Tuesday, December 29, 2009

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Tracking Old Family Cordial Recipes

Americans may have forgotten some of the finer points of making tonics, tinctures, and infusions at home but we are, bit by bit, figuring them out again.

Take cocktail bitters. Hats off to all the bartenders making their own (and, please, keep doing so) but housemade bitters no longer raise eyebrows. Not because they are dull or passé, but because, more and more, we are coming to expect a level of applied curiosity in our bartenders. Bitters are one of the more familiar expressions of that trend.

As part of unboxing our own curiosities about the nation’s drinking past, older homemade beverages such as dandelion wine, sloe gin, and cherry bounce are showing up here and there. It’s a trend worth encouraging.

Tracking down those old recipes takes some legwork. Oh, sure you can find reprints of plenty of old bartending manuals for the 19th-century recipes, but sometimes our own friends and families can be surprising sources of information. I can’t even count the number of friends—city dwellers and professionals—who talked to me about my research into moonshine, found it totally alien, then reported back sometime later surprised to find that their own uncle, grandfather, cousin, or mother had first-hand experience making or moving applejack, corn liquor, or other black-market hooch.

I assure you, it’s the same with cordials, ratafias, tonics, and other homemade alcoholic beverages in your own family. While the holidays are still under way, ask around your own families and office parties to see who’s been making what. And, if anyone demurs with “Oh, that old stuff,” press ahead. It’s how my mother’s rumtopf recipe ended up in my moonshine book under the title The Stuff squared off against a recipe for curtido y mistela, a recipe from Chiapas from my good friend Noe. Who gave him the recipe? His mother.

That his mother supplied a recipe for homemade cordial isn’t surprising. Keep in mind that, from Charlemagne’s France through Elizabethan England to today, women tend to be the keepers of these recipes. Of course, men make boozy concoctions, but odds are, if there’s a written recipe for homemade drinks, it’s in a woman’s hand, so talk to aunts, grandmothers, and the extended networks of cousins. Below are some thoughts for tracking down older cordial recipes. And, remember, it's not just the ounces of this and the pints of that—the meat of the stories lies in how and when they were used and by whom:

  • Ask about holiday parties from years past
  • Browse through old family Bibles or journals for spare recipes tucked in between the pages
  • Go through handwritten recipe books or cards with the woman who wrote or inherited them, asking about drinks recipes
  • Ask how your older relatives kept cool in the summer (Do they remember August before air conditioning? Did they have a cellar with home-canned goods? What else was down there?)
  • Ask how they kept warm in the winter (tactfully, now—you aren’t suggesting that they are coeval with dinosaurs)
  • Ask what they did with wine/liquor bottles once they’d been emptied
  • If they keep gardens or fruit bushes/trees, ask where it all goes at the end of the season
  • Ask about traditional drinks brought from ancestors who immigrated to your country (anything from French vin cuit to Puerto Rican coquito)
  • Was there a special bottle that kids weren’t supposed to get into? Ask about it.
  • Ask what would be a good drink to put up on a child’s birth for his 21st birthday
For the record, my recipe for cherry bounce is posted over at Tuthilltown spirits. Very nice when made with corn whiskey, but bourbon is just fine…

What does your family put up in bottles and jugs?

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