It cures what ales you

3 days ago 45

 | August 04, 2022 11:00 PM


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Camper English’s new book Doctors and Distillers is the kind of summer read that cries out to be enjoyed with a spirit or cocktail in hand. An appropriate choice would be a small glass of Chartreuse. This potent elixir, inspired by a manuscript from 1605 and developed over centuries by Carthusian monks into a secret formula boasting a complex blend of 130 botanicals, is one of the most beguiling spirits in the world.

Distillers_080922.jpg Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails; By Camper English; Penguin Books; 368 pp., $18.00

In the 19th century, Chartreuse was advertised as a treatment for everything from apoplexy to indigestion to the difficulties of childbirth. Today the full-strength “Elixir Vegetal” is still sold in French pharmacies, though it's not yet exported to the United States due to the monks’ reluctance to divulge details of the recipe to federal regulators. Americans can purchase the namesake Chartreuse liqueur. Boldly herbaceous and 110 proof, it’s an intense experience when sipped neat. It’s more approachable in cocktails such as the Last Word, combined with gin, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice, a modern mixologists’ favorite, or in the 1970s concoction known as Swamp Water, a simple mix of Chartreuse, pineapple, and lime.

The trajectory of Chartreuse from life-giving elixir to boozy cocktail ingredient is but one example of a story English tells many times in Doctors and Distillers, the subtitle of which promises a “remarkable medicinal history of beer, wine, spirits, and cocktails.” English, a spirits and cocktail journalist known for his experiments making perfectly clear ice at home and for providing science-based guidance to bartenders on potentially toxic drink ingredients, provides a breezy history of how the alcoholic beverages we enjoy for fun and pleasure today often trace their roots to medicinal purposes, real or alleged.

Firmly in the real column are drinks that evolved directly from discoveries that certain fruits and plants effectively treat diseases. The knowledge that consuming citrus prevented sailors from falling ill with scurvy, a disease arising from a deficiency in vitamin C, led to the provisioning of ships with lemons and limes preserved by various means and mixed with rum or gin, providing early templates for drinks we now order as gimlets or daiquiris.

Similarly, most of us do not drink gin and tonic to prevent malaria, but that beverage arose from the realization that quinine found in bark from the cinchona tree disrupted the course of the disease. The bark itself is extremely bitter, and making it palatable required mixology of a sort. This was first accomplished by mixing it with beers, wines, spirits, and sugar, but the development of commercial carbonated waters eventually led to the creation of fizzy tonic water. By the mid-19th century, the British in India were consuming this with gin for reasons that clearly went beyond its pharmaceutical benefits.

These stories are familiar to cocktail fans at least in sketch form, and the lore benefits from English’s well-researched telling. Perhaps more fun, however, are the medicinal claims spun from whole cloth — or, in some cases, whole flesh. An early chapter of Doctors and Distillers dives into the European fascination with mummy medicine, the belief that the hardened flesh of mummified human corpses possessed curative qualities. English cites a 1651 recipe for elixir of mummy in which flesh was infused into wine prior to distillation. Infused mummy medicines were used for palsy, vertigo, and treating external injuries. Thankfully, unlike many of the allegedly curative alcoholic preparations highlighted in the book, this is one that you won’t find still in use at your local cocktail bar. (Although perhaps one could mention here the infamous “Sourtoe Cocktail” served at the Sourdough Saloon in the Yukon, which dares patrons to imbibe a shot garnished with a preserved human toe.)

What one will find at the cocktail bar are numerous spirits and liqueurs marketed at some time in the past for their medicinal qualities. Distillation itself began as an alchemical quest to produce life-giving spirits. Aquavit, eau de vie, and whiskey (“usquebaugh” in Gallic) all derive linguistically from “water of life.” The evolution of potable spirits followed a pattern, writes English. “The spirits were first considered pure medicine, a technological if not also divine miracle. Then doctors and herbalists added local botanicals to imbue the spirits with their medicinal qualities, and often also to cover up the flaws from rough, primitive distillation.” Spirits like gin still retain their botanicals, while those in spirits like whiskey and brandy fell away with the development of more refined distillation techniques.

English’s tour of drink history includes many other familiar spirits, from Fernet-Branca, once advertised as an anti-choleric, and Benedictine, still considered a health tonic in some Chinese communities, to lower-brow beverages such as Irn-Bru, a Scottish soda fortified with quinine and ferric ammonium citrate. Along the way, he garnishes the text with thematically connected cocktail recipes, most of which are simple enough to be within reach of a mildly ambitious home mixologist.

The recipes are a welcome addition, since, as befits the subject matter, Doctors and Distillers is not a dry text. The history is lively, told without getting too bogged down in details of medieval medicine, fermentation, and distillation. Mix the drinks as one goes and you may end up not only with a new favorite cocktail but also a fun story of its medicinal roots to accompany it.

Jacob Grier is the author of several books, including The Rediscovery of Tobacco, Cocktails on Tap, and Raising the Bar (forthcoming with Brett Adams).

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