I’m drinking Plague Water. It’s made from a medieval-sounding roster of roots and herbs including zedoary, valerian, horehound, thistle, and rue. It tastes bitter and strange—but I have it on good authority that these ingredients are a “singular remedy against pestilence and poyson.” So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.
The recipe is from a manual called “The London-Distiller,” published by a Mr. Thomas Williams in 1667, and recreated in 2019 by head distiller Bentley Gillman at Tattersall Distilling in Northeast Minneapolis. This and other historical distillates are the culmination of a year-long collaboration with the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and the Wangensteen Historical Library of Biology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where the recipes were collected.
“Cocktail culture didn’t start until the late 1800s,” says Tattersall co-owner Jon Kreidler. “Before that, it was mostly medicinal reasons they were making a spirit.” Tattersall was contacted by the Wangensteen Library to dig into their archives and unearth the distillates of centuries past, and they found all manner of cure-alls and elixirs.
“Lots of bitters, definitely, but also aquavits, ratafias, milk punches,” Kreidler recalls from the hours he spent paging through countless recipes, both handwritten and printed, from journals, botanical guides, and medical textbooks. “The manuals would say what each of these things would cure: this one’s to cure a bad stomach, or to cure gout.”
“To provoke the urine!” Gillman laughs. “We thought a lot of these [spirits] were going to be kind of gross, or at least kind of intense and weird. But we kept being surprised.”
Together, Gillman and Kreidler resurrected floral liqueurs and anise spirits, potent bitters and clarified punches—recipes once designed to preserve beneficial oils and medicinal compounds rather than taste good. Yet Gillman turned out to be the perfect herbal interpreter and was able to use his specialized knowledge to bring the recipes into the modern day.
“Bentley knows his botanicals,” says Kreidler. “He’s a big forager.” One recipe called for ambergris, the once-prized intestinal secretion harvested from sperm whales. But Gillman knew a substitute: “Labdanum, a plant that grows in mountainous regions; they used to gather it off goat’s beards. It has a similar ambergris-type flavor. We have some essential oil in the lab, now.” (All of which also begs the question of how he knew what ambergris tastes like, to begin with.)
Many of these recipes called for ingredients that are impossible to get in Minnesota or are now known to be toxic. Yet even the more commonplace materials have been altered by time—the cinnamon that once spent months on a ship to arrive in Europe would have been far less pungent than the cinnamon you can get at Penzey’s. Centuries of fruit breeding means the pears of today are different than those of the 1700s.
While minor substitutions and changes in quantity were necessary, Gillman tried to follow their chosen recipes to the letter, even if it would involve some trial and error. “We thought, let’s make it like it says, and we’ll have to do a lot of backtracking to make it taste better,” he recalls, noting that didn’t end up being the case. “There were a couple bitters that were really intense to my palate, but some people liked that. But then there were winners, like the Pear Ratafia, that are just stupid good.”
Stupid good is the perfect way to describe ratafia, a sweet cordial made by steeping fruit in brandy with spices. The 1820s recipe calls for Cognac and quinces, which Tattersall changed to something more appropriate to the harvest of the Upper Midwest: apple brandy and pear juice. Their version tastes like a liquified cinnamon pear cake and was so delicious that they couldn’t help but bottle it for a limited release. It will be sold exclusively at France 44 in a very limited quantity early this spring.
The rest of Gillman’s exploratory spirits will be served to guests at an already sold-out event at Tattersall in early March, where they’ll be paired with historically appropriate dishes prepared by Tilia and St. Genevieve chef Steven Brown.
The project is an extension of Mia’s “Living Rooms,” an effort to showcase Mia’s interiors and decorative arts collections in new ways. Included in this effort is an installation called “Beer Before Liquor: Alcohol and its Past” that will debut at the museum on March 1, as well as a March 3 presentation by curator Bertie Mandelblatt, whose talk is called: “Intoxicated Empire: Alcohol, Consumption & Slavery in the 18th-c. Atlantic World.”