Making Custom Cordials

Kate Briggs on Herbal Elixirsby Kate Briggs, CH

 I recently attended a cordial-making class taught by NAIMH graduate and certified herbalist Amber Brisson. A lively discussion ensued on the history of cordials, preparation methods, and ingredient choices. We sipped Damiana, fresh Rose, and tequila cordial after port wine, crystallized Ginger, Fennel, and Cardamom pod cordial. There were others both purely medicinal and purely fun. The class was an inspiring reminder of how delicious herbal preparations can be and how creative medicine is. The week following the class I found myself scribbling down flavor combinations and ideas on page corners. Yesterday I finally put those scribbles to use, made a mess in the kitchen, and made cordial.

I learned from Amber that cordials emerged out of Renaissance Europe during the refinement of distillation. The word cordial stems from 14th century French meaning ‘of the heart’ and from Medieval Latin cordialis meaning ‘of or for the heart.’ Basically an alcoholic maceration of herbs and spices, cordials were popular medicinal panaceas used to “invigorate and revitalize the heart, body, and spirit, as well as cure disease.”

Today, cordials can be enjoyed as delicious beverages, as medicinals (immune tonics, sleep remedies, aphrodisiacs, and digestive aides), and for other practical purposes. They can be added to marinades, glazes, and jams; used to enhance carmelization when roasting vegetables and meats; and can be a way to utilize excess herbs and fruit. Cordials also make great gifts.

From Fenner’s Complete Formulary and Handbook 1888: “Cordials and Elixirs: those which contain aromatic substances and mild medicines, sweetened and combined with sufficient alcohol to keep them and hold their properties in solution.” Technically speaking, elixirs use dried plant material and cordials use fresh but the formal distinction between the two is largely lost today.

The possibilities are endless when it comes to cordials. While brandy is the most traditional menstruum used, a variety of other base alcohols can balance flavors or highlight nuances of selected herbs. Sweeteners vary too. Think beyond typical sugar and bring in flavor complexity with honey, maple syrup, molasses, fruit concentrates, glycerin, or Stevia. Most importantly, have fun, be creative, be open to experimentation, and don’t be afraid to make a mess.

Making Cordial:

  • Basic Method (2-6 weeks):
    • Prepare ingredients –
      • Grind dried herbs (mortar and pestle, coffee grinder, blender, etc.) or chop fresh herbs
      • Chop fruit into small pieces
  • Choose a jar that allows for a small amount of leftover space not utilized by liquid or solid content
  • Place prepared herbs and fruit into a jar
    • Fresh herbs: fill jar ¾ full (fresh herbs take up more space and contain water)
    • Dried herbs and fruit: fill jar ¼ to ½ full
      • Consider ¼ full if using roots, barks, and berries
      • Consider ½ full if using aerial parts, flowers, and leaves
  • Pour selected alcohol over herbs. Most cordials range from 17-30% alcohol by volume, up to 50%.
    • Brandy is traditionally used but tequila, vodka, gin, pure grain alcohol, rum, whiskey, wine, and port are also good options.
      • Each alcohol brings out different characteristics of the ingredients
        • Brandy is best for spicy, pungent flavors by toning down these qualities
        • Pure grain alcohol makes a dramatic, sharp cordial
        • Gin is generally difficult to formulate with due to its strong base flavor
        • If using tequila, choose silver because it hasn’t been aged in oak barrels that may interfere with flavor complexities
        • Vodka has a neutral taste – great for making cordials
    • Make sure the alcohol covers the ingredients by at least 2 inches
    • To make a cordial shelf-stable, 20% of the total volume of cordial must be alcohol and the alcohol must be at least 40% alcohol by volume
  • Lid, label, and date jar
  • Store in a cool dark place for 2-6 weeks. For added complexity, aim for 6 weeks
    • Shake consistently
    • Check to make sure ingredients are adequately covered with alcohol. Add more alcohol if there is any exposed plant material as mold and fermentation can result
  • Decant
    • Place a funnel into the mouth of an additional jar
    • Place muslin or cheesecloth into the funnel
    • Pour the maceration into the funnel
    • If using dried plant material, squeeze out excess liquid from the muslin/cheesecloth
      • Do not squeeze if using fresh plant material as particles may be pushed into the final product at a risk of fermentation
  • Sweeten
    • Sugar, honey, molasses, fruit concentrates, simple syrup, stevia, and glycerin are all options
    • Traditionally, cordials are relatively sweet; as much as ½ part of sweetener to 1 part alcohol maceration
    • Start with ¼ cup to ½ cup sweetener to 1 quart alcohol maceration, adding a little bit at a time
  • Ageing
    • Not a necessary part in the process but does add complexity to the final product
    • At this point, additional fruit, herbs, and spices can be added to enhance certain flavors
    • For example, place a Cinnamon stick or Vanilla bean in the jar with the final pressed cordial

 

Recipes

Elixir of Love

The first cordial passed around at Amber’s class inspired the following recipe. The pairing of Damiana and tequila produces a dramatic smoky and sweet flavor I find brilliant. Amber aged her version by placing a Cinnamon stick in the menstruum after sweetening it.

3 parts Damiana

1 ½ parts Rose petals

½ part Cinnamon chips

1 part Cacao nibs

2 parts Tulsi

Silver tequila

Honey

Anise Digestive

This is a true experiment. I haven’t tried it yet because it is still macerating. The combination of Fig and Anise is fabulous in other food preparations and I’m excited to try it in cordial. To see if the flavors worked together before making a cordial, I decocted the Anise, Fennel, and Black Peppercorns on the stove. The mixture of sweet and spicy effectively warmed my digestion.

1 part Anise seeds

1 part Fennel seeds

½ part whole Black Peppercorns, un-ground

4 parts dried Figs

1 Vanilla bean, slit lengthwise and seeds scraped out

Congestion Cordial

2 parts Licorice

1 part Echinacea root

1 part Elecampane

¼ part dried Ginger

1 Cinnamon stick

Sources

Fenner’s Complete Formulary and Handbook, 1888

Herbal Preparations, Bastyr University, Winter 2011

Herbal Infused Cordials and Elixirs for the Holidays, Amber Brisson, November 2013

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