Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Alkermes: The Scarlet Elixir

Elixirs pander to the belief that vexations of body and mind can be cured with a restorative potion that prolongs life. Like perfume, the more complex and exotic the formula, the richer the folklore and purported power associated with it. Alkermes is a scarlet elixir of Arabic origin that was popularized by the monks of Santa Maria Novella in 17th century Italy. The carefully guarded recipe was created in 1743 by Dominican friar Cosimo Bucceli for the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. It is likely that the Medici family, who allowed the monks to open their pharmacy to the public, passed the Persian formula onto Bucceli as the tonic was nicknamed “The Elixir of Medici”.

Yūhannā Ibn Māsawaih, a Persian physician to the caliph of Bagdad, is credited with inventing the original, non-alcoholic version of Alkermes in the 9th century. In its heyday Alkermes was a luxurious medicinal drink used as a restorative by royalty and the elite. The ingredients used in Māsawaih’s recipe read like a formula for an exotic perfume; aloes, apple juice, ambergris, cinnamon, gold leaf, honey, kermes, musk, powdered lapis lazuli, crushed pearls, raw silk, and rosewater.* Imagine rare ingredients suspended in a scarlet drink so richly colored you can feel your pupils dilate the moment you look at it. Who would not think of Alkermes as a revivifying elixir? Notions of its rare and expensive materials are enough to send the senses spinning.

Qirmez means scarlet in Arabic, hence the name of the elixir. The original “kermes” was derived from Kermes vermilio a parasitic insect found on Mediterranean oak trees that was used to create crimson dyes. Cochineal replaced the exotic kermes in Bucceli’s recipe as it was regarded as a superior red colorant with medicinal properties in 17th century Europe. Cochineal is a crushed powder derived from parasitic insects found on prickly pear cactus plants and like kermes, was originally used to dye fabric. The Arabic formula for Alkermes underwent additional changes in Florence. Clove, nutmeg and orange blossom replaced semi-precious stones, musk and gold leaf in the original formula, adding flavor and health benefits to an elixir that aided those experiencing melancholy, fainting spells and heart palpitations. One wonders if the presence of flavinoids is responsible for the alleged health benefits associated with cochineal and kermes as each possesses an intense red colorant that resembles antioxidant anthocyanins in berries.

Alkermes reveals notes of cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon and coriander seed at first sip. Middle notes of clove, orange and star anise glide along the palate with provocative spicy hints that quietly fade. A shadow of rose appears in the finish, enhancing the visual relationship one has with the scarlet color of this sweet and aromatic drink. Alkermes is not only drunk neat; it is used to soak the layer of sponge cake in zuppa inglese, the Tuscan version of English trifle. Because the liquor’s flavor blends well with cream and milk, it has found its way into the flavor repertoire of gelato. Alkermes from Santa Maria Novella is available for purchase at stores in New York and Los Angeles. Neither of the retail stores has the authority to ship liquor at this time, but that shouldn’t stop you from getting on a plane or safely making your own. Food grade Alkermes extract may be purchased from Fante’s Kitchenware Shop (1-800-44-FANTE). A simple recipe for making the liquor is available on their website and is worth the time and effort.


Beware of online recipes for homemade Alkermes that advocate use of cochineal dye as unpasteurized insects contain salmonella, an infectious bacteria known to cause severe gastrointestinal illness. Food grade cochineal is derived from carminic acid, the pigment producing material in cochineal. Carminic acid is chemically isolated, pasteurized and used as a coloring agent in cosmetics and food.

A record of ingredients used in Italian Alkermes can be found in Arnold James Cooley’s A Cyclopaedia of Six Thousand Practical Receipts and Collateral (D. Appelton & Company, 1850), 48.

Monks have had an historical hand in the creation of medicinal elixirs that have evolved into modern apéritifs. Friar Cosimo Bucceli followed in the footsteps of Venetian monk Dom Bernardo Vincelli; the monk who created Benedictine in 1510 at the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. (The recipe for Benedictine is based on an esoteric 16th century manuscript that included an elixir formula). In 1737 Frère Jerome Maubec, a Carthusian apothecary, deciphered a complex recipe for “an elixir for long life” that was obtained from an ancient manuscript donated to his order in 1607. The resulting creation was dubbed Chartreuse, a medicinal liquor which contains over 130 herbs and flowers. The exact recipe is a trade secret known by two monks at the abbey who prepare the ingredients for maceration and aging.

Photo of Alkermes by Coctailian on Flickr.


*Green, Amy Butler, “Alkermes: A Liqueur of Prodigious Strength,” Gastronomica (Winter 2007): no. 7.1, 25-30.