At La Tisaneria (tea room) in Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence, no one is complaining that there's a bug in their drink. At least not when it's a snifter of Alkermes. Since well before Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella opened up shop as Oficina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in 1612, they'd been mixing a spirit flavored with herbs and spices including cloves and cinnamon. But its signature scarlet hue comes from the female kermes, a parasitic insect that also gives its name to the paint color it once helped to produce. And with its 35 percent alcohol content, anyone with reservations about drinking insect dye quickly find their worries washing away.
I tried the Alkermes and other "medicines" as part of a tour with Seattle native Coral Sisk, the food writer behind blog and Tuscan tour company Curious Appetite. She noted that Italians are more keen than Americans to discuss digestion. Easing one's way through a heavy meal is the primary goal of most of the elixirs that have been sold at Santa Maria Novella since its inception.
Others have more specific applications: Elisir di China (harking back to pre-Columbian Peru, actually, not the country of China as one might infer) has the unmistakable bitterness of quinine. Unlike tonic water, which is made from the bark of the cinchona officinalis tree, Elisir di China is made from the root. The non-alcoholic Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, one of the pharmacy's trademarks, was designed to alleviate hysteria with its combination of mint geranium, mint and cinnamon. Not all date back to the 17th century and beyond—the viscous Liquore al Cioccolato is a newer addition that tastes a bit like Hershey syrup mixed with grain alcohol. In a good way.
Those not wishing to booze up have health-focused options, too. I sampled a plate of biscotti flavored with the liqueurs, as well as squares of chocolate imbued with jasmine, rose and Sicilian bitter orange. There are also liqueur jellies, served with cheese and sweets.
The employee of the pharmacy who guided me and Sisk through the store said that ingredients were once grown in fields surrounding the monastery of which the building was once part (it's now separate from the opulent church and its crypts, the grounds of which now also hold a museum filled with religious art and reliquaries). The pharmacy building shows its own history as a place of devotion with a chapel decorated on all sides with frescos painted by 1380 by artist Mariotto di Nardo, donated by a wealthy family whose relative was cured by the monks' herbs. Today, the ingredients are local and organic, but not grown onsite.
To modern customers, the pharmacy is best known for its fragrances. Acqua della Regina was created in 1547 for Catherine de Medici on the eve of her wedding to Henry II of France, with lingering notes of citrus and clove. Centuries before the pharmacy opened its own devoted location, monks concocted Acqua di Rose was used as an antiseptic during the 1348 outbreak of bubonic plague. You can still buy it today, but if you come down with plague, you're probably better off taking antibiotics. Or having a sip of Alkermes to help you forget.