Forget the saying, “Starve a fever, feed a cold.” If you’re feeling icky this season (and who isn’t?) find a bottle of booze and discover alcohol’s long history of curing what ails you.
Nineteenth century bartenders were prescribing cocktails around the same time cocaine was touted for curing toothaches. However, as the coca leaf’s reputation as a safe and useful tonic devolved into party drug status, the medicinal properties of alcohol haven’t disappeared. While it’s a good idea to avoid intoxication, there is disagreement about whether a small amount of alcohol will compromise your immune system. Having said that, a small drink, especially when combined with cold-fighting ingredients like honey and lemon, may offer some comfort.
A conversation with bartender Robbie Wilson of SNUGbar revealed a bit of the history of the virtues of drink.
“The next time someone tries to say all alcohol is evil, it sure as hell didn’t start that way,” he said.
When faced with dozens of bottles of liquor and liqueurs the options can be overwhelming, but there are a few rules of thumb about which essential ingredients to keep on hand this season: stick with aged spirits, choose a liqueur for healing blends of herbs and roots, invest in some cheap, mix-with-anything Angostura bitters, and keep a stock of fresh basics like ginger, honey, and citrus on hand.
When choosing an aged spirit, Wilson mentioned that gin was originally medicinal (juniper berries were said to fight the plague), but whiskey and cognac may help keep cognitive decline at bay, and could reduce blood clots and heart disease.
If you want to prescribe yourself medicine, invest in a bottle of chartreuse, a mysterious mix of 130 herbal extracts and one of very few liqueurs known to age in the bottle.
“This cures everything and promotes good health,” Wilson said.
Chartreuse goes for about $40 a pint, but for a more affordable option try an amaro, a fairly bitter, syrupy liqueur that comes in hundreds of varieties that you can mix with anything. Similar digestifs like Campari and Fernet are good options for cleansing your system with a strong, herbal rush.
There are some lesser known essentials to discover as well, many of which are available at the grocery store. Nettle, a flowering plant well known for its medicinal uses, is sold in bulk, capsules, or liquid tincture form at First Alternative Co-op. Amy Dawson of the co-op’s Southtown location said many customers use nettle to treat their allergies, colds, and flu symptoms.
Cork and Bottle Shop manager Jennifer Barr said several customers have come in for gin, which they use to soak raisins to treat arthritis, and Debbie Jenkins, owner of Washington St. Liquors, said people often buy blackberry brandy to alleviate an upset stomach.
CrowBar bartender and manager Seth Waddell said if someone isn’t feeling well this time of year, he’ll typically stick to whiskey and house-infused bourbon.
“Medicinally-wise, I’ll go with either orange or lemon and a natural, organic honey,” he said. “We do a great one with sage, lemon, honey, and apricot-infused bourbon. You get a little bit of herbal-ness that comes along with the sage.”
With so many choices, what alcohols should you avoid when you’re feeling under the weather? Typically, stay away from caffeinated drinks that will dehydrate you. Also avoid anything with bubbles, including champagne, soda, beer, and tonic water, which can speed up the absorption of alcohol. Most importantly, keep drinking fluids (a glass of water for every alcoholic drink), listen to your body, and get well soon—cheers!
by Kerry Brown