Today we use bitter liqueurs, like Ramazzotti, Fernet and Poli, as a form of digestif, to help with our over-indulgent nature. Sometimes sweet liqueurs, or cocktails, can provide some relief after we've gorge at the trough of gluttony. Before our "modern" digestive aids, there were similar cordials (1700's) that served the same purpose. These cordials were called Surfeit Water, which were specifically created for overindulgence. They differed from Bitters, in that pharmacists and doctors provided bitters for your ill's, where Surfeit Water was provided by your saloon keeper.
Now, in the 1700's, the difference between a saloon keeper and a pharmacists wasn't much, and both were prone to prescribing a variety of alcohol based mixtures that were suppose to "cure what ails you". For the most part, the alcohol just made you forget your pains, but there are some proven ingredients that did offer some relief. Anise, liquorice and the peppercorns are three that have been used to ease an upset stomach.
The other ingredient, and the one that most defines Surfeit Water, is the poppy. Now, I'm sure you are thinking that the opiates, from the poppy, would cures a lot of things, in a similar context to alcohol but with added kick, and you would be right. But, from the recipes I've found, especially for Red Surfeit Water, indicate that Papaver Rhoeas (corn poppy, Red poppy, field poppy) are to be used. This variety of poppy does not contain the alkaloids found in the opium producing varieties. There is some anecdotal evidence that some minor sedative properties may be imparted by this species of poppy, which may explain its use in a liqueur that aids in digestive discomfort. Similar effects have been noted with the Blue Lotus Flower.
The recipes that follow, are legal and would not cause any adverse effects if imbibed. Again, the Red Poppy does not contain opium alkaloids. A comparison would be thujone in wormwood, and as we all should know, thujone, at normal absinthe concentrations, is effectively harmless. The use of poppy in a bitter, or digestif, is something that would add flavour, but would not get your bar labelled as "that opium den".
Red Surfeit Water
(from the Complete Distiller 1757)
This recipe makes 10 gallons.
2 Bushels of Red Poppies*
11 Gallons of Clean Proof Spirit
10 oz Caraway Seed
10 oz Coriander Seed
10 oz Liquorice Root
4 oz Cardamom Pods
5 oz Cinnamon
3 oz Ginger
3 oz Mace
3 oz Nutmeg
4 oz Cubebs
3 oz Juniper Berry
1 tsp Cloves
5 lbs Raisins
Add the poppy flowers to the alcohol and digest for 3 days in a warm place, or until all of the colour from the flower has been extracted. Press out the liquor from the flowers. To the poppy flower tincture add the remaining ingredients and digest for 3 more days. Strain and then add 1 gallon of Rose Water and sugar to taste. Fine filter using a jelly bag.
*In most cases the black center of the poppy is to be cut out and discarded and the petals are the only part used.
This is a complex recipe that would produce a significant quantity of Surfeit Water, but it's more to demonstrate what was used in these cordial waters, to give the experimentally minded a starting point. Here is another recipe.
1 Peck of Poppy Flowers (blacks removed)
3 Qts Aquavit
2 Qts Sack (Sherry)
4 oz Raisins
4 oz Figs (sliced)
2 oz Liquorice Root
2 oz Anise
20 Pepper Corns
Add the poppy flowers to the aquavit (or high proof spirit of your choice) for 2 to 3 days. Strain and add the remaining ingredients. Steep for one month, agitating every couple of days. Strain and filter, sweeten with sugar and bottle.
This recipe is more convenient and could easily be cut in half. The recipes don't dictate a quantity of sugar and merely imply that you are to sweeten it to your particular tastes, but do remember this is a cordial liqueur.
2 Gallons Brandy
½ oz Nutmeg
½ oz Cinnamon
½ oz Ginger
Add a quantity of poppy flowers to the brandy and steep over night. Squeeze the poppies to extract all of the brandy and colour. Add fresh poppy flower and repeat until the colour of the liquor is deep red. Add the spiced and steep for 20 days in a warm place, shaking occasionally. Strain and filter, then add 4 oz of sugar for every quart of liquid.
If you can't find fresh poppy petals, you can substitute with half the quantity of dried petals. If you want to work with poppy seeds, the oil will be nutty in flavour, and similar to orgeat.
There are many, many recipes for Surfeit Waters and would rival the number of recipes for bitters today. I haven't come across any modern bitter recipes using poppies, but in the cooking world poppy seeds are used in many dishes, and the ubiquitous poppy seed bagel is an example. Maybe it's time to revisit Surfeit Water and the idea of "poppy water".