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Top 10 ‘medicinal’ drinks

Alcohol is as old as the hills. Fermented beverages have been enjoyed since the Neolithic era, with the first record of drinks production dating back to 8,000BC.

Tokaji Essencia was revered as “medieval Viagra” and traditionally drunk from a spoon. Photo credit: Colin Hampden-White

Throughout history, certain drinks have been lauded for their medicinal value, with alcohol used to treat everything from snake bites to tummy ache. In ancient Egypt and China, alcohol was used as part of herbal medicine. Persians in the 8th century developed the art of distillation and used it to concentrate alcohol, which was taken as an anaesthetic.

By the early 19th century, alcohol was widely prescribed as medicine by English physicians, with gin viewed as an effective way of warding off the plague. Alcohol’s health benefits were played up during Prohibition, when physicians were able to prescribe spirits, usually whisky or brandy, at their pharmacies while they remained illegal to buy.

Every ten days, patients willing to pay $3 for a prescription and another $3 to have it filled could get hold of a pint of alcohol. Read on for our round-up of the top ten drinks that are hailed for their health benefits. Inspired or enraged by our list? Let us know in the comment box below.


Before the birth of Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, in 460BC, Greeks were mixing herbs with wine in a practice that spread throughout Europe and continued through the Middle Ages. Winemaking in Greece dates back to the Neolithic era, with the practice becoming commonplace in the Bronze Age.

The Greeks believed wine could be improved by adding resin, herbs and spices, leading to the development of retsina and vermouth. Hippocrates was fascinated by wine’s medicinal properties and prescribed the beverage as a cure for fevers, to ease convalescence, as an antiseptic and a digestive aid.

Today, red wine continues to be lauded for its health benefits, with resveratrol, an antioxidant-rich compound found in red grape skins, thought to have all sorts of health benefits, from slowing the ageing process by promoting tissue firmness and protecting against heart disease, to slowing cancer growth.


“Claret is the liquor for boys; Port, for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy,” so said English poet and essayist Samuel Johnson. Brandy has been used throughout history as a medicine, thought to ward off everything from pneumonia to plague. By the mid-19th century, the grape spirit was regularly used as a medicine, primarily as a cardiac stimulant as it was believed to be good for the heart and blood pressure.

Heart patients in Gascony, where Armagnac is made, remain extremely low today. Derived from the Dutch for “burnt wine”, brandy is rich in antioxidants and polyphenols, meaning it can help increase immunity and reduce inflammation, while its anti-platelet properties mean it can lower the risk of blood clots. Ellagic acid and phytonutrients present in brandy also help in the metabolism of cancer cells.

On a base level, a snifter of brandy can do the world of good in warming the insides on a chilly night. Short story writer Edgar Allen Poe was seldom seen without a bottle by his side.


Pea green herbal liqueur Chartreuse has been made by Carthusian monks since 1737 following instructions set out in a manuscript nicknamed “the elixir of long life” delivered by François Annibal d’Estrées, marshal of King’s Henri IV artillery, to a monastery outside Paris in 1605. The recipe was finally turned into a tonic by Frère Jerome Maubec in 1737, when it was sent to La Grande Chartreuse monastery in the Chartreuse mountains north of Grenoble.

The drink is composed of 130 herbs, flowers and plants that are macerated in alcohol and steeped for eight hours into a tonic. Chartreuse soon grew in popularity and was often used for enjoyment rather than as a medicine. Noticing this trend, the monks adapted the recipe in 1764 to make a milder drink now known as Green Chartreuse. Today, the elixir is still made by a pair of monks at La Grande Chartreuse following the ancient recipe.

Meanwhile, Scandinavian spirit Aquavit, meaning “water of life,” has been made from caraway seeds since the 15th century and is known as an antibacterial. In the Middle Ages, there were reports of dead people rising back to life after a glass of Aquavit was poured down their throats. Today, doctors routinely prescribe aquavit as medicine in Denmark.


“Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder,” provocateur Oscar Wilde once famously said. The anise-flavoured spirit was invented during the French revolution by Dr. Pierre Ordinaire as cure for all sorts of maladies, from headaches to roundworms. Made from a mash up of botanicals, including wormwood, anise and fennel, the “green fairy” was recommended for treating epilepsy and kidney stones.

The drink was hugely popular in France during the Belle Époque, and was imbibed by artists and writers of the era like Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent van Gogh, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Pablo Picasso, who believed the wormwood in the drink caused hallucinations that inspired their works and helped the muse strike.

Amer Picon

French apéritif Amer Picon was created in 1837 by scholar and soldier Gaétan Picon, who devised the drink to aid his recovery after contracting malaria while stationed in Algeria. Having worked in a distillery before joining the army, Picon knew enough about spirit making to create his elixir by infusing alcohol with dried orange zest, gentian, quinine, sugar syrup and caramel, then distilling it.

The potion proved so potent, he attributed it to his recovery and was asked to produce further batches for his fellow soldiers. Finishing his tour of duty in 1840, Picon opened his first distillery in Philippeville (now Skikda) in northeastern Algeria, where he produced Amer Africain (African bitters) that sold so well he went on to open three further distilleries in Algiers. Moving his operation to Marseilles in the 1860s, he renamed the apéritif Amer Picon.

Angostura/Peychaud’s Bitters













By the end of the 18th century tinctures were an important class of medical preparations. Angostura Bitters was invented in the early 1820s by German-born Dr. Johann Siegert. Originally named “Dr. Siegert’s Aromatic Bitters”, the tonic was created to treat tropical stomach ailments in Venezuela where Siegert worked as a senior physician in Simon Bolivar’s army.

The bitters were first sold to the public in 1824 and a distillery was built in 1830, the same year the bitters arrived in England. The recipe remains a closely guarded secret, though its base is gentian.

In a similar story, Peychaud’s Bitters was created as a herbal aid in the 1830s by Creole apothecary Antoine Amédée Peychaud. Born in Haiti, Peychaud 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. Now made by Buffalo Trace distillery, like Angostura Bitters, the recipe remains a secret.

Gin & Tonic

While its nickname, “Mother’s Ruin”, might suggest otherwise, gin was widely consumed during the Black Death in the 16th century in a bid to ward off the plague, which wiped out a third of the population of Western Europe. Named after the Dutch word for juniper (jenever), the juniper berries used in its production were lauded for their 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”.

In the mid-17th century the spirit was sold in Dutch pharmacies to treat everything from kidney stones, lumbago and stomach cramps to gout. Arriving in England at the same time, gin became a popular drink among the poor as it was 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.

Hot Toddy

The name whisky comes from the Gaelic word “uisge”, short for uisge beatha, meaning “water of life”. Since it was first made, whisky has been used to treat an array of maladies, both as an anesthetic and an antibiotic. A couple of drops of whisky on a baby’s gums is said to do wonders for easing teething pain.

Hot toddies meanwhile, are revered for helping to cure colds in winter, bringing a healthy glow to chilled cheeks. Made with a shot of malt whisky, a teaspoon of honey, slice of lemon and hot water, with ginger, nutmeg and cloves and cinnamon all optional, the name is thought to come from Tod’s well, a spring on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh.

“A hot toddy promotes salivation and mucus secretion, our first line of defence against bacteria and viruses,” professor Ron Eccles, director of the Common Cold Centre at the University of Cardiff, told The Guardian. The whisky in the drink also acts as a sedative allowing for a good night’s sleep.

Dark ‘n’ Stormy

Berumda’s national drink, the Dark ‘n’ Stormy cocktail, has hidden health benefits. Traditionally made with Gosling’s Black Seal rum, it also features ginger beer and lime. The vivifying drink has a naval history. In the 1800s it was common practice for the British Royal Navy to give rum rations to sailors sourced from naval bases on rum-producing Caribbean islands like Bermuda.

Ginger beer was brought to the Caribbean by English colonists – Barritt’s Ginger Beer was created in Bermuda in 1874 by William John Barritt and still exists today. Sailors soon started adding ginger beer to their rum, a well known cure for seasickness also thought to ward off flu, aid digestion and stimulate circulation, while the lime in the drink was added to ward off scurvy.

The name Dark ‘n’ Stormy came about when a sailor held up the drink, which looks like a dark cloud gathering in the glass when the rum is added, described it as the colour of a cloud “only a food or a dead man would sail under”.

And finally… Coca-Cola








Quite possibly the world’s best known drink, Coca-Cola was invented in 1886 by Atlanta Civil War colonel Dr. John Pemberton, who stirred up a caramel-coloured liquid in his Eagle Drug and Chemical House in Georgia one afternoon then, keen to garner opinion on his new concoction, carried it a few doors down to Jacobs’ Pharmacy, where the mixture was combined with carbonated water.

Customers were given samples to try and the drink was so well received that Jacob’s Pharmacy started selling it as medicine from soda fountains for five cents a glass. At the time, people believed carbonated water was good for your health. Pemberton’s bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, named the drink Coca-Cola and created its distinctive lettering that graces bottles to this day.

What the Coca-Cola Company doesn’t want you to know is that before the non-alcoholic version was invented, Pemberton had experimented with stronger stuff. Having returned from the Civil War a morphine addict, he originally invented a coca wine as a substitute for the drug. The prototype recipe for Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which blended wine with coca leaf extract, kola nuts and damiana, was created at his drug store in 1885.

When cocaine and alcohol are combined they create cocaethylene, which works like cocaine but produces greater feelings of euphoria. Pemberton aimed the nerve tonic at upper class intellectuals afflicted with diseases believed to have been brought on by urbanisation and marketed it as a panacea, claiming it cured a startling number of maladies including exhaustion, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headaches, kidney and liver diseases, heart disease and even hysteria. He also sang its praises as “a most wonderful invigorator of sexual organs” that “exhilarates and refreshes both mind and brain.” Not bad for $1 a bottle…

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