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Medicine, shaken and stirred: Cocktails that cure what ails you

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When you order up your preferred potable potion at your favorite watering hole, you’re probably thinking, “Cocktails! Yippie!” or “Boy do I need this after such a long, cruddy week!” 

But what you might not be thinking is that very same alluring elixir might be good for more than a wink and a clink.  Cocktails and spirits -- in moderation -- can actually be good for you.

"Monks needed things to last through the harsh winters, and alcohol is the perfect preservation solution. It delivered the herbal remedy to the body effectively and quickly, preserved the herbs, and its warming qualities felt good during the cold months.”

- Sharon Floyd, bartender and certified Ayurveda practitioner

Think about it, certain spirits from the distant past that have managed to become a staple in today's liquor cabinets. It isn't by accident.

In the Middle Ages, monks tended to elaborate gardens of herbs and other plants that they would use as healthful remedies, infusing them into alcohol in order to preserve them for extended periods of time.

“Chartreuse great example,” says Sharon Floyd, bartender and certified Ayurvedic practitioner who runs the cocktail-centric botanical site Bartanica.  Infusing herbs and plants into alcohol when behind the bar at New Orleans’ Iris in the French Quarter has long been her passion. Chartreuse - the minty, medicinal herbal liqueur - is composed of 130 different herbs and plants from a recipe for “long life” initially crafted by French Carthusian monks in 1605. 

"Monks needed things to last through the harsh winters, and alcohol is the perfect preservation solution. It delivered the herbal remedy to the body effectively and quickly, preserved the herbs, and its warming qualities felt good during the cold months,” she says.

In Floyd’s home city of New Orleans, some of the most renowned tinctures and cocktails were invented, and in a few cases began as medicinal salves. Take Peychaud Bitters, for example – an important ingredient for any well-stocked bar, not to mention a key component in a Sazerac cocktail. It was invented as an herbal aid by a Creole pharmacist named Antoine Peychaud in the late 1830s.

“Spirits in general were originally used medicinally as a medium for taking medicine, to disinfect, and as a solvent. In the 14th century during the Black Plague brandy was used as medicine. Vermouth has been used for centuries to help cure stomach ailments; and before the time of Hippocrates, Greeks were mixing herbs with wine,” explains Danielle Tatarin, president of the Canadian Professional Bartenders Association.  Her interest in medicinal cocktails has led her to study and lecture on the link between traditional Chinese medicine and drinking alcohol, as well as incorporating those components into cocktails at the Keefer Bar in Vancouver, Canada.

“I commonly incorporate botanical elements into pretty much every drink I create now, whether I am making a tincture, tea, syrup or bitters to use in an alcoholic or non-alcohol drink,” she says. “When you are using ingredients commonly used to treat ailments, if you respect them and use them in the right way there are definitely healing properties that are apparent.” 

Aquavit, the Scandinavian spirit whose name translate to mean “water of life,” is made from the pungent,  seed-like caraway fruit from the fennel plant and is known as a cleansing antibacterial. But if aquavit seems a little exotic to you, another great example along these same lines might be on your home bar shelf right now: Gin.

“It has tons of botanical oils. In the case of gin, when adding oils from plants post-distillation, you get a little more essence of plant than there would normally be in a clean grain spirit. That adds some medicinal qualities,” offers Floyd.

And if mixables are more your speed, you might consider nabbing a bottle of ginger ale next time you’re at the grocery store. Not only is ginger is renowned as a stomach settling tonic, its healthful qualities have been said to extend to warding off colds and flu, too.

But before you raid the liquor cabinet to ward off the upcoming potential seasonal maladies or whatever else ails you, be sure to heed Floyd’s best medicinal mixing advice: “People don’t always know how to moderate. It’s a real issue. It’s part of what I want to do with Bartanica - find the way of gracefully moderating all of those arenas of cocktail culture and personal lifestyle, and getting a message of mindfulness and awareness out there.”

We’ll drink to that.

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