In this video, Camper English discusses the medicinal cocktails and historical anecdotes found in his new book, Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails.
The following is a transcript of his remarks:
This book traces the overlapping history of alcohol and medicine through several different societies, as well as different technologies and medical knowledge throughout, kind of, all of history.
We start with ancient Egypt and see how beer was used as a menstruum for medicine, as well as for things like washing wounds, in combination with spells and things that’ll look a lot more like magic than we would use in medicine today.
Then we catch up with the Greeks and Romans using wine-based medicines to infuse herbs into, as well as following [ancient Greek physician] Galen’s theories of the four humors, using different wines prescribed for different excesses or lack of different humors.
Along the way, of course, we take a good look at the gin and tonic, which brings us to the history of malaria, which goes from the dinosaurs to modern day, and how we find alcohol at every phase of the understanding of medicine. That’s really where I had started researching the book, from just that one drink.
I went to look up an accurate creation date for the cocktail, the gin and tonic. I think most of us know that the tonic water contains quinine, which was used as a preventative and cure for malaria. Quinine is extracted from cinchona tree bark, which turns out was discovered from the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia in the 1600s.
I thought I was going to find a better first reference to the cocktail, the gin and tonic, by looking in medical books, because the history of medicine is so much better documented than the history of alcohol and cocktails, and who created the first of anything. So I got really into the history of medicine at that point, and I kept running into alcohol at every stage of medicine and medicinal understanding.
Though I had known a lot of, sort of, fun facts about the history of alcohol and medicine together, I thought what might have been missing was a narrative that tracks the two histories together, and shows they are really, absolutely inseparable throughout history. Alcohol needs medicine to exist, and medicine needs alcohol to work.
One drink that I thought was interesting — mostly I went from alcohol and we build up into a cocktail, but in a few cases, the cocktails themselves were created as medicine; mixed drinks as medicine — and the surprising example is the old fashioned, which is the original cocktail that was a separate drink from juleps and punches and things like that of its day.
What the old fashioned adds to the ingredients of a cocktail are bitters, angostura bitters. We would recognize that today; they’re found in convenience stores and liquor stores and all over the place. Those come out of the sort of cure-all patent medicines. Particularly, they were stomach-soothing bitters, and those were often consumed in the mornings for hangovers.
So the old fashioned, which we might think of this evening drink with a big ice cube, was in fact [created] pre-ice. So it was served warm at breakfast to help with a hangover. I can think of nothing less appealing than that format.
I think people associated alcohol with medicine originally because alcohol makes you feel better. If we think of the stereotypical somebody going down to Cabo [San Lucas, Mexico] and doing a tequila shot and being ‘Woo!’ afterwards, you know, there’s a big impact. It is a high-calorie source of food, we could call it; it makes people feel better.
And so I think in the context of when distilled spirits specifically were created, that was the conclusion that everyone reached: ‘This is the best medicine! We did it, man, we created the best medicine of all time.’
And since then, alcohol is terrifically useful in the practice of medicine, and that’s one thing I hadn’t really thought of that way before writing this book. Now, we just think of it as a great antimicrobial and that it is great for absorbing the active medicinal qualities of botanicals, and is still used in herbal medicine today. It’s like, step one, get yourself some distilled spirit. Now step two, put something into it to extract those qualities.
The utility of alcohol, I think, is important still today, although, I think the attitude towards alcohol and medicine has changed a lot. I grew up thinking: ‘Alcohol bad, medicine good.’ And it turns out, too much of either is definitely bad, and maybe a little alcohol isn’t so bad after all. We’re not saying to go start drinking to feel better or be healthy if you’re not consuming it already, but it looks like maybe a little bit isn’t always terrible for you, and can make life a little bit more enjoyable on a day-to-day basis, which turns out to correspond with a longer lifespan.