by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown
In this episode, we visit an ingredient that adds a touch of gold (and sometimes silver) and spice to cocktails—Danzigwasser or goldwasser. And unlike the Swiss cinnamon schnapps that adds gold flecks to its clear liquid, this liqueur’s history has a tale to tell all on its own that reaches farther back in time than you might imagine that is as complex as its multi-botanical recipe.
Ancient Egyptians and Chinese believed that ingesting gold purified the body and soul. Alchemists in the empire’s intellectual cradle—Alexandria—compounded elixirs made with liquid gold that were touted as the perfect cure for numerous ailments. This belief was handed down to monastic alchemists throughout Europe who rediscovered gold’s health-giving benefits as they translated the ancient texts hidden away from the watchful eye of the Vatican. (Greek, Egyptian, Arab, and Indian treatises on the any of the sciences were deemed as heretic works until the Renaissance.)
During the late 1200s, Arnaud de Villeneuve (the father of European distillation and of eau-de-vie) distilled aqua auri [“gold water’] or aurum potabile [“drinkable gold”] “whose curative elements were claimed to be infallible.” (In his multi-volume Histoire de la république de Venise—written in the late 1700s—Count Pierre Antoine Daru noted that: “This tincture uninterruptedly for six centuries maintained a vigorous vitality as a popular medicinal drink or tonic, and such devotion may be attributed to that excessive zeal among erudite scientists to compound a sovereign elixir, elevating its possessor above the necessity of resorting to other remedies.”)
Italian alchemist Bernard of Treviso followed suit, experimenting with a “universal catholicon” [cure-all] during the 1400s which he also called “potable gold”. Borage sap, Narbonne honey, and a “mercurial sap” from a wine distillate were combined with white wine and gentian root, then filtered and aged to create a serum that “prolongs life, confirms health against all manner of maladies, even gout, and moderates heat in the bowels. It is good for sciatica, vertigo, and generally for all internal complaints”.
It may have been promoted as a cure-all, yet many European alchemists achieved positive results adding powdered gold to herbal elixirs to comfort sore limbs. Gold waters they were called. According to legend, King Sigimund II Augustus of Poland and Lithuania received a gift of “gold water” during his 1549 visit to Danzig, Prussia and sung its praises.
Enter Dutch alchemist, Ambrosius Vermeulen (or Vermöllen), who emigrated to Danzig some time before 1598 when he became a naturalized citizen. It was in this coastal city that he commercially produced a medicinal “gold water”—a Danziger Goldwasser. A century later, Russian tsar Peter the Great encountered Vermöllen’s elixir in 1697 during his “Grand Embassy”, traveling from Moscow through Riga, Mittau, Königsberg, Danzig, Berlin, and on to Zaandam. So delighted was he that he established a standing order for the liqueur to be delivered to his palace.
Naturally, this endorsement bolstered sales. The preparation’s popularity was such that the alchemist’s grandson Salomon Vermöllen relocated the business in 1704 to larger quarters in the Breitgasse. He and his brother-in-law Isaac Wed-Ling renamed the product Der Lachs zu Danzig Goldwasser.
Many competitors entered the market with their goldwassers over the the next century with distillation books offering numerous simple and complex formulas for making this elixir—some containing up to 20 botanicals, while others blended distillates of only the obvious flavours which were then sweetened with syrup and flecked with colloidal gold leaf.
One goldwasser recipe prescribed a 24-hour maceration of Chinese cinnamon, anise seeds, juniper berries, nutmeg, orris root, rosemary flowers, cardamom, clove, fresh orange and lemon peels in 85° neutral grain spirit to which a sugar syrup and gold flecks were added after filtration.
Another for Danzig Wasser blended distillates of Ceylonese cinnamon, Chinese cinnamon, lemon, coriander, greater cardamom (Amomum Subulatum) and lesser cardamom (Amomum cardamomum), and ambrette seeds with additional 85° neutral grain spirit, sugar syrup, and gold flakes.
A similar liqueur called Eau d’Argent had a more complex character, macerating young flowers from lilies of the valley, English mint, almonds, nutmeg, Chinese cinnamon, anise seeds, angelica root, cubebs, and cloves in 85° neutral grain spirit. The liquid was then filtered, sweetened with sugar syrup, suspending flakes of food-grade metal leaf into the finished liqueur.
Fast forward to Europe’s Golden Age of the Cocktail from the 1900s to the 1930s. Despite its long lineage, goldwassers were still incorporated into the bartenders’ repertoire as an enhancement to both gin and vodka cocktails. In William J Tarling’s 1937 Café Royal Cocktail Book, you’ll find a few examples of how this spicy liqueur and its counterpart silverwasser add a touch of posh to the proceedings.
created by C. Toni Watkins
1/3 Danzig Goldwasser
Dash Lemon juice
Shake and strain into cocktail glass.
created by Laurie Ross
1/6 Danzig Silver Water
1/12 Lemon Juice
1/12 Blue Curaçao
Rim the glass with sugar. Shake and strain into the prepared glass.
created by S.T. Yakimovitch
1 dash Peach bitters
1/3 Danzig Silver Water
1/6 Baczewski's Antique Liqueur
1/6 Lemon and barley syrup
1/3 Baczewski's Pearl Vodka.
create by S.T. Yakimovitch
3 dashes Danzig Goldwasser
1 dash Angostura bitters
1/2 Italian vermouth
Shake and strain off into cocktail glass, putting a small piece of lemon peel on top.
Today, Vermöllen’s Der Lachs zu Danzig is distilled in Berlin using the same recipe that delighted Peter the Great: rich in its botanical mix that includes cardamom, coriander, juniper, cinnamon, lavender, cloves, thyme as well as gold. But there are other versions to discover such as the Polish Gdanska Zlotowka and Zlota Woda and the German Schwabacher Goldwasser.