Plague Water

The bubonic plague is still a thing.

It occurs naturally on all continents except Australia, and there have been 50,000 human cases during the last 20 years, causing the World Health Organization to classify it as a re-emerging disease. Lucky for those cases, antibiotics are now also a thing. This means the fatality rate is between 1 – 15% (depending on the quality of care you get, and how quickly you get it), which is down from an alarming 50 – 100% in the pre-antibiotic era.


Dr. Burges’s recipe for plague water, found in Mary Granville’s book of recipes (1641)From Folger V.a. 430, Granville Family Receipt book

Dr. Burges’s recipe for plague water, found in Mary Granville’s book of recipes (1641)

From Folger V.a. 430, Granville Family Receipt book

Not that our ancestor’s didn’t do their damndest to avoid catching it and/or dying from it. And, given that I’m here and you’re reading this, hurrah for our ancestors… they survived it.

Plague water was a concoction which people drank to ward off the plague. There were quite a few recipes floating around during the Baroque period. The most popular and enduring of which was that by a Dr John Burgess (the 1641 recipe below).

Generally it was an alcoholic concoction of various herbs and roots that people thought might help. Angelica root, gentian, rue and sage were used. Apothecaries would steeped them in white wine and brandy and then distill a tonic.

Some Recipes contained up to 22 herbal products, including the leaves and roots of plants.

Popular Plague Water Recipes Over Time

Poisonous Ingredients

Somewhat unfortunately, many of the herbs used in plague water turned out to be toxic. In this 1677 recipe, Rue, Agrimony and Wormwood (the basis for Absinthe) can all be poisonous (depending on how you prepare them and how much you consume).

Modern Plague Water


As the plague is still around, it makes sense that plague water would be readily available on supermarket shelves… No?

Well no.

However, some plucky mixologists have had a red-hot-go at recreating it (sans the toxic bits).

Tattersall Distilling in Minneapolis, in collaboration with the University of Minnesota and the Minneapolis Institute of Art have recreated plague water. They describe it as having “a pleasantly earthy, herbal flavor.“