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A cordial is any invigorating and stimulating preparation that is intended for a medicinal purpose. The term derives from an obsolete usage. Various concoctions were formerly created that were believed to be beneficial to one's health, especially for the heart (cor in Latin).
Most cordials were of European origin, first produced in Italian apothecaries during the Renaissance where the art of distilling was refined during the 15th and 16th centuries. It is from this origin that cordials are frequently referred to in French as Liqueurs d’ltalie, it is also from this that we have liqueurs. From the Renaissance onwards, cordials were usually based on alcohol in which certain herbs, spices or other ingredients were allowed to steep. The first cordials arrived in England in the late 15th century and were called distilled cordial waters. These were strictly used as alcoholic medicines, prescribed in small doses to invigorate and revitalise the heart, body and spirit as well as cure diseases. By the 18th century cordials were being imbided for their intoxicating effects and medicinal virtues, and were fast becoming recreational drinks, eventually evolving into liqueurs.
Though cordials originated on the continent a number of British ‘sweet drams’ achieved popularity in Europe.
Cordials were used to renew the natural heat, recreate and revive the spirits, and free the whole body from the malignity of diseases. Many cordials were also considered aphrodisiacs, a view which encouraged their consumption in a social as opposed to a medical context. Other early varieties of alcoholic cordials were flavoured with spices and herbal ingredients which were thought to settle the stomach after excessive eating, leading to the collective name of ‘surfeit waters’ These cordials were called Surfeit Waters, which were specifically created for overindulgence.