This Day in History: 1879

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I’ve been collecting books from the University of California’s wine and liquor research bibliographies for a long time now. I’ve finally turned up a few oldies that reveal a tiny glimpse of what was being imbibed in the hay day of the cocktail era.

The sources mainly focus on wine and distilled spirits which were studied to death to provide really detailed finger prints of what people were drinking well into the 19th century.

Liqueurs (think Cointreau, Chartreuse, etc.) were not studied in so much detail. They were economically very significant because they are taxed so high, but most all researchers just throw up their hands in confusion when analyzing them because of the variety. All of the metrics they put liqueurs through showed massive variance that barely seems useful unless you are just curious about one proprietary product. (and luckily I am!)

Herstein and Gregory’s The Technology and Chemistry of Wines and Liqueurs (1935) is brilliant when it comes to wines and spirits analyses but becomes kind of silly in their liqueurs chapter. According to Herstein and Gregory, liqueurs come in grades like average (sub divided into single strength and double strength), good, very good, excellent. The biggest difference between average and excellent is an increase in alcohol as well as sugar. Of course there is no empirical data to back up their categorization, but they do also provide recipes for the same liqueur of different grades to show how proportions of ingredients changed.

The text has tons of recipes but is written in the “shovelware” style. Many look like they were plagiarized and never tried. Some don’t seem to work because they are missing information like how big the recipe is supposed to be. The recipes are prefaced with the warning that they are only examples, but it is still half assed for an otherwise incredibly thorough text.

When you go back this far in time (1935) the bibliographies are dominated by foreign languages. Many of the charts are borrowed from these foreign language sources and are hard to track down. Herstein and Gregory borrow a chart from Leach (Leach, a. e. Food Inspection and Analysis. New York 1920) who borrowed it from the famous German chemist Joesph Konig. Konig’s (I’m missing an umlaut on the “o” of his last name) book Chemie Der Menschlichen Nahrungs- Und Genussmittel (I’m not sure if I cited the title correctly) has many editions which goes back to the end of the 19th century.

Konig has a chart that analyzes many famous liqueurs for many metrics. The only numbers of value to us are specific gravity, alcohol content and sugar content (if you know what ash content means let me know).

here goes: (1879 edition)

benedictiner-bitter specific gravity 1.0709, alcohol 52%, sugar (g/L) 325.7

creme de menthe                          1.0447,              48%,                  276.3

annisette de bordeaux                   1.0847,              42%                    344.4

curacao                                          1.0300               55%                    285.0

The 1918 edition doesn’t seem to have a chart but rather summarizes the results in a paragraph. (it took me a while to figure that out because I don’t speak German. I just found all of the search terms in a paragraph with most of the figures. I think the paragraph also references another text where the data may be borrowed from.)

another edition adds…. (1920)

ginger                                              1.0481              47.5%                   259.2

kummel                                           1.0830              33.9%                   311.8

pfefferminz-likor (pepper mint)       1.1429              34.5%                    473.1

chartreuse (green?)                        1.0799             43.18%                   343.5

punsch (schwedischer)                  1.1030               26.3%                   332.0

maraschino                                      1.1042              31.76%                 346.8

This famous chart also comes up other texts like The Chemical Engineer, Volume XXI. 1915 (a journal)

The significance of this all is that we see a very early sugar and alcohol ethic of the products. The majority of the emotional content of a drink comes from these relationships plus acidity (we make the assumption that lemons haven’t changed much in acid over 120 years)

Since then alcohol contents have gone down. Sugar contents have stayed the same for some products and gone down slightly in others. Cointreau is slightly less sweet than 280 g/L and I’m pretty sure the Chartreuses are down into the 200’s as well which would be the biggest migration. Which Chartreuse was not explicitly specified, but if probability favors green, the alcohol has also increased significantly.

The last commercially bottled Swedish Punsch I came across (Carlshamns Flag Punsch) had 1.082 specific gravity, 26% alcohol and 267 g/L sugar. Switching bottlings would definitely change the emotional content of a drink with Swedish Punsch.

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3 thoughts on “This Day in History: 1879

  1. Ash content would be the amount of non-burning solids, i.e. mineral content. This is measured by boiling off the water and burning off the carbon at a high temperature. In this case it gives, I suppose, a measure of how much “stuff” is in the liqueur that is neither water, sugar, nor alcohol. Keep up the good work–every time I get a chance to check your blog I’m always blown away by the research you’re doing.

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