A cocktail a day: the medicinal history of drinking as a cure

In his new book “Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails”, spirits writer Camper English tells the story of the drink as a cure-all, from the medical distillers of yore to practitioners today.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How long have humans been fermenting beverages?

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

As time went on and society became more organized, what elixirs became luxuries?

It really depended on what part of the world people lived in. If we look at ancient Egypt and the Middle East area, beer was the drink, and it was the drink for everything. And in general, any time large groups of people live together, the water becomes contaminated and unsafe to drink. So beer was the thing to drink because it was safer. And it was also used in medicine, nutrition and hydration, all at the same time. If you look at ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it’s all about wine, which was more abundant in that part of the world. There was wine in the Middle East, but it came from further afield. Wine was more of a drink of the rich, rather than an everyday drink like beer was.

Were there specific ailments that forced people to seek out fermented beverages as a cure?

In early evidence, when we see writings about cures using fermented beverages, they were used primarily in the practice of medicine. The beer may be infused with botanicals or sometimes animal parts. And some of the early cures are much more like witchcraft with spells and incantations. But usually beer and wine were used as menses for medicinal botanicals, [for example] they would wash a wound with beer, they would specify that instead of water.

How soon did they become people specialists? Not doctors, but pharmacists?

In the beginning, they were all polymaths because there was no concept of science and medicine as a separate discipline, as we would see it today. Scholars in ancient times 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 botanicals. They also comment on almost everything. I don’t really have a good date for when someone specifically became a doctor.


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

Can you talk about the notion of quintessence when it comes to alchemy?

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

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

That is the reputation of the alchemists: that they were trying to turn everything into gold. But what they were trying to do is perfect each thing 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 the history of alchemy, it seems like a perfect extra medicine. People in the 1300s and 1400s would comment that if you extinguish liquid gold in eau de vie then you would make extra special medicine. Still made today, there is a category of Italian bitters, or amaro, that is fortified with quinine and iron and was once advertised as excellent for children to give a small spoonful of each night to strengthen the blood.

The gin and tonic is my favorite drink. Can you tell us the story of how quinine became a beverage that later became a recreational drink?

Quinine is an alkaloid from the bark of the cinchona tree. It is used to prevent and cure malaria. So that’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, as we do today.

When I first became interested in alcohol and medicine, it was through the gin and tonic because I thought I would find a better creation date for the gin and tonic by reading the medical literature, which is much better documented than the 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 that people feel when they have a fever and chills. There was probably no malaria in this hemisphere at the time. So it’s quite a coincidence that it actually worked to cure not only the fever and chills of malaria, but also the underlying parasite in the blood.

That allowed for all kinds of colonial expansion around the world, and particularly in the case of the gin and tonic, the expansion into India and the need for quinine as a drug. So first, everyone was taking cinchona bark and whatever liquid they could find because it’s extremely bitter. Eventually, quinine became known simply as this all-purpose medicine that was good for everything, just as we might think of electrolytes today. “I don’t know what they are, but let’s put them on everything. You know, it sounds great.

Quinine became the all-purpose wonder medicine of its day. In the 1800s, sparkling mineral waters in particular were also considered medicinal and very good for you. So it was only a matter of time before the combination of that 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 cure-all throughout the centuries. Photo courtesy of Penguin Books.

The gin itself was medicinal: all those herbs and spices were thought to be various kinds of cures.

Absolutely. Every spice and botanical left in our kitchen cabinets today was once used for something medicinal, and many of those things remain. It’s not the most effective drug for most things it might treat. But almost all spices were used as medicine at some point in history. Juniper in particular, which is the required botanical ingredient in gin, was used for a number of things, but particularly as a diuretic. One of the nicknames for gin, as it later emerged, was “diddle Drain” to help you urinate.

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

The two carbonated beverages, both carbonated mineral waters from natural springs, as well as fermented beer and wine, actually inspired many chemical breakthroughs and medicinal breakthroughs. So, Louis Pasteur’s first big discovery was tartrates in wine, and he looked at them closely under a microscope. He came up with the concept that the three-dimensional shape of the molecule implied that it was formed from a biological process. That observation eventually led to the germ theory of disease, first through the realization that fermentation was a biological process, that naturally effervescent spring waters had volcanic gases infused into them. That split actually sparked a great revolution in science and eventually led to the germ theory of disease.

What are some popular cocktails we enjoy today that were originally created to quell discontent?

Virtually anything bitter was, and could still be, used to settle the stomach. The aperitif and digestif categories are based on bitter botanicals that stimulate gastric juices. Essentially, they get things flowing and hungry for a meal, and then help us process and digest at the end of a meal. Bitter drinks include things like vermouth. Absinthe at one point would be considered an aperitif. All Italian bitters like Campari and Aperol to some extent, and later digestifs like Fernet-Branca, were somewhat medicinal at least calming. All of those still exist, as do concentrated bitters like Angostura bitters. When those bitters were first used in cocktail format, that’s the first real definition of a cocktail. It’s a drink that already existed but you make it bitter, and that’s what differentiates it from things like a slingshot or a julep.

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