Alkermes, Confection of

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

Alkermes, confection of, is a sweet medicinal syrup of Arab origin, a cordial made with kermes or cochineal, two bitter red dyes derived from insects. The first recorded recipe, written by the Persian physician Yūhannā Ibn Māsawaih (777–857 c.e.), calls for kermes-dyed silk, apple juice, rosewater, sugar, gold leaf, cinnamon, ambergris, musk, white pearls, aloes, and lapis lazuli. This expensive concoction was prescribed to strengthen the heart and to cure melancholy and madness. Translators and practitioners brought the recipe to medieval Europe, where “confectio alchermes” became a valued remedy. During the Renaissance, variations on the confection appeared in many European medical treatises and handbooks, with spices replacing some of the more expensive original ingredients. By the early 1600s the defining ingredient of the confection, kermes (Kermes vermilio), had been largely supplanted by cochineal (Dactylopius coccus), a more intense red dye produced by a Mexican insect. Despite alterations, the confection’s reputation continued to grow, and it was prescribed not only for weak hearts and depression but also for plague, poisoning, and childbirth. Casanova used it as an ingredient in sugared comfits that also contained his paramour’s ground-up hair, and when made up in “Aromaticum Lozenges,” the confection was said to sweeten the breath. Often the confection was combined with alcohol before it was administered. This development reached its zenith in Florence in 1743, when the Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella created an Alkermes liqueur. In the 1800s physicians increasingly questioned the efficacy of the confection, and it disappeared from the pharmacopeia, although Alkermes is still sold as a liqueur.