One Cocktail a Day: The Medicinal History of Alcohol as Medicine

In his new book “Physicians and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits and Cocktailsspirits writer Camper English tells the story of alcohol as a panacea, from the doctor distillers of yore to the practitioners of today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How long have humans fermented drinks?

Since before recorded history, humans have fermented beverages. Look at the first civilizations, as soon as people settled down and stopped being hunter-gatherers. There is evidence of beer production.

Over time and the organization of society, which elixirs have become luxuries?

It really depended on what part of the world people lived in. If we look back to ancient Egypt and the Middle East region, beer was the drink, and it was the drink for everything. And usually, whenever large groups of people live together, the water is polluted and not drinkable. So beer was the thing to drink because it was safer. And it was also used in medicine, nutrition and hydration at the same time. If you look at the ancient Greek and Roman civilization, everything revolves around wine, which was more abundant in this part of the world. There was wine in the Middle East, but it came from further afield. Wine was more of a drink for the wealthy than an everyday drink like beer.

Were there specific ailments that caused people to turn to fermented drinks as a remedy?

In the earliest evidence, when we see writings about cures that used fermented beverages, they were mostly used in the practice of medicine. Beer can be infused with plants or sometimes animal parts. And some of the early cures are much more like sorcery with spells and incantations. But usually beer and wine were used as menses for herbal medicine, [for example] they washed a wound with beer – they specified that instead of water.

How long have people been specialists? Not doctors, but pharmacists?

In the beginning, everyone was a polymath because there was no concept of science and medicine as separate disciplines, as we would see today. Scholars of old tended to study astrology, medicine, and mineralogy, and all the knowledge of the time. We see people like Pliny commenting on specific uses for specific plants. They also comment on just about everything. I don’t really have a good date for when someone specifically became a doctor.

Spirits writer Camper English attests that before sanitation, alcohol was safer to drink than water. Photo courtesy of Camper English.

Can you talk about the concept of quintessence what about alchemy?

The quintessence is the fifth element along with air, water, earth and fire, and it was considered the active essence of the universe. Today we might think of a soul as a person’s individual personality or something like that. But the quintessence was a bit like a vital force, a universal energy. The early alchemists tried to extract this energy from people, but also from plants and other living materials, because they believed that this act of essence was useful as medicine and they could apply this medicine to people for heal.

When we think of alchemists, we also think of metallurgy and metals. What about metal-related drinks, and even now, modern metal drinks?

It’s the reputation of the alchemists – that they tried to turn everything into gold. But what they were trying to do was perfect everything in its own nature. So they were trying to perfect people by applying quintessence, and they were trying to perfect, for example, lead by turning it into gold, which was considered the perfect medicine. If we take something like Goldschläger, the party drink of the 1980s, and look at it in alchemical history, it looks like an additional perfect medicine. People in the 1300s and 1400s said that if you quenched liquid gold in brandy, then you would make an additional special medicine. Still made today there is a category of Italian bitter liquor, or amaro, which is fortified with both quinine and iron and it was at one time claimed to be good for children to give them a small spoonful every night to fortify the blood.

Gin and tonic is my favorite drink. Can you explain to us how quinine became a drink that later became a recreational drink?

Quinine is an alkaloid from the bark of cinchona. It is used to prevent and cure malaria. So it’s in the modern scientific version of the story. Historically, malaria dates back so far that dinosaurs may have had the disease and the parasite infecting their blood, like we do today.

When I first became interested in alcohol and medicine it was via gin and tonic because I thought I would find a better inception date for gin and tonic by reading the medical literature – which is much better documented than cocktail literature. So the first real cure was with the Jesuit missionaries in Peru, who probably learned from the indigenous people about this tree – the fever tree – and its amazing bark that would cure the tremors people feel when you have a fever and chills. There was probably no malaria in this hemisphere at that time. So it’s a great coincidence that it actually worked to cure not only the fever and chills of malaria, but also the underlying parasite in the blood.

This enabled all sorts of colonial expansion across the world, and particularly in the case of gin and tonic, for expansion in India and the need for quinine as a medicine. So first everyone was taking cinchona bark and any liquid they could find because it’s extremely bitter. Eventually quinine became known as this all-purpose drug that was good for everything, like how we might think of electrolytes today. “I don’t know what they are, but let’s put them in everything. You know, that sounds good.

Quinine became the all-purpose miracle medicine of its time. In the 1800s, sparkling mineral waters in particular were also considered medicinal and very good for health. So it was only a matter of time before the combination of this water with quinine became a commercial product. And that’s where we get the tonic water we know today.

“Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails” describes the use of alcohol as a panacea through the ages. Photo courtesy of Penguin Books.

Gin itself was medicinal – all of these herbs and spices were considered different types of medicine.

Absolutely. Every spice and herb that remains in our kitchen cupboards today was at some point used for something medicinal, and many of those things hold up. It’s not the most effective drug for most things they could treat. But almost every spice has been used as medicine at some point in history. Juniper in particular, which is the required botanical in gin, was used for a number of things, but mostly as a diuretic. One of the nicknames for gin as it later appeared was “diddle drain” to help you urinate.

Who were the pioneers in this field? I wonder how Louis Pasteur used wine and beer in his research.

Both soft drinks, both carbonated mineral waters from natural springs, as well as fermenting beer and wine, have truly inspired many chemical and medicinal breakthroughs. Thus, the first great discovery of Louis Pasteur was that of tartrates in wine, and to observe them closely under the microscope. He proposed the concept that the 3-D shape of the molecule implied that it was formed from a biological process. This observation eventually led to the germ theory of disease – first by understanding that fermentation was a biological process, that the naturally sparkling spring waters were infused with volcanic gases. This split really sparked a huge scientific revolution and eventually led to the germ theory of disease.

What popular cocktails do we enjoy today that were originally created to appease discontent?

Virtually anything bitter was and could still be used to soothe the stomach. The aperitif and digestive categories are based on bitter plants that stimulate gastric juices. Essentially, they make everything sink and make us hungry for a meal, then help us process and digest at the end of a meal. Bitter drinks include things like vermouth. Absinthe was once considered an aperitif. All Italian bitter liqueurs like Campari, and Aperol to some degree, then digestives like Fernet-Branca, were all somewhat medicinal at least soothing. These still exist, as do concentrated bitters like Angostura bitters. When these bitters were first used in a cocktail format, it was the first real definition of a cocktail. It’s a drink that was already there but they add bitters to it, and that’s what differentiates it from things like a sling or a julep.

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