Medicinal Alcohol? Yes, herbal alcohol is really a thing

2 Feb 2019
Medicinal Alcohol? Yes, herbal alcohol is really a thing

Alcohol has been around for eons, with fermented beverages being enjoyed since the Neolithic era. In fact, the first recorded production of drinks was around 8,000BC. Looking back throughout our history, especially in the early 19th century, there were specific drinks promoted for their medicinal value and were thought to treat everything from a cough, snake bite or a tummy ache.

Of course, we all know about the old “snake oil” salesmen of the era, and upon further research into their magical elixir’s, the biggest commonest or rather, ingredient was of course alcohol. Even in ancient Egypt, alcohol was used as herbal medicine, and it was the Persians in the 8th century that developed the art of distillation and used it to concentrate alcohol, which was then taken as an anaesthetic.

The UK & Gin - Soul Spirits 

Even in jolly England, physicians viewed gin as an effective way to ward off the plague. This may all sound like strange facts, but the truth of the matter is there are plenty of alcohols that even today are hailed for their medicinal value.

We’ve put together a list of the top drinks that are well known for their health benefits. Do you agree with our list? Let us know in the comments below.

The Greeks & Wine

Even before the birth of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and an oath bonding doctors to patients, the Greeks were experimenting with herbs and wine. Wine making dates back to the Neolithic era, and the Greeks believed wine could be improved by adding herbs and spices. This included the popular herb of the day, resin, which lead to the development of retsina and vermouth.

By the time Hippocrates was practising medicine, he was fascinated by wine’s many medicinal properties and he would often prescribe it as an antiseptic, a digestive aid, and even as a cure for fevers.

As you’ve likely heard, wine today continues to be lauded for its many health benefits, this is due to a component called resveratrol, an antioxidant-rich compound found in red grape skins. We know now that wine can protect us against heart disease, slow cancer growth and even slow down the aging process.

The French Revolution & Absinthe

This rather fascinating drink was invented during the French revolution by Doctor Pierre Ordinaire as a cure for all kinds of ailments in the day. This included headaches, and even roundworms. The original Absinthe was made up of botanicals that included its most famous ingredient, wormwood, of course anise and fennel.

Also referred to as the “green fairy”, the drink was recommended for treating epilepsy and kidnet stones. Absinthe was very popular in France during the Belle Epoque and garnered fans from the artistic communities like Vincent van Gogh, Arthur Rimbaud and Pablo Picasso, who believed the wormwood in the drink brought on hallucinations that inspired their work.

Mother’s Ruin – The Gin & Tonic

Don’t let the nickname put you off, gin was widely consumed during the Black Death in the 16th century in a bid to help ward off the plague. The plague by the way, wiped out a third of the population across Western Europe. Gin was named after the Dutch word for juniper berries, which was specifically used in its production for its health benefits.

British soldiers who provided support in Antwerp against the Spanish in 1585 drank gin to calm their nerves before battle, leading to the term “Dutch courage”.

By the mid-17th century, Dutch pharmacies were selling it to treat all kinds of ailments, from kidney stones, stomach cramps to gout. It was around this time that gin arrived in England, and still stands today as one of the most popular drinks in the UK.

Mostly consumed by the poor, it was very cheap to buy and thought to contain less germs than water. In tropical British colonies, gin was used to mask the bitter flavour of quinine, which was dissolved in tonic water to stave off malaria, spawning the birth of the G&T.

Water of Life - The Hot Toddy

Did you know that the name whiskey comes from the Gaelic word “uisge” which is short for uisge beatha, meaning the water of life? That’s one cool fact, and it certainly goes back a long way. Whiskey has been used to treat all kinds of ailments, both as an anaesthetic and even an antibiotic. Back in the day, mothers would pour a few drops onto babies’ gums to ease the pain of teething, and it was said to do wonders…obviously.

However, hot toddies are well known even now for helping cure the common cold. Made with a shot of malt whiskey, a teaspoon of honey, slice of lemon and hot water, with ginger, nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon as an option, a hot toddy promotes salivation and mucus secretion. That just happens to be our first line of defence against bacteria and viruses.

The whiskey in the hot toddy works as a sedative as well to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Aromatic Bitters - Angostura/Peychaud’s Bitters

A German born physician named Doctor Johann Sigert invented Angostura Bitters in the early 1820’s, and it was originally named “Doctor Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters”. The tonic was created to treat tropical ailments in Venezuela where he worked as a senior physician in Simon Bolivar’s army.

By 1825, the bitters were being sold to the public and a distillery was built in 1830, which was the same year the bitters arrived in England. The original recipe remains a secret although its base is gentian.

Another side of the tale tells us about Peychaud’s Bitters, which was created as a herbal aid in the 1830s by Creole apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Peychaud, who was born in Haiti, settled in New Orleans in 1795. The gentian-based bitters is used in a large number of classic cocktails and plays a vital role in New Orleans’ national drink, the Sazerac, made with Cognac and absinthe, where a few drops are poured onto a sugar cube.

The Elixir of Life - Pea Green Chartreuse

This herbal liqueur has a very interesting and unique history. The Chartreuse has been made by Carthusian monks since 1737, and they follow a set of instructions from a manuscript called “the elixir of life”. This manuscript was delivered by Francois Annibal d’Estrees, the marshal of King Henri IV artillery, to a monastery outside Paris in 1605.

The drink is composed of 130 herbs, flowers and plants that are soaked in alcohol and steeped for eight hours into a tonic. This liqueur was very popular and was often used for sheer enjoyment instead of medicine. The monks, picking up on this popular trend, decided to make the milder drink known as Green Chartreuse. Today the elixir of life is still being made by a pair of monks at the La Grande Chartreuse, and still following the ancient recipe.

Bermuda’s Dark & Stormy

The Dark & Stormy cocktail is Bermuda’s national drink, and it comes with many health benefits. The traditional recipe is made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum, it also features ginger beer and lime. The drink of course has a great naval history and in the 1800’s it was common practise for the British Royal Navy to give rum rations to sailors which was sourced from the naval bases on the Caribbean islands.

What many don’t know is that ginger beer was actually brought to the Caribbean by English colonists – Barritt’s Ginger Beer however, was create in Bermuda in 1874 and still exists today. Sailors would add ginger beer to their rum because ginger as we still know today is a well-known cure for seasickness. It also aids in digestion and stimulated circulation. The lime in the drink was added t ward off scurvy.

Finally, the name Dark ‘n’ Stormy came from a sailor who held up the drink, which happens to look like a cloud gathering in the glass when rum is added. He described it as the colour of a cloud where “only a fool or a dead man would sail under”.