By Kirsten Amann, freelance writer, lifestyle publicist, and founding member of the Boston chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC Boston).
White-coated pharmacists may be the last thing modern drinkers think of when mixing up a cocktail to sip casually. But did you know that many key ingredients of modern mixology owe their history to medicine? Consider the following.
Muslim scholars Geber and Avicenna made groundbreaking advancements in the technology of alcohol distillation in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Qurâ€™anâ€™s stipulation that â€œthe righteous man does not drink wineâ€ suggests these chemists werenâ€™t imbibing, but rather messing around with stills and distilling in pursuit of medicine and perfume.
Some spirits were engineered with medicinal purposes in mind. Gin, for example, was created when Arnaud de Villanova sought to harness the healthful properties of the juniper berry, believed to be an excellent aid for the kidneys. And historyâ€™s first liqueurs were invented to combat intestinal problems and difficult digestion. The quinine ones also helped keep scurvy at bay.
Bitters were also born of medical necessity, perhaps most obviously because we still reach for it to aid stomach ailments today. In 1690, British apothecary Richard Stoughton began bottling his cure-all â€œElixir Magnum Somachicumâ€, a.k.a. â€œStoughtonâ€™s Great Cordial Elixirâ€, a highly concentrated tonic, made of a proprietary blend of ingredients and marketed to remedy just about everything. Allegedly capable of rectifying the stomach from its indispositions and cleansing the blood from its impurities, the stuff flew off the shelves. A teaspoon of that with a glass of beer, sherry, or a dram of brandy, was akin to taking your morning vitamins.
In the case of the Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans, all roads lead back to the pharmacy: the back of Creole apothecary Antoine Amadee Peychaudâ€™s pharmacy, to be exact. He served his mixture of Sazerac de Forge et Fils brandy (the spirit du moment) and his signature Peychaudâ€™s bitters to fellow masons there in off hours in the 1830s.
Later generations added absinthe to the drink, a spirit that owes some measure of its popularity to healthful preservation, administered to French soldiers fighting in Africa as a treatment for malaria and to sterilize their water. Soldiers brought their newfound taste for the green elixir home to France, where the popularity of absinthe soared.