While lost in leisure somewhere in the Loire Valley, my Frenchman and I attempted to make this storied spiced wine for the turning of the year, armed with nothing but an old rudimentary recipe. Don’t let that emphatically French voice from the Middle Ages deceive you: although instructions vary and call for a wee bit of creativity, making your very own Hypocras is a simple process.
Hypocras (or hippocras, ypocras, and hippocras, among other spellings) is commonly believed to have originated with Hippocrates, the great Greek physician of the 5th century BC, but the name more likely stems from the cone-shaped filter used to strain the wine (the manicum hippocraticum). The history of spiced wine in general nonetheless extends back to the ancient Mediterranean.
The Crusaders apparently encountered Hypocras while in the Orient. Captivated by this magical “potion”, the knights carried it back to the West, where it subsequently garnered a reputation as an aphrodisiac and was served as a digestive aid. As the concoction evolved into the fashionable drink of the Medieval and Renaissance periods, it was favored by personages such as Henri IV and Louis XIV.
Hypocras is still produced in France2 in small quantities, but it is usually glimpsed at recreations of medieval feasts, where the sweet beverage once played an important role in the meal’s finale. The first extant recipe in English appears in the famous recipe collection known as the Forme of Cury (1390) and many later recipes were published in French.
Hypocras – along with sugar – was taken as a medication, and a bottle of the stuff was also a fine gift to give to one’s host (you might obtain the packet of spices from the local apothecary).3 After the 16th century, recipes began incorporating fruit and even milk, but the drink fell into disuse in the 18th century.
The simple mingling of warming spices and herbs with wine encourages circulation during the winter months. Although the drink is traditionally served very cold, we re-heated a portion of our Hypocras to try as a mulled wine – with pleasant results.
The sheer variation in recipes may have led Medieval households to create their own peculiar recipes and thus to uniquely affirm their social identities,3 so use whatever combination of the herbs and wines that you want and call it your house blend!
What You’ll Need
1. White wine and/or Red wine OR a dessert wine
We used French (2012) Chardonnay (12.5%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (13%). The suggestion from the seasoned French folks who witnessed our efforts is to use light ordinary wines, and to not exceed 11% for the white and 11.5% for the red. As you can see, our choices were a bit too strong.
There is some argument that Hypocras is made only with red and served at the end of a meal, while white wine denotes a related drink that was served at the beginning as an aperitif. On this topic, explore the books by Scully & Scully and Redon et al. below.4
2. Herbs and Spices of your choice
Standard historical choices: Cinnamon, Ginger (dried or fresh), Grains of Paradise, Cardamom, Clove, Nutmeg, Mace, Rose petals, Long Pepper, Vanilla bean, Marjoram, Rosemary, Spikenard, Coriander, and even Juniper Berries. The Frenchman’s mother had on hand another mysterious packet of Hypocras herbs that featured Anise.5
As a general rule: experiment with quantities of roughly 1/2 - 1 tsp of each of your spices. Use smaller amounts of the stronger herbs and greater amounts of weaker ones you wish to accentuate. For example, be careful to use Clove in moderation, as it is capable of a powerful and harsh domination in the infusion.
3. Honey or Sugar
At some point in the past, honey was designated for the common people and sugar for the lords! The changing availabilities of both sweeteners also resulted in recipes shifting throughout time, and many of the old recipes do not give measurements.
Therefore, begin with ½ cup of sugar or honey per bottle of wine, and adjust up to 1 ½ cups according to personal taste, testing as you infuse. We did not use sugar but chose honey instead for its antibacterial and immune-boosting properties.
If using a dessert wine, do not use a sweetener.
What To Do
Slightly bruise your herbs and spices to help release their properties. Then add them to the wine along with your sweetener.
Infuse the mixture over the stove top (you may want to use a cloth bag for the herbs to avoid straining them out afterwards). If using sugar, heat the wine mixture to a light simmer for a few minutes and until the sugar is dissolved. If using honey, add only after you’ve simmered the mixture for a few minutes and have removed it from the stove.
Then chill and serve very cold. Our recipe instructed us to chill the Hypocras for 6-12 hours. It would be wise to do a taste test at the 6, 12, and 24-hour marks according to your personal preferences and because your chosen blend will be unique. That being said, some recipes call for letting the mixture infuse for 48 hours or even a full week.
Serve your Hypocras as an aperitif with fruit or cheese. Pastries are also a lovely complement to the drink, especially if you used a dessert wine as the base. Use additionally in cuisine for sauces (glazing duck, for example) or for marinating dried fruit. À votre santé!
1 “Lecture Contre-façon recette médiévale.” La Fête des Fous. Perotin, Pierre de Corbeil, Gautier de Coinci Manuscrit de Sens, chansons et conduits du XIIIe siècle. Obisidienne. Emmanuel Bonnardot.
2 Mostly in regional speciality stores, such as those in Ariège and Pyrénées.
3 Scully, D. Eleanor and Scully, Terence. Early French Cookery: Sources, History, Original Recipes and Modern Adaptations. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.
4 Redon, Odile; Sabban, Françoise; Serventi, Silvano. Trans. Edward Schneider. The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.