I attended a casual lecture this evening featuring Warren Bobrow--journalist, chef, and mixologist. Mixologist is fancy-speak for "capable, knowledgeable bartender". Now, I happen to know absolutely nothing about the art of mixed drinks, but I do know that some folks like Mr. Bobrow put a lot of thought and energy into creating powerful flavor combinations to enhance their adult beverages. So, I set out to see if I could learn something about the flavor profiles of adult beverages.
Curiously, though, what I took away from this most interesting speaking engagement was less about flavor and more about the medicinal history of spirits. The cocktail, you see, was born in the apothecary's laboratory not as a social lubricant, but as a healing elixir or "preparation", as spirits were once called. A swallow of bitters might be prescribed for an unsettled stomach. Absinthe or wormwood might cure you of worms. Of course, bitters and wormwood tasted awful, so the apothecary might mix your "cure" with something a little more palatable to assist you in drinking your health. I cannot help but think of Mary Poppins chirping away, reminding the children that "a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down". And there is your cocktail. Even the etymology of the word "cocktail" has a medicinal link---some folks used to believe that a sore throat could be cured by swiping the neck with the tail feathers of a rooster, i.e. the cock-tail.
Bobrow talked of how the navy used to feed the sailors rum on a daily basis as a mollifying agent in order to avoid flared tempers and fisticuffs among the men cramped on the ships in confined quarters. He told tales of vodka being mere molecules away from horse liniment. He swore that a dose of the Italian digestif Fernet Branca was a veritable cure for overindulgence at the feasting table. As he mentioned those things, I remembered a wine distributor I once knew who always recommended hot wine as a cold remedy. While I laughed at his "Italian Nyquil" I must confess that I tried his remedy a few times over the years and found it a reasonable stand-in for drugstore stuff. I recall my grandfather taking a thimbleful of bourbon with his breakfast...he called it "his medicine", though I'm not sure why he took it. He was a strong man and lived a long life. (Curiously, he almost never touched a drop of the stuff for the rest of the day.) And of course, there have been multiple action flicks where the stabbed hero wards off staphylococcus by dousing his open wound in straight whiskey. So there must be something to the shamanism of the cocktail.
I feel pretty fortunate that I wake up feeling strong and healthy enough to not require any medication, or even a cocktail, to bolster my health. But it IS interesting. I'd love to hear about the "remedies" from behind the bar that you've heard about or even tried yourself....