Throughout the long history of cocktails—even preceding said history—there is an even longer history of drinks used as cure-alls, makeshift medicine, and panaceas. Some of those drinks eventually filtered through the mainstream of the cocktail Golden Age and have carved niches for themselves as icons of drink culture. In light of the ongoing pandemic, here is a little bit about some of the more iconic of this bunch—in case you needed an excuse to drink more, or just to change up your normal drink choice a bit.
Cure-all stories are often associated with the simpler, older cocktails, often somehow related to sailing (piracy, really). These boat-related stories almost uniformly explain a drink’s origin as a treatment against scurvy or some other nutrition-related issue. Out of that list two particular drinks have reached an inscrutable Icon status: the Caipirinha and the Mojito.
The Caipirinha should be a staple for any bartender or drinker, a simply built drink of cachaça, sugar, lime, and (crushed) ice. Predictably, for a cocktail such as this—where the quality-to-difficulty ratio is so dramatically skewed for a simple brilliance—a lot of people want credit, and so there are a lot of origin stories. Most pertinent to our COVID-19 experience are the two stories that claim this drink originated as a treatment for the Spanish Flu, one hundred years ago. This history alternatively claims the drink originated in Alentejo, Portugal, or from Paracicaba, Brazil, and used aguardente de cana or cachaça, respectively, as well as sugar, lime, a garlic clove, and honey.
Some Brazilians also claim this original drink came from the countryside of São Paulo State (where Paracicaba is) but found its final, official form in Santos, on the coast. Still others claim a different heritage, one fairly older than the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918—surely more likely, a this was a common format to treat illness from the nineteenth century. On Madiera, they claim the Caipirinha comes from the Poncha, a punch cocktail unique to the island, and though this story seems like merely a local brag, to me, it’s still fun to know.
Like the Caipirinha, the Mojito has many stories. Unlike the Caipirinha, they feel even more poorly sourced and covered in the charming but thin patina of apocrypha. One thing is for sure: the Mojito is a Cuban drink.
Of course, we start with the sailor’s need for citrus and his possession of the daily rum ration. The problem, really, is just a matter of the When. The most common story locates the Mojito’s origin with Sir Francis Drake’s attempted siege of Havana. Cocktail historians remain imprecise on the date of this attempt, but Drake was a very active thorn in the side of Spain’s Caribbean empire in the 1580s, particularly 1585-87. In this version, the siege was a failure but the local mixture of lime, mint, and sugar saved the crew from scurvy and/or dysentery.
Some historians point out the existence of another Caribbean pirate, Richard Drake, unrelated but contemporary to Sir Francis Drake, and allege that he is actually the Drake responsible for utilizing native cuban medicinal ingredients to help his crew. What we do know is that, between 1580 and 1833, the combination of mint, sweetener, lime, and rum, were called the “Draque” or “Draquecito” and didn’t take the name Mojito until later. There are many etymological hypothesis about the history of the name “mojito.”
Rock & Rye
A far journey away from “sailor’s salvation” is the Rock & Rye, a modern panacea and a hilarious story of genius marketing. This story was fully elaborated by David Wondrich in an article last year, in classic, curmudgeonly Wondrich style, and remains a delight to read.
The Rock & Rye started life as an article in, published on December 23, 1877. The article relates the curious story of the Honorable Ellis B. Schnabel and his testimony that a concoction of American rye whiskey and sugar rock candy, in steady supply, cured him of the then-incurable Consumption (a.k.a. Tuberculosis). The man, previously having suffered with the Consumption, was essentially drunk for some 22 days on this mixture of sugar-infused rye and emerged from this… binge… free of illness. story immediately touched off a race to get a bottled version to market, with two brands setting up and placing newspaper ads by February, 1878.
Our house version of the Rock & Rye is an infusion of twelve spices, botanicals, and fruits, all for nuance of flavor but further adding to the homeopathic allure. For us, it is the product of one year’s work as we include cherry cordial in the infusion, the same cordial that is the byproduct of our annual cherry caning.
This is hardly an exhaustive list of cure-all cocktails—merely some of our favorites. Obviously, we aren’t dealing with the entire legacy of bitters, vermouths, tonics, and other infusions and herbal liqueurs that all have medicinal ancestry. Nor are we discussing the wide and loose Golden Age category of Bracers and Revivers, a collection grouped by their booziness and their use to cure hang overs (a totally different, self-inflicted ailment). But we would be positively remiss if we didn’t mention our very favorite thing in this conversation of panacea drinks: absinthe.
“Extrait d’Absinthe” originated in the Val de Travers, Switzerland, in the mid-eighteenth century. This “extract” was an infusion of pomace brandy with local plants, each with a centuries-long history of medical use. Grand Wormwood, itself, () has a well-documented history of use as treatment for respiratory issues throughout the middle ages and ancient Rome, further back through ancient Greece’s golden age, and even to ancient Egypt through the Ebers Papyrus (c.1500 BCE), itself likely a copy of the much older “Book of Thoth” (c.3000 BCE). Nor was Wormwood’s use limited to the Mediterranean; wine-based Wormwood infusions are also well documented in ancient China.
Absinthe’s popular history tells the story of Dr. Ordinaire, a French ex-pat in Switzerland, who rode his horse Roquette through the scenic idyll of the Jura Mountains peddling this panacea in every town. (The whole thing evokes a strong Don Quixote vibe, with a green elixir replacing the comedic madness of the Errant Knight.) Absinthe’s healthful application continued to be its primary selling point until the 1840s, when the French army issued daily rations of the spirit to fight malaria and parasites.
Modern medicine is only just beginning to analyze the effects of many plant compounds on our bodies and brains. It seems the homeopathic history of these herbs has led Western science to discount them. But what studies have been done in the last twenty years invariably find at least a few boons per plant, which in and of itself is enough evidence to excuse my daily dose of the green spirit. It’s for my health, and in this quarantine I need as much health as I can get.