Cordials are sweet, distilled spirits, often brightly coloured.
Their name comes from the Latin word for heart, with the idea being that a Cordial was something that would medicinally do you good, by stimulating the heart and the circulation.
They were both sold by apothecaries, and made at home. Different kinds were thought to have different medicinal benefits.
In the UK, overtime Cordial eventually came to mean any sweet, coloured thick liquid, whether alcoholic or not. In North America, the word still implies something with a kick to it.
Rose’s Lime Cordial is a good example of the usage in England today: a sweet syrup that is non-alcoholic. The product has been re-labelled “Lime Juice” in America to avoid confusing Americans who might think it was alcoholic, and around 2005, the makers switched the wording in Canada to “lime juice”, too. A few years after that, they switched back to the “Cordial” name in Canada.
In America, government regulations seem to consider the word “cordial” almost synonymous with “liqueur.” There, though, while some liqueurs may be on the dry side, Cordials are always sweet.
Cordials are generally between 17% and 30% alcohol by volume, though a few are as high as 50%.
Like liqueurs, they can be served before or after dinner.
The making of Cordials starts from a spirit such as brandy. One of three methods is then used to flavour and colour it. The method used depends on what the flavour is being extracted from.
1. Infusion or maceration
This method is used for fruit. The fruit is either crushed or left whole, then steeped in the alcohol. The alcohol is then filtered.
The fruit filtered out is then sometimes distilled to extract additional flavour, with this additional flavour then being added back into the batch.
Finally, sweetener is added.
This method is used for leaves.
It works on the same principle as does a coffee percolator.
The flavouring is placed in a container above the spirit that is to be flavoured. The spirit pumped up into this chamber and allowed to percolate down through its contents.
The percolation process may be allowed to continue for a matter of weeks or months.
The flavouring ingredient may then be distilled to extract additional flavour, with this additional flavour then being added back into the batch.
The spirit is filtered, then sweetened.
This method is used for seeds and flowers.
The seeds or flowers are steeped in alcohol for several hours, then more alcohol is added. The alcohol is then distilled, then sweetened and coloured.
Cordial glasses are very small. They only hold about an ounce (30 ml) of liquid. Inside, there is hardly enough room for a large thumb.