Ernest Hemingway legendarily drank to make other people interesting, but Hippocrates created vermouth — wine fortified in wormwood — to make people healthy. In both cases, alcohol was a salve — for boredom and rheumatism, respectively.
We may drink to celebrate or we may drink to forget, but those who argue that a cocktail can revive or relax you, or even help keep you healthy, have some historical evidence on their side. When the word “cocktail” was coined in the early 1800s, the baseline blend of spirits, bitters and sugar was cited as “excellent for the head” (Farmer’s Cabinet, 1803) and called an elixir that “renders the heart stout and bold” (the Balance, and Columbian Repository, 1806).
“Although many experts cannot quite agree on the origin of the word ‘cocktail’ or exactly where the cocktail originated, all mixologists acknowledge that mixed drinks have served people well throughout the years by curing various ailments that range from scurvy to an upset stomach,” writes Whitney Lowery, who runs the website medicinalmixology.com with her husband, Colin. “In fact, what is simply a gin and tonic to modern cocktail lovers was first introduced by the British East India Company to prevent malaria amongst its soldiers in India.”
As bartenders continue to unearth cocktail history and revive classic recipes, some urban bars have begun to resemble modern-day apothecaries. Their shelves are filled with artisanal spirits, bitters, teas, infusions and tinctures that, when mixed into drinks, can help digestion, strengthen the heart or chase away cold-inducing bacteria. (One of the newest bars in New Orleans, a current epicenter of mixology, is called Cure; the New York bar Apotheke blends such healthful potions as eucalyptus tincture and beet reduction into its drinks, which are called “Prescriptions.”)
For amateur mixologists, summer brings ample opportunities to muddle fresh fruit and herbs into cocktails. When cold weather arrives, the restoratives you can add to cocktails are darker and more intense, but are still relatively simple to find and keep on hand.
First and foremost are bitters, historically made from bitter herbs steeped in alcohol, which have been used for hundreds of years to tone and stimulate the digestive system. Bitters can also give the liver a rousing kick and get bile flowing, which may explain their early inclusion as an essential cocktail component — functional as well as flavorful.
The restorative fall bar should also hold a bottle or two of Italian spirits: Lighter apéritifs, such as Campari and Aperol, activate the digestive juices; inkier, more herbaceous amaros, such as the bitter Fernet Branca, can clear an overfull stomach with a flick of the shot glass. Natural sweeteners such as honey and maple syrup — immunity boosting and soothing to the system — and a selection of limes, lemons and oranges complete the basic building blocks of a drinking pharmacy.
You’ll be deep into cocktail geekdom when you learn how to add tinctures such as those of St. John’s wort or ginseng to lift the mood; coconut water to restore electrolytes; vinegar for its antiseptic and toning qualities; and spices such as cinnamon and cayenne to stimulate circulation. (The infamous PDT Cocktail Book even includes a recipe for an alcoholic “Master Cleanse,” which stirs apple brandy and goldenseal tincture into the classic cleansing formula of lemon juice, maple syrup and hot pepper.)
While few health practitioners are likely to recommend you cleanse your body with booze, relying on pure ingredients nonetheless makes for a healthier buzz. “Contrary to the medicinal history of cocktails, many of today’s popular mixed drinks contain artificial ingredients and sweeteners which should be avoided by those seeking a healthy indulgence at the end of the day,” advises Lowery. In that spirit, here are recipes for a few fall restorative cocktails, from local bartenders and my own kitchen.
Taken straight, the first sip of Italian Fernet Branca packs a wallop, like cough syrup with a fistful of dirt thrown in. But as you ruminate on the mélange of herbs, roots and bark in the formula, the notes of chamomile, myrrh, saffron — and possibly even St. John’s wort and echinacea — begin to emerge. Though some people shoot it, the stuff remains hard to handle on its own. Pairing Fernet with some sweetness softens its edges and amplifies its digestive prowess.
Pour the Fernet and gin over ice, add syrup, and swirl well to combine. Strain into a short glass and top with cold ginger beer. Flame an orange peel by lighting a match and gently warming the outside of the peel for a few seconds to release the oils. Rub the warmed edge over the glass and drop the peel into the drink.
From Jeff Baumann of Prohibition Pig in Waterbury
Prohibition Pig has one of the most apothecary-like bars around, heavy on bitters and digestifs. At a farmers market last year, head bartender Jeff Baumann picked up a bottle of blueberry vinegar from Adam’s Berry Farm and became “obsessed,” he says, with using vinegar in his drinks. This cocktail mixes it with lime, basil syrup, soda and bourbon for a breezy, pretty drink.
Fill a glass with ice. Add bourbon, vinegar and simple syrup. Stir to combine. Top with soda, squeeze in a bit of lime, and garnish with a lime wedge and a few fresh blueberries.
(To make basil simple syrup: Bring one cup each of sugar and water to a boil and remove from heat. Add 10 basil leaves. Let sit for an hour, or longer for more saturation. Strain and refrigerate.)
From Don Horrigan, co-owner of Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont and head bartender at Positive Pie in Hardwick
Last week, Horrigan was nursing a wicked cold, and toddies were on his mind. This one draws boozy depth from the rich, recently released Backwoods Reserve Rum from Dunc’s Mill in Barnet. He writes: “The balanced infusion of spices, citrus, bitters, heat and the aged rum [is a] perfect cure for what ails you. This cocktail will ensure that you enjoy your cold.”
Steep chai black tea for four to five minutes in mug filled with hot water; stir in the rest of the ingredients, and enjoy.
Caledonia Spirits Elderberry Cordial is beneficial to your immunity and digestion, but working it into anything other than a spritzer is a challenge — if only because its personality is so strong and sweet that it dominates other flavors. The slight smokiness of tequila seems to temper its treacle, however, and a splash of rosewater adds mood-lifting aromatics.
Muddle a sprig of mint in the bottom of a glass and pour in cordial, tequila, bitters and rosewater. Stir to combine. Pour into a tumbler filled with ice, top with soda water and a spritz of fresh lime juice, drop wedge into the drink, and serve.
From Crystal Maderia, owner of Kismet in Montpelier
Kismet’s whimsical cocktail menu is full of healthy-sounding libations, from a Kombuch-Ita (tequila, lime, kombucha, cane juice and sour mix) to a Garden Martini made with tomato, celery and cucumber juices. This delicate drink combines green juice and muddled mint with lemon juice and Prosecco.
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the mint in half a cup of ice. Add the juiced greens, then add Prosecco and a squeeze of lemon wedge. Cover and give the shaker one limp-wristed turn to combine. Strain into a Champagne flute.
Though not a restorative per se, this boozy milkshake — with vodka, yogurt and fruit — is quasi-nutritious, good for the soul and an insomniac’s friend. I used fresh Butterworks Farm Maple Yogurt, which I froze until hard.
Combine all ingredients in a blender and mix until smooth. Serve in a pint glass with a straw.