How to test a historic recipe (without falling foul of Safe Search), part 1

So, back in March 2021 a friend threw a message my way asking if I was au fait with the works of Sir Kenelm Digby? Given that Richard (that’s my friend – I haven’t slipped into referring to myself in the third-person quite yet) likes himself a bit of pre-industrial history, weird folklore and the grotesque, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect him to follow this with, but it certainly wasn’t a request to try and brew a batch of, uh, “cock ale”. After a certain amount of to-and-fro to work out what he was on about, Wikipedia reassured me that it wasn’t just a practical joke. Admittedly, that the source book was called The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened did seem of a piece with the general innuendo.

As far as I could work out, cock ale was a strong ale fortified with dried fruit, spices, fortified wine and the obligatory cockerel. The latter was boiled well, then smushed up – bones and all – and added to the non-beer ingredients to soak, before the lot was pitched into the ale as it finished fermenting. Have a look, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project‘s copy:


Take eight Gallons of Ale; take a Cock and boil him well; then take four pounds of Raisins of the Sun well stoned, two or three Nutmegs, three or four flakes of Mace, half a pound of Dates; beat these all in a Mortar, and put to them two quarts of the best Sack; and when the Ale hath done working, put these in, and stop it close six or seven days, and then bottle it, and a month after you may drink it.”

Obviously, I wasn’t interested in making eight gallons of what looked on first inspection to be likely to spoil, even if it were nice in the first place. To be honest, a 10 litre (2 gallons-ish) batch is about my limit, given the practicalities for brewing at home, racking and bottling, and finding space to store the damn stuff. Still, Richard was persistent, so a bit more research was done. That is, I googled around the term again, quickly learning to make sure I’d put safe search on its fullest setting.

The first things that came up were three posts (one, two & three) from International Routier, an Australian historical re-enactment society, whose blog peters out less than year after they tried their hand at the recipe. Hopefully those two things aren’t related. Well worth a read, the posts break down the recipe’s trail of attribution and a few recent instances of its recreation. They went with dry malt extract to save time on the brew day, which seemed less fun, but their tasting write-up made me think that the recipe was viable, not necessarily dangerous to my health, and possibly even enjoyable.

Richard threw in a post from the The Recipes Project, which settled for us the burning question as to whether part of the contemporary appeal of the drink was in the lewder connotations of the name. Yes, reader, yes it was. Reassured that our ancestors were just as immature as us, I also left slightly wiser as to the social implications of coffee’s introduction on (some) 17th century English notions of virility. Apparently coffee was emasculating, but ale was a clear path to potency. Huh.

The brewer’s blog from XT Brewing had another approach, which was to only risk the remnants of a roast chicken carcass, which seemed eminently practical. Again, the tasting notes suggested it was worth drinking and nobody died. Let no-one say that I don’t like to set my sights high.

Anyhow, given the ebb and flow of social restriction through last year, we weren’t able to set a date for brewing until mid-October. How that went, with recipe and a taste of it, to follow…


  1. We’re not dead, we just found the WordPress platform wasn’t working for the group and moved elsewhere. We’ve continued with the brewing, just stopped making so much noise about it.


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