Plague Water, Anyone? A Distillery Delves Into Medieval Mixology

Tattersall Distilling, near downtown Minneapolis, has earned a national reputation over the last few years for its award-winning gins, bitters and liqueurs. Soon, it may also be known for its plague water.

An alcoholic concoction of angelica root, gentian and about a dozen other herbs, plague water was popular among medieval apothecaries as a tonic to ward off a variety of diseases. Centuries later, it is one of eight forgotten spirits that Tattersall has resurrected in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The company will introduce the spirits at an event on Sunday and Monday, including tastings, cocktails and food pairings, and offer at least one of them for sale this summer.

As the craft distilling industry expands in size and sophistication, it is intersecting with a growing number of historians interested in the role of alcohol in everyday life. Efforts like Tattersall’s offer scholars a better understanding of how people ate and drank in the past, while giving distillers a better sense of their own history.

“With modern technology, some of the art of distilling has been lost,” said Jon Kreidler, a founder of Tattersall. “So to go back and see where it all came from was eye-opening.”

Tattersall’s project draws on the vast holdings of the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, one of the nation’s premier collections of medieval and early modern medical texts. Among its 72,000 volumes, some dating back to 1430, are hundreds of books detailing the curative properties of roots, weeds, seeds, metals and even animal parts like skins and horn.

Medieval medicine was largely about mixing and matching those ingredients for their curative properties, said Amy Stewart, the author of “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.” As distilling technology spread into Europe from the Middle East, apothecaries realized they could use high-proof alcohol to make those potions last longer.

“Herbs were the only medicine you had — there were no pills,” Ms. Stewart said. “But plants are ephemeral and seasonal, so you’d put them in alcohol to have something shelf-stable.”

Over time, roughly standard recipes emerged, with names that evoke a Hogwartsian blend of early herbology and outright alchemy: aqua mirabilis, water of flowers, saffron bitters, aqua vitae. The Wangensteen library is full of recipe books for those, too.

Not everything in these preparations turned out to be good for what ails you, said Emily Beck, an assistant curator at the library — mercury was a not-uncommon ingredient. But many of the recipes were probably at least partly effective. “Through trial and error, they learned which ingredients were good for you,” she said.

Eventually people combined those spirits, often bitter and herbal, with sugar and other mixers to create shrubs, punches and, of course, cocktails. As they did, and as distilling became an industrial enterprise, hundreds of once-common recipes disappeared. “A lot of amazing spirits went by the wayside,” Mr. Kreidler said.

This latest effort to bring back some of those lost spirits began last summer, when Ms. Beck was approached by Nicole LaBouff, an associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Ms. LaBouff had recreated a series of rooms illustrating different historical periods, and in her research had come across references to now-recherché drinks like quince ratafia.

“We thought it would be fun to not just talk about alcohol in the period rooms, but to offer a taste as well,” Ms. LaBouff said. But actually making the recipes proved a challenge — for starters, it takes a federal license, and a lot of paperwork, to run a still. “We realized we needed to contact real professionals.”

Enter Tattersall. Founded in 2015 by Mr. Kreidler and Dan Oskey, the distillery specializes in complicated, sometimes obscure spirits, like crème de fleur and pommeau, typically made with long lists of ingredients from around Minnesota, including many that they forage in the wild.

In other words, Tattersall was the perfect choice for the project, and the distillers leapt at the chance to poke through the Wangensteen holdings. “I was so giddy,” said Bentley Gillman, who oversees production and innovations for Tattersall. “I could have spent weeks in there.”

After several days in the stacks, they settled on a few dozen recipes to recreate. Some were straightforward: Milk punch, which is already enjoying a renaissance among bartenders, is made by adding citric acid to milk so it curdles, then skimming off the solids until all that’s left is a yellowish, slightly sweet liquid that is then mixed with alcohol.

Others, like plague water, required some inventive substitutions, either because the ingredients were unavailable, or they had been found to be toxic — or at least distasteful — over the intervening centuries.

“Obviously, we’re not going to put ambergris in anything today,” Mr. Gillman said, referring to a waxy secretion found in the intestines of sperm whales that was once thought to have curative qualities. (As a replacement, Mr. Gillman chose labdanum, a sticky, musky resin obtained from the rockrose, a type of bush.)

Despite all the updates and substitutions, the team didn’t know what the results would taste like; alcohol performs its own alchemy on ingredients, sometimes rendering sweet herbs bitter, or vice versa.

Nor were these recipes intended to be enjoyed in the first place. After all, said Ms. Beck, “for the most part, drinking distilled alcohol in this period was not about drinking for pleasure.”

Surprisingly, they aren’t bad. The plague water, for example, has a pleasantly earthy, herbal flavor. “I thought, ‘Plague water, how could that possibly taste good?’” Mr. Kreidler said. “But in fact it tastes like the base for chartreuse.”

Beyond the novelty of it all, Mr. Kreidler sees a practical benefit in exploring these forgotten combinations of ingredients, some of which were in use for hundreds of years.

“Looking at how these recipes put together different ingredients got us a lot closer on a lot of other projects that have had us stumped,” he said. “Some combinations of botanicals create surprising results — they just make each other pop, in a way we didn’t expect.”

As a historian who wrote her dissertation on recipe culture in 16th-century Italy, Ms. Beck said the project gave her an insight into how and what people drank that she could never have found in the texts themselves.

“Today, recipes are something we’re used to looking at a certain way, with specific ingredients, amounts and procedures,” she said. “But early recipes like these have so little of that information. The only way to understand the process is by doing it.”

After the eight spirits appear in March, Tattersall will bottle one — pear ratafia, a sort of spiced punch popular in 18th-century England — for sale. And if that goes well, who knows? Tattersall may bring some of the other spirits to market, too. But only in limited editions.

“These are niche,” Mr. Kreidler said. “We’re not going to sell a million cases of plague water.”

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