Alchermes is a type of Italian aromatic liqueur, mainly used for dessert recipes. Its name, from the Arab al-qirmiz, meaning cochineal. It is made by infusing neutral spirits with sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and vanilla, orange zest (and even more herbs and flavoring agents), and cochineal, from which its carmine color originates. Its alcoholic contents ranges from 21 to 32%.
They used to say Alchermes was born in Florence, as it became widespread used during Medicean government. Actually, it seems that Spanish people imported it into Italy, after discovering it from Arab people. During Renaissance it was considered as an “elixir of life”, bottled up by Santa Maria Novella friars. Alchermes recipe was kept secret for many years; then it was brought into the open during the conflicts among the city-republics, and the liqueur widespread around Europe. Its consumption had changing fortunes. It was even labelled as too colorful and syrupy. Besides, the idea it was made out of an insect, cochineal, contributed to its misfortune.
In cooking, nowaday, there are many recipe with Alchermes, like tiramisù, or chestnut pudding. Anyway, it is also used as a coloring agent, thanks to the carmine shades its gives to food. And it is also great for custards.
Fun fact: in Sicily, a few century ago, Alchermes, called archemisi, was used to fight the worms of fear. With one spoon, you could save a child from fright of falling or a minor infermity, just exorcizing the kid’s fear.