An abridged history of traditional polish tinctures

Ancient times

Tincture (“nalewka” in Polish) is an aged liqueur/cordial made with fruits, sugar, honey, herbs, or flowers and spices. The flavorful concoction is macerated in vodka or rectified spirits.

In ancient times, only low-percentage ABV (alcohol by volume) alcoholic beverages such as wines, beers, and meads were known early on.

Egyptian priests were the first to distill alcohol from wine, probably in the fifth century BC.

A hundred years later, distillation was already known to the Greeks, and then also to the Romans. Unfortunately, as with many ancient skills, this knowledge was forgotten after the fall of the Roman Empire.

Arab alchemists in the eighth century AD rediscovered the distillation process, calling the resulting product “alcohol.” The appellation favored by inhabitants of Europe was “the water of life,” which, in Latin, translates into “aqua vitae” and later led to usage in Poland of the term “okowita”—Polish for spirit(s).

The entire process of manufacturing alcohol was surrounded by strict secrecy. The Arabs had a monopoly on the production of this valuable liquid, upon which they also based medicinal preparations. They lost their exclusivity when, in 1296, Arnaldus de Villanueva, a Spanish alchemist and professor at the French University of Montpellier, learned to distill ethyl alcohol from wine. He incorporated the Arabic recipe into his distillation process.

In subsequent centuries, alcohol’s status as a medicine-only compound was replaced by its burgeoning popularity as a consumable to be imbibed for pure pleasure. Recipes for whiskey, Armagnac, rum, and cognac were created.

And what about Poland and our tinctures (nalewka)?

We initiated the distillation of grain spirit just prior to 1550. Grain, being the main Polish export commodity at that time, was the most readily available ingredient. However, vodka obtained after diluting the spirit with water had a serious disadvantage—bad taste. Because the process of rectification, i.e., the redistillation of spirit, was not yet known, drinking pure vodka with pleasure was difficult.

Various methods were undertaken in an effort to improve the taste. The original technique, which proved to be quite effective, was aging the vodka. However, this procedure required extensive time. Consequently, faster and more time-efficient methodologies were developed to enhance the taste of vodka, including the inclusion of fruits, grasses, herbs, honey, roots, etc.

Over time, earlier recipes for tinctures were refined and new recipes were created, often passed down from one generation to the next. Alcoholic tinctures have also been established as highly efficacious aids in helping to preserve the healing properties of herbs. Unlike infusions, tinctures primarily contain active ingredients that are soluble in alcohol.

In the olden days, medicinal herbal tinctures could be found in most Polish homes. Ladies’ dressing tables did not lack cosmetic tinctures from rose petals, calendula, lavender, lily of the valley, or arnica.

Nowadays, tinctures are usually associated with the Polish gentry/nobles of the seventeenth–nineteenth centuries. Literature, diaries, and calendars inform us that every self-respecting household had to have a first-aid kit containing “cordials,” which were not lacking in drinks harboring such ingredients as cumin, anise, and pepper. In the event of various ailments or as precautionary measures, these cordials were consumed, of course, in “pharmacy” amounts.

The significant role of tinctures in Polish daily life back then may be evidenced by the fact that, while ordinary drinks were stored in the basement or another separate room in the house, the most valuable tinctures could be found only in a locker with a closely guarded key. Each noble family cared about secret recipes no less than the clan’s coat of arms.

The tradition of making tinctures has returned. Today, more and more people are searching for old tincture recipes specific for their region or created by their ancestors and kept by relatives.

At a time when it’s increasingly difficult to buy natural products with high-grade, proven composition, making tinctures yourself is becoming more and more appealing. This do-it-yourself appeal is intensified by the fact that preparing homemade tinctures is not complicated; good-quality ingredients, a verified recipe, an abundance of patience, and reasonable creativity are enough.

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