To Make Hippocras, a 1615 Recipe
With the holidays coming up, I thought I’d share a drink that, although it had a different use in its period, would be an excellent addition to the booze selection at any modern holiday party.
Hippocras, also known as ypocras, ipocras, and so on, is a form of sweetened spiced herbal wine that was popular in Europe during the medieval and early modern periods. The name, as you may be able to guess, derives from the name of the famous Greek physician Hippocrates, although he did not invent it.
In the Europe of this time, people believed in something called the humoral theory, or humoralism, the chief tenet of Hippocratic medicine. Humoralism posits that the body is composed of various humors, and that the foods you eat can either keep them in balance, throw them off balance, or restore balance. There is more to humoral theory, of course, but for the purpose of this post, that is the most important aspect.
Thus, as you may have gathered, hippocras was considered a medicine well into the 17th century. Not only were the spices and herbs in the wine thought to be helpful in correcting humoral imbalances and other maladies, but alcohol itself was thought to be a great deliverer of medicine. Although hippocras was initially sweetened with honey, later on sugar became the main sweetening agent. In the period in which this particular recipe was written, sugar was also considered a medicine. Thus, all around, hippocras was a medicinal drink.
Of course, just because hippocras was considered medicinal does not mean it was consumed only as medicine.
That is a little bit of background on hippocras, now on to the recipe itself.
This recipe comes from Gervaise Markham’s The English Housewife, or The English Hus-wife as was the original spelling. The book was published in 1615 and became what can only be described as a bestseller. By the 1680s, it had gone through nine editions and a couple of reprints.
My copy of the book is an edited copy from 1986, and the spelling of the recipes has already been modernized. Here is the recipe I used as it appears in my copy:
“To make hippocras
To make hippocras, take a pottle of wine, two ounces of good cinnamon, half an ounce of ginger, nine cloves, and six pepper corns, and a nutmeg, and bruise them and put them into the wine with some rosemary flowers, and so let them steep all night, and then put in sugar a pound at least; and when it is well settled, let it run through a woollen bag made for that purpose: thus if your wine be claret, the hippocras will red; if white, then of that colour also.” 1
The woolen bag, known as the sleeve of Hippocrates, was often used by apothecaries to strain hippocras, and gave the sweet concoction its name.
When I first started working on this recipe, it struck me that it used a lot of spices, which were still very expensive in Europe. Furthermore, it also uses quite a bit of sugar, which was also very expensive at the time. As such, it strikes me that this was likely not a drink to which the masses had access; it was a drink, medicinal or otherwise, for wealthy people.
In a broader context, this was a drink steeped – pun intended – in colonialism and enslaved labor, from the spice-producing regions of Asia to the sugar plantations of the Americas. In medieval times, it had been different, the dynamics of trade were different, but the so-called discovery of the New World changed everything.
The recipe is very precise in quantities, but one of the measurements is pretty obscure: “a pottle.” A pottle is half a gallon, and that is where it gets complicated. What type and size gallon? No, not all gallons were created equal. In fact, even today a gallon in the United States is not the same as a gallon in the United Kingdom.
I had to do some sleuthing, and concluded that my best way forward was to assume that a pottle in this case was half of an imperial gallon, which , although adopted in the 19th century, was very close to the older ale gallon. This is not an exact science though, nor does it need to be. Fortunately, in this case, a pottle turned out to be almost exactly 3 750ml-bottles, which made scaling down the recipe pretty easy.
After all the calculations, weighings, and approximations were done, this is the adapted recipe:
1 750ml-bottle of wine
4 cinnamon sticks
a thin slice of fresh ginger
3 whole cloves
1/3 of a whole nutmeg
a few rosemary leaves
3/4 cups (6 oz) sugar
Pour the wine into a container with a lid.
Place the cinnamon, ginger, cloves, peppercorns, nutmeg and rosemary in a mortar and crush them roughly. Add the spices to the wine, stir, and cover. Allow it to sit overnight. There is no need to refrigerate.
The next day, add the sugar to the wine mix and stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Strain through a few layers of cheesecloth. Discard the spices.
May be served warm, cold, or at room temperature.
That’s it! It’s a no cook recipe, which could not be easier.
I could not find rosemary flowers, I have never even seen any, so I just put a few leaves in instead. As I said earlier, this is not an exact science; you can choose which spices and herbs to add, and which to leave out. Even period recipes vary in how they are spiced, with cinnamon being present in most of them.
This drink is very syrupy, and the flavor of the spices is not at all overpowering. What comes through the most is the cinnamon, but you can definitely tell there is something else in there.
I used white wine, chardonnay to be exact, but it really doesn’t matter what type you use. I would recommend against using sparkling wine because the effervescence would simply go away with the sitting out overnight, but other than that, go wild.
This is certainly not medicine today, but it does taste great, and you don’t even have to be rich to make it!