Welcome to “Eating History,” a series in which Jaya Saxena of the New-York Historical Society mines the vast archives of the museum and library in search of vintage images and ephemera that offer a look into how New Yorkers used to dine. Follow the museum @NYHistory for more.

This week, I was reminded that the word recipe does not always connote food. I went to the New-York Historical Society’s Library to view the Dr. John Neilson recipe book, ca. 1850, which I imagined would be filled with the types of home-cooked cakes and puddings and stews typical of the time. And it certainly was, though I also found recipes for everything from pain medicine to shellac. Unfortunately, these non-edible recipes were the only things that were even mildly legible, because when you research handwritten accounts, you risk people having bad handwriting.

bad handwriting

Bad handwriting, exhibit A

Still, I was determined to make something, and I came across a recipe for something called Mint Water. It seemed to be of medicinal use, but then again before modern medicine, food and herbs were all we had.

We know that what we put into our body changes how we look and feel—turmeric is an anti-inflammatory, caffeine helps with migraines, and putting beer in your hair is supposed to make it shinier. Often, mint is used to relieve stomachaches, but it can be good for everything from tension headaches to swollen joints. However, Mint Water is actually made of mostly alcohol, and I discovered it makes a lovely afternoon aperitif.

Mint Water

  • Essential Oil of Mint – drs XL
  • Loaf of sugar -3 gs
  • Alcohol
  • Water

Rub the oil w/ sugar, melt together in a mortar, then add the alcohol and then the water.

Bad handwriting hit again and I couldn’t quite figure out the measurements, though “drs XL” may be 40 drops of essential oil, and it does clearly call for grams of sugar. Research turned up nothing for “3i” of alcohol though, so I added enough vodka and water to make everything dissolve together.

The result is basically the best peppermint schnapps you’ve ever had—sweet enough not to taste like mouthwash but still refreshing, and a perfect accompaniment to reading on my fire escape in the summer sun. Perhaps I was curing some overlooked ailment as well. Maybe mixologists should take note and start going to the doctor’s office for their next cocktail idea!