Bitters and Bitter Ale

I’ve been curious for a while now as to what sorts of bitter preparations might have been used in the Gaelic Materia Medica.   All the major healing traditions, Greek Medicine, Classical Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda ascribed certain physiological actions to tastes and used bitter herbs to promote digestion.

They were first eaten after a meal like fennel and parsley were after medieval feasts.   But by the time modern cookbooks take note of them, they were primarily being used as ingredients in aperitifs and digestifs.

I found it hard to believe that this practice didn’t carry over into Gaelic medicine, knowing that the earliest medical texts in Ireland were such Greek texts as the Aphorisms of Hippocrates translated into Irish in 1403 by scholars attending the Munster medical university (Wilkinson, 2008).

I had almost given up on the idea when I found a journal article on the Italian liqueur nocino.   The authors of the journal cite literature from an Italian monastery which also confirms the use of the preparation “as a tonic and digestive aid” and attributes the origins of their recipe for the drink.  (C. Alamprese, 2005).

In fact, it is still traditional in Italy to gather the walnuts for this preparation on St. John the Baptist’s day which is the Catholic holy day that seems to have replaced earlier solstice rituals. 

 The following is the recipe for nocino as poorly translated by me from a pdf published by the Ordine del Nocino Modenese, the monastery which claims to have originated the drink in Italy.   I am sure the recipe has been modified.   If this were the original recipe and it is indeed as old as the monastery claims, sugar would not have been the original ingredient.

1 liter of alcohol 95 %
700-900 grams of sugar
1 kg of walnuts (33-35 nuts about depending on the size but always in number odd)

The nuts must be strictly locally sourced and free from any treatment. They also need to be, as tradition indicates, collected at the turn of the feast of St. John the Baptist. The right consistency of the nut should be assessed and pierce it with a pin and / or verified visually by splitting in half with a knife.

Optional: Cloves and cinnamon in small quantities and dosed in such a way that the aroma prevalent in liquor is always that of the walnut and the overall bouquet you create a harmonious result. (I use green angelica seeds or the roots)

The nuts, once harvested, must be cut into 4 pieces and placed in a glass container (no rubber seals) together with the sugar. After being kept in the sun for 1-2 days and stirred periodically. The nuts are ready to be added alcohol and any flavorings. The product thus obtained must be positioned in an area partially exposed to the sun, occasionally opened and shuffled, and not filtered before 60 days. It is advisable to bottle in glass containers dark and / or refine the product in small wooden barrels… can choose chestnut or oak provided that the barrel has been properly treated before use. The preservation of the walnut must be carried out in a cool place and for a minimum period of 12 months if you want to fully appreciate all the characteristics of this liquor

Baby walnuts are macerating in alcohol in a glass vessel.
Baby walnuts macerating.

I verified that there was in fact a Gaelic name for Juglans nigra and found it referred to as Craobh ghall-chnὸ but I could not find evidence of this beverage. In searching around for a Gaelic equivalent, I came across another form of Irish bitter coirm or cuirm in Old Irish which we refer to as “ale” in English.   The brewing of ale is such an ancient skill that Tacticus mentioned curmi as a drink brewed by the Celts using barley.   The Crith-Gablach, an Irish law book compiled c 700 CE, also lists among the duties of a king that “he is not a lawful flaith (lord) who does not distribute ale every Sunday.”

Ale was the drink of choice for all Irish Gaels according to passages in the Táin Bó Cúailnge and in the Senchus Mór which detailed laws governing brewing. This is understood to be because they lived in climates where grapes wouldn’t make it and turned to using grain crops for brewing instead. If there is any doubt as to the importance of ale to Irish society the following parable written in approximately 650 C.E by a Kildare monk should illustrate it, well.

On another extraordinary occasion, this venerable Brigid was asked by some lepers for beer, but had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He Who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee Who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.

While one might not think of ale as a medicinal, at one 19th century historian has suggest that bitter herbs added to the brews were meant to “diminish the noxious effects of such potations’ and to “render them, when taken in moderation, promoters of digestion” (Paris, 1825, p. 146).


C. Alamprese ,. C. (2005). Characterization and antioxidant activity of nocino liqueur. Food Chemistry, 495-502.

Cameron, J. (1900). The Gaelic Names of Plants (Scottish, Irish and Manx) . Glasgow: John Mackay Office Blythswood Drive.

Curry, E. O. (1873). On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish Volume II. Dublin : W.B Kelly .

hAedha, C. U. (650 CE). The Life of St Brigid the Virgin,. Kildare.

Joyce, P. (1906). A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland. Dublin: Longmans, Green and Co.

Paris, J. A. (1825). Pharmacologia, al, The history of medicinal substances 6th Ed Volume 1 . Dublin: Hodges and McArthur .

Published by Stephany Riley Hoffelt

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