At the end of a handwritten recipe for the herbal spirit cherrie water there’s a note about an optional ingredient.
“And a graine of Ambergreece with itt if you Like itt,” writes Ann Ward in her circa 1724 “Book of Receipts.” She was referring to ambergris, a waxy secretion from a whale’s intestines.
Sourcing that ingredient posed a challenge for the team at Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis, which spent the past year experimenting with antique alcohol recipes.
This deep-dive into historic spirit-making — a collaboration between Tattersall, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota — resulted in “Alcohol’s Empire,” an online exhibition and recipe book.
The offbeat collaboration came about when Nicole LaBouff, associate curator of textiles at Mia, created an installation of a party in a 1700s French grand salon in one of the museum’s period rooms.
“As I was touring the space, people would ask me what type of alcohol they would have consumed at these parties,” LaBouff said. She didn’t know the answers, so she decided to delve into the history of “the alcoholic landscape” to find out.
She contacted Emily E. Beck, assistant curator at the U’s historical medical library, who uncovered troves of rare cookbooks, household manuals and pharmaceutical books filled with distillation recipes from that era.
LaBouff had hoped to make some period drinks and serve them at the museum, “but as we started to get to work, we realized we needed professional help,” she said. That’s when she and Beck approached Tattersall.
Since then, the distillery has introduced a line of historic liquors and liqueurs it is sampling at a sold-out tasting this week and on a limited basis in its northeast Minneapolis cocktail room. In addition to the online exhibition, Mia is also hosting a lecture Sunday on the history of rum and 18th-century distilling..
By re-creating original recipes, Tattersall is joining a wave of Twin Cities drink-makers who are serving up history. Driven by curiosity, the need for novelty and a longing to connect to the past, distillers, brewers, cider-makers and mixologists are mining everything from archaic documents to travelogues to discover an older — and some say, better — way of drinking.
A Minneapolis cider house has tracked down apple varieties grown in Thomas Jefferson’s orchard. A St. Paul bar is mixing up pre-Prohibition-era cocktails. And a Minnesota brewery is making a series of 19th-century beers.
They’re developing workarounds for hard-to-find ingredients and nearly forgotten processes in the hopes of reclaiming some of the rich history of American distilling and cocktail making that has been lost to time, changes in production and Prohibition. Of course, they also hope to lure drinkers by introducing them to uncommon flavors.
After failing to find it, Bentley Gillman, Tattersall’s distillery manager, experimented with another ingredient with a similar flavor: labdanum, a resin that collects on the beards of goats.
Ultimately, his version of cherrie water turned out to be tasty enough without ambergris or labdanum. But when it came to finding viper flesh and opium for the bubonic plague-fighting spirit plague water? Those ingredients had to be replaced, too. As did the arsenic-containing bitter almonds in the liqueur ratafia.
Many of the old recipes also had gaps in information or didn’t explain measurements thoroughly, leaving makers to test their knowledge to come up with a balanced drink. The cherrie water, for example, calls for “half a handful of the topps of Rosemary, as much Of Balme.”
The recipes that the Wangensteen library’s Beck tracked down were from centuries-old, handwritten guidebooks, some of which included tips on how to make pigeon pie and how to care for a horse.
“I always explain them to people as the Pinterest of the early modern world,” she said.
There was something universal about the recipes, though: They were largely for medicinal purposes.
From the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century, botanical ingredients were distilled to preserve and enhance their properties to fight ailments like indigestion and paralysis, said Beck. It was only later that they became a social elixir.
“These recipes weren’t meant to be poured and enjoyed,” said Tattersall co-founder Jon Kreidler.
Still, Kreidler and Gillman “were just giddy schoolchildren” as they tried to resuscitate age-old drinks and turn them into something that modern palates could enjoy, Gillman said.
“This is the stuff that makes the job interesting,” Gillman said. “I love to do weird stuff, so this was just an excuse to get weirder with it.”
Reviving a lost art
If the passage of time diluted artisanal drink-making, Prohibition drove a spike in its heart.
From 1920 to 1933, the production of alcoholic beverages was banned in America, effectively erasing decades of craftsmanship.
Cider, for example, was a wildly popular beverage in colonial America, said Steve Hance, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Number 12 Cider. But “a lot of orchards were destroyed” during Prohibition.
At his North Loop cider house, Hance is sourcing original apple varieties and using traditional practices, including squeezing the juice out of apples on a wooden press he built based on a 100-year-old design.
“I’m very certain the people of 18th- and 19th-century America knew how to make cider better” than the mass-market brands sold today. “It was to that extent sort of a lost art.”
Summit Brewing Co. also is tapping into history with its Union Series of beers and barleywines, with recipes that date from the mid- to late 1800s. Summit’s current installment is a Scotch ale from an 1870s recipe that has 9.6 percent alcohol by volume, compared with, say, a Heineken at 5 percent.
But it’s not just the alcohol content that’s different today: It’s how we enjoy our drinks.
Back then, beer played a more prominent role in daily life, said Summit head brewer Damian McConn. Before cars were common, people walked to the corner pub. And when labor was more physical, the calories from beer weren’t such a concern. For many people during the Industrial Revolution, beer was a dietary staple.
“I’ve learned about not just how beer has changed, but the role of beer in society and how that’s changed,” McConn said. “There’s a romantic attachment to some of these drinks from a bygone era.”
Authentic and tasty
At Hodges Bend in St. Paul, the extensive drinks menu is filled with old recipes, including the brandy-based Pan American Clipper, a drink cataloged in 1939’s “The Gentleman’s Companion” by a globe-trotting cocktail anthropologist of sorts, Charles H. Baker.
Head bartender Blaine Young II said he and his colleagues tweak these older cocktails.
“The goal is to use the most original recipe we can find for any given classic drink, so long as it remains balanced and still palatable,” Young said.
Keith Mrotek agrees. The beverage director at Norseman Distillery in northeast Minneapolis said he won’t sacrifice taste just to be authentic.
He uses the gimlet — a gin and lime cocktail — as an example. It once got its tartness from a bottled, sugary mixer that preserved lime juice for sailors to combat scurvy.
Back then, the product was the best it could be, “considering agricultural and transportation technology,” he said. But the contemporary version of bottled, sweetened lime syrup “is totally garbage.”
That’s why Mrotek uses fresh-squeezed lime juice and homemade simple syrup in Norseman’s gimlets.
“We all like to be historically accurate,” he said. “But some things in history can stay in history.”
Tattersall also is taking liberties in its collaboration with Mia. The liqueur ratafia (which was supposedly drunk at the ratification of treaties in medieval Europe) was traditionally made with quince. Tattersall put a regional stamp on the drink, swapping quince for the more common pear. The distillery plans to bottle and sell the sweet sipper.
The distillery is using its old-fashioned liquors in modern cocktails for the March 4 Mia event. Cherrie water and another historical spirit, water of flowers, are mixed into an herbaceous Aviation-style gin cocktail. The cocktail Plague Party combines plague water (which was thought to ward off the Black Death) and aqua mirabilis (a health potion), along with pineapple, lime juice and honey-sage syrup.
When LaBouff first cooked up this cocktail collaboration, she wasn’t sure if the recipes would yield anything drinkable.
“I think we were all bracing ourselves because we were expecting not to like them,” said the Mia curator.
But everyone involved was “pleasantly surprised” at how tasty the drinks were, she said, and how thrilling it was to slip back in time with just one sip.
The 1700s “is when distilling is unleashed throughout the world, technology is spreading and it’s coming in contact with new ingredients, like sugar,” LaBouff said. “It’s this unique pivotal moment in the history of alcohol — and we are the inheritors.”