Seagram Museum Rare Book Collection

Darcy O'Neil :: August 1, 2008 9:19 PM

On an absolutely beautiful Friday morning I decided that going to a library was a better option than heading off to the beach. But, this isn't any old library, it is the University of Waterloo library that houses the collection of the former Seagram Distilling Company. This collection has over 1200 books on all things related to the production of spirits, wine and beer. The oldest book in the collection is from 1554. There is a good selection of books from the 1600's, 1700's and 1800's. With such a large collection of books, only an hour away, how could I resist.

This collection has a lot of interesting stuff, and I only managed to look through about twelve books, before I settled on five books where I took actual notes. Actually, Caroline acted as my steno pool for the day.

Here are the books I looked at and in the coming days (weeks) I’ll be posting some of the recipes from the books and other little factoids I found.

A Compleat Body of Distilling, Explaining the Mysteries of that Science in the most easy and familiar Manner, G. Smith (1731)

A very, very interesting book. This book is about 277 years old but contains a wealth of information. The recipes provided still speak of alcohol as a medicine and some (Golden Cordial) optionally include “gold leaf” as a medicinal ingredient. Goldschlager anyone?

The book also included some interesting history on “Wormwood Water”. This looks like any early precursor to Absinthe or possibly Czech absinth. I need to do a little more research, but a lot of info has been “copied” into a book called “The Complete Distiller (1757)”.  

The rum distiller's manual: for the use of sugar planters
By C.J. Hering (1855)

This was probably the second most interesting book. It contained a lot of recipes for making things like Gold Cordial, Rum Shrub, and Crème des Barbadoes.

The Vintner's, Brewer's, Spirit Merchant's, and Licensed Victualler's Guide; Containing the history, theory, and practice of manufacturing wines
By a Practical Man (1828)

This book had a lot of recipes and methods for merchants of the time. A fair number of bitter recipes, but oddly sectioned into Spirit Bitters, Wine Bitters, Brandy Bitters and Ale Bitters. This opens up a whole new area of bitters, for me anyway.

It also had a recipe for Imitation East India Arrack

Two scruples Flower of Benjamin
2 Quarts White Rum

Now, the “Flower of Benjamin” was odd, and I was thinking it was a floral extract. After a little Googling it looks like it is actually “Benzoic acid”.

Here is an interesting drink from “The Vintner's, Brewer's, Spirit Merchant's” called Sixpenny Crank. I just like the name of the drink, and think that putting any drink called “Crank” on a menu would be cool. Might attract the wrong clientele though, use at your own risk. 

Sixpenny Crank
Four penny glass of “gin and water”
add sugar and lemon
add half a glass of Fine Porter

The instructions are vague, but most vintage books are pretty easy with directions. The recipe just says “gin and water” but provides no ratio. As to the exact volume of a “four penny glass” I’m not sure, but I’ll look into it.

The Distiller's Guide, By Peter Jonas (1818)

Nothing really exciting in this book. More recipes from other books that I noticed, but it did have a recipe for “Gin Bitters” which I shall quote: “This will be a most pleasant cheap bitter, equally wholesome, and as good as many that are much dearer.” We’ll just have to see about that.

A Treatise on the Manufacture, Imitation, Adulteration, and Reduction of Foreign Wines, Brandies, Gins, Rums (1860)

This book is equivalent to the Anarchist Cookbook, but for bartenders, merchants and distillers. This book has every known method for watering down spirits, making fake and imitation brandy, rum, Monongahela Whiskey, etc. you can imagine. Interesting read.

General Notes

It seems that plagiarism was very healthy back in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Many of the books I looked at contained the same information. Basically the information from A Compleat Body of Distilling (1731) is used in a number of books after that with The Complete Distiller (1750’s) borrowing very heavily.

I don’t think I saw the word “cocktail” used at all. But I didn’t read the books from cover to cover, I just skimmed for useful information (recipes).

The library has a lot of books and other information and you could probably spend weeks going through it all. I spent 6 hours and I think it was a useful research trip. I’ll eventually make my way back to see what else I can find, but while the weather is warm, I’m going to the beach next time.

Fix the Pumps
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