Alchermes is a dark, bright red coloured liqueur that is somewhat syrupy.
It has a sweet, spicy flavour that comes from a blend of anise flowers, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, jasmine, mace, nutmeg, orange peel, sugar, and vanilla.
These ingredients are steeped in alcohol, which is then flavoured with rose water.
The alcohol content, depending on the maker, ranges from 21 to 32%.
The red colour came originally from kermes (thus its name.) It now comes from cochineal dye, which is also used to colour Campari.
Alchermes is used almost exclusively in modern times in making pastries. One exception is its use in making Mortadella di Prato.
But it can be served as a liqueur on its own, as it used to be.
This is a recipe for homemade Alchermes, though it omits the “orangey” component of its taste:
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cochineal extract
1/4 teaspoon ground star anise fruit
1/2 vanilla pod
1/2 litre (2 cups / 16 oz) of 90% alcohol
250 ml (1 cup / 8 oz) of water
1/2 kg (2 cups / 16 oz) of white sugar
100 ml (3 oz) rose water
Crush together the cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, 2 of the cloves, the cochineal extract, the star anise, and the vanilla. Put in a bottle along with the alcohol and the water. Seal the bottle. For the next two weeks, shake twice daily. Add enough cold water to the sugar to dissolve it, then add this to the bottle. Shake well, seal up again, and let sit another two days. Then filter it, mix in the rose water, and it is ready to be bottled and used.
Curaçao, Grand Marnier. For colour, add some Grenadine.
Alchermes was invented in the Frati Convent at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Its making was kept secret, but the recipe was reputedly stolen by spies from the nearby city of Siena, which Florence was often at war with.
The recipe appears in recipe collections from the 1700s on.
“Kermes” or “Chermes” comes from the Arabic word, “qirmiz”, which means scarlet. The Arabs made a fabric dye of the same colour called “al-quìrmiz.”
Sometimes mistakenly called Rosolio, but that is actually a separate product.