Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,
They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)
In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.
This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.
It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.
The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)
As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?
© S. Worthen 2009