Happy New Year! Though perhaps everybody is perhaps a little tired of celebrating things by now, I finally have time to talk about my favorite insect-laced booze, so let’s go!
For a few years now I have been rounding out my December birthday with a small toast from a very special bottle, an Italian liquor called Alkermes, produced by the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Its bright red color (and its name) comes from one of the earliest dyes in the world, a scale insect whose bright color was the prize of textile manufacturers and physicians for centuries.
Qirmez means scarlet in Arabic, and the name is also given to the insect itself, Kermes vermilio. These small insects feed on Mediterranean oaks, and the immobile females produce carminic acid in record amounts to deter predators, giving them a deep red color. Its ability to lend vitality to wool and silk led to its belief that it could restore health and vitality in humans as well. The 8th-century Assyrian physician Yuhanna ibn Masawaih is credited for inventing the non-alcoholic version of alchermes, a recipe combining all sorts of exotic and revered ingredients. It was used as a general tonic to restore vitality and cure palpitations and other ailments for centuries. Among other physicians, its recipe was passed down to an order of Domnican monks who created pharmaceuticals out of their church, Santa Maria Novella. Production of medicines became profitable, and was eventually handed over to a separate business by the 15th century. By the 1800s liquors were being created, including Alkermes, sold as a powerful restorative.
By then the oak-sipping Kermes insect had been traded out for Cochineal, the dye that most natural carmine is made from today. Cochineal is also a scale insect Dactylopius coccus of the superfamily Coccoidea, but hails instead from Central and South America, feeding on cacti. For centuries colonial Mexico provided the Spanish empire with a near-monopoly of cochineal by exploiting indigenous labor and resources, its high value crashing sharply only after the appearance of the plant-derived dye Alizarin.
Whether from Kermes or Dactylopius, the bright color of Alkermes has endured the centuries. Today it is still manufactured in small amounts in the same historic location. Alkermes is used today as a flavoring in Italian desserts, or imbibed neat as an herbal liquor.
If making it sounds complicated, Getting ahold of a bottle is not an easy task either. In the USA, there are currently no importers of Santa Maria Novella, due to some international tussle. But back in 2008, they were still importing them to a couple of stores in LA and New York, so I got lucky.
I had to wait until a friend was visiting LA for a vacation. I handed her a wad of cash and directions where to go. Unfortunately she returned by plane, so the large glass liquid bottle had to remain in her LA friend’s house for months until my wife and I visited Los Angeles ourselves. We decided to meet our friend’s friends at the newly renovated Getty Villa in Malibu, a famous antiquity collection styled after an Italian Villa. After having a great time touring around, we had an official hand-off in a fountain grotto!
After such a journey in its acquisition, I decided not to open it until as many of the 7 people involved in getting it to me could be at once place as possible. This turned out to be my friend’s birthday nearly a year afterwards. Four of us each poured a mere 20ml of the bright red fluid. The 35% alchohol content meant that 20ml was plenty strong for a sipping liquor! If you’ve ever had an Italian herbal liquor, then this to be a particularly smooth one, with a hefty amount of spice, and flavors that linger far past the inebriation. Michelle Krell of the sensory blog GlassPetalSmoke describes it far better than I ever could:
“Alkermes reveals notes of cardamom, vanilla, cinnamon and coriander seed at first sip. Middle notes of clove, orange and star anise glide along the palate with provocative spicy hints that quietly fade. A shadow of rose appears in the finish, enhancing the visual relationship one has with the scarlet color of this sweet and aromatic drink.”
Since then I have been miserly hoarding it, only bringing it out to toast something truly special to me, so long as I share it with a few friends. This last winter solstice we toasted my birthday with two friends while sitting in natural hot springs under the stars! Best bug juice, ever.