Cordial waters and alchemy

One of the highlights of the "Gold and gems" temporary exhibition currently on show at the History of Pharmacy Collection in Cluj-Napoca is the recreation of cordials and a discussion on how they were produced. 

Cordial waters were based on the idea of the alchemists’ Aurum potabile, pure gold liquefied according to secret methods, considered universal medicine (panaceum) and a true Elixir of Life. Alchemists believed gold to be a pure substance, thus its consumption could only benefit the body. Still, some 15th-16th c. texts mention intoxications with gold and even deaths.

Cordial waters imitated the properties of that noble metal. Their golden color was obtained with saffron (Crocus sativus, the most expensive of spices, as each flower only has three stigmata), but the most expensive variants also contained flecks of gold.

Recreation of cordial water containing saffron and gold flecks

Crocus sativus flower,
Another connection to alchemy is that cordials contained alcohol, obtained through distillation in the alembic and the retort, two of the typical instruments of the alchemists. The alembic had three parts: the curcubit, the heated still pot containing the liquid to be distilled, the ambic, which fits over the mouth of the cucurbit to receive the vapors, with an attached downward-sloping "tube" and the receiving kabila. Retorts have the ambic and the cucurbit made into one.
Alembic and retort in the reconstructed laboratory of the History of Pharmacy Collection in Cluj-Napoca

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