisoned him who reproached her with the murder of the Pretextate. The most famous of these wines were those into which entered, besides honey, the spices and aromatic confections of Asia, to which were given the name of pigments. The highly spiced and "most odoriferous' wine sweetened with honey is one of those drinks which Cedric bids Oswald, in Ivanhoe,1 to place upon the board for the refreshment of the Knight Templar. It is mentioned in company with the oldest wine, the best mead, the mightiest ale, the richest morat,2 and the most sparkling cider.
The poets of the thirteenth century speak of this decoction with transport. They regarded it in the light of an exquisite delicacy. As no gentleman's library is complete without the presence of some particular work of which a bookseller is anxious to dispose, so no feast at which pigment was not present was held to be complete by the medieval gourmet. Indeed this drink seems to have been all too sweet, and was, in consequence of its inebriating property, like the honied Falernian, partially prohibited. The Council of Aix-la-chapelle in 817 decreed that on festival days only might this voluptuous cup be introduced into conventual repasts.
Hydromel and hippocras were allied to this category of fermented and almost alcoholic drinks, but they were not liqueurs. Finally certain liqueurs were composed entirely of juices of fruits and held the rank and title of wines. Such were cherry, gooseberry, strawberry wine, and others. Another liqueur wine often cited by the thirteenth-century poets is Murrey, a thin drink coloured or otherwise affected by mulberries.
The word liqueur appears to have had a considerable latitude of signification. We talk now of coffee and liqueur, but according to the French poet Delille, who lived at a time very near our own, coffee itself was included under the latter category "Cest toi, divin cafe, dont l'aimable liqueur Sans alterer la tete epanouit le coeur ": which presents us with a view of coffee akin to that held by Cowper of tea, when he talks in his Task (Book IV.) of "the cups That cheer but not inebriate."
1 Scott's Ivanhoe, cap. iii.
2 Morat is a composition of honey and mulberries, from which latter its name is derived.
Liqueurs, indeed, properly so called were not known till long after the distillation of wine had been recognised, probably about the fourteenth century. Many years elapsed before these preparations escaped from the domination of the alchemists. Those religious who employed distillation for the confection of balsams and panaceas seem to have been the first to discover them to the world. Montaigne, in the strange account he has written of his travel in Italy, speaks of the Jesuits of Vicenza - the Jesuates as he calls them - who had a liquor shop in their fair monastery, in which were sold phials of scent for a crown. The good fathers appear to have busied themselves in the intervals of their religious exercises with distilling waters of different herbs and flowers for the public use, as well for medicine as for sensual delight. Speaking of Verona, Montaigne says he saw also a religious of monks who call themselves Jesuates of St. Jerosme. They are dressed in white under a smoked robe with little white caps. They are not priests, neither do they say mass, nor preach,1 and they are for the most part ignorant. But they make a boast to be excellent distillers of eau de naffe 2 and other waters, both in Verona and elsewhere.
Monastical liqueurs are worthy of a paragraph to themselves. So long as monks have existed, they seem to have manifested a taste for the concoction of these drinks. We can scarcely pass the shop window of a liqueur-seller without having our attention attracted by what the French call a Kyrielle or litany of flasks of diverse forms, decorated with tickets bearing such titles as the following: Liqueur des Chartreux, Liqueur des Benedictins, Liqueur des Cannes, Liqueur des Trappistes, Liqueur des Peres de Garaison, Liqueur du P, Kermann, and so on. A large volume might well be composed on these liqueurs alone. About their supposed virtues, - aperient, digestive, antiapo-plectic, antispasmodic, anticholeric, tonic, etc., that book might be well supposed likely to stretch out as far as the list of Banquo's issue to the diseased imagination of Macbeth.