An almost impossibly elegant pair of glasses for your consideration today, dating from the early to mid-19th century and having been classified as ratafia glasses. They have hammer-moulded bowls (which of course means that the moulds in which they were made had been given a hammered finish, not the glass itself!), which are further enhanced by engraved stars and topped with gilded rims, just in case they weren’t already quite smart enough.


Such decadence deserves a fine stem, and it’s hard to imagine anything more fitting than a long, slender piece with a pair of flawlessly spaced opaque twist spiral threads surrounding a twelve-strand lace corkscrew. Balance the whole on a beautifully even, conical foot, and you have glasses which are perfectly proportioned and look quite stunning. Of course, there are also the obligatory imperfections to add that extra charm by way of the slightly scruffy ‘knot’ to terminate the twists, and the marginal difference in the space below the bowl and these same knots; machine-made perfection would be far less alluring!


Of course, there’s also the little matter of exactly what ratafia might have been. In simple terms, it was all things to all people, with many and varied recipes and receipts appearing in innumerable sources all of which bear the same name (or marginal variations thereof). It’s perhaps best to go back to the start of things and gain an appreciation of the original concept – it’s then possible to see how the later derivations came about.


The name first appears right at the very end of the 17th century, in the splendidly-named Evaristo Gherardi’s 1695 collection of plays performed by la Troupe des Comediens du Roy in Paris – specifically in a production entitled La Baguette de Vulcain. Shortly afterwards it is listed in numerous French language guides to plants and their uses. It’s debut on this side of the channel comes in Dr Martin Lister’s 1699 travelogue “A Journey to Paris”, where our guide lists it as being a strong dessert wine, along the lines of cherry brandy but made with ‘peach and apricock stones’; Lister notes that it is ‘highly piquant and of a most agreeable flavour’. With these instances in mind, it can be said with such certainty as possible that the name originated in Paris. 


Essentially, it is a close cousin to gin, in that it first requires the preparation of a ‘clear, strong spirit’, invariably malt liquor which, so we are told, is best made with rainwater. This liquor is then fermented with beer yeast or wine sediment (known as lees) before being distilled to create the base spirit. With gin, this is then re-distilled in the presence of botanicals, but for ratafia there is no second distillation, instead the flavouring ingredients are simply steeped or infused in the spirit, and also sweetened to create something more akin to a liqueur or cordial. 


Apart from the divergence in methodology, the second significant difference between ratafia and gins was the variety of flavourings used. The list used for ratafias is extensive to say the least. Perhaps the most well-known of the early varieties were made with bitter almonds or the kernels of peaches and apricots – not to mention both red and white wine grapes (muscat and frontiniac being the preferred varieties), but there are many other variations, some of which follow: absinthe, angelica, gentian, mulberry, coriander, walnuts, cocoa, coffee, aniseed, cinnamon, mint, lemon, orange blossom, orange peel, cherries, cloves, strawberries, raspberries, quinces, cinchona, carnations, rose oil, tea, blackcurrants, gooseberries and – finally – to close the loop on the similarity with gin – juniper berries. 


There were, according to contemporary recipe booklets – four basic categories of ratafia; fine, dry, soft and sweet, which seem to be categorised by the nature of the flavouring ingredient. All four, however, demanded that the identical stricture be observed during production – if your ratafia showed any signs of beginning to ferment, then you should be at pains to immediately subdue the process by the simple expedient of adding more base spirit. All the formulations also demanded the addition of sugar in its own right as a simple sweetener, but – again – this ran the risk of inducing fermentation. The way in which this should be tempered was, of course, to add more spirit.


Moreover, it occurs to me that the popular modern pursuit of steeping sundry fruits in spirits at home to make ‘sloe gin’ or similar will actually produce a ratafia, as the tendency is to always add additional sugar, and there is no requirement (or generally facility) for any stage of secondary distillation. I am therefore pleased and rather proud to report that, unwittingly up to the point of writing this article, I am currently engaged in the production of quince ratafia – which will be ready in time for Christmas – and, yet more gloriously, damson ratafia, which will be primed for consumption in August of 2021. I shall be pleased to report on the debilitating effects of both in due course. Now – if any of my colleagues feel duty bound to present me with a pair of proper ratafia glasses to add authenticity to my experimentation, not to mention a touch of class which will otherwise be sadly lacking, well – please do feel free – thanks in advance. I do now, also, feel obliged to add further quantities of spirit to the mash, purely in observance of age-old tradition, you understand…