DOCTORS AND BURNERS: The Remarkable Medical History of Beer, Wine, Spirits and Cocktails, by campers English
We have many reasons to be grateful for a good gin and tonic, but as a malaria-busting drink, it’s also proven more effective than a previously prescribed cognac cocktail made with animal blood and pepper. As Camper English explains in Doctors and Distillers, it is did It takes a few centuries of scientific experimentation to get past these medieval apothecaries. Colonizing observers had to copy the indigenous peoples’ use of South American cinchona bark (which contains the alkaloid quinine). before anyone came up with the idea of mixing quinine with carbonated mineral water – along with the juniper-infused gin spirit that had its own medicinal history across Europe.
According to the English, this mixed drink was basically a multi-pronged approximation of the 19th century Public health: “The gin and tonic was probably made in India by the British and contains many medicinal ingredients,” he writes. “Lime for scurvy, sparkling water for anemia and other ailments, quinine for malaria, and gin as a diuretic.”
In addition, it was delicious.
In Doctors and Distillers, English, a San Francisco-based cocktail and spirits writer, has collected many similar stories about alcoholic beverages being used to treat diseases of the mind and body. It’s a mostly chronological journey through major milestones, spanning the days of fermented Chinese rice drinks in BC and therapeutic use of wine during the Indo-Vedic period, into the 21st century: “In Ireland, the practice of giving blood donors a free pint of Guinness only ended in 2009.” As you might expect, sketchy patent medicines and doctor-prescribed prohibition whiskey are also in the mix.
But as he freely admits, the book is not a comprehensive treatise on the history of medicine and alcohol. English also avoids deep dives into current medical studies on the effects of alcohol on the body. Instead, “Doctors and Distillers” turns out to be a gleefully informative highlights tour – the literary equivalent of a bowl of tasty bar snacks to be consumed between sips of social history.
The drink recipes scattered throughout the book also garnish the narrative. The mixology notes often coincide with a relevant passage of text, for example when the author tells the story of Dubonnet – a quinine-fortified wine created in 1846 as part of a French government competition to get soldiers in North Africa to drink their medicine drink – previously detailed providing instructions for the Dubonnet and gin cocktail favored by Queen Elizabeth II.
The book’s pacing can be inconsistent (English blows on the evolution of carbonation for several pages in the name of science), but he has a flair for unearthing fun facts. Take Dom Pérignon, for example, a Benedictine monk born in 1638 who later developed a keen interest in viticulture: this guy Not invent champagne.
Other monastic medicinal contributions to the Liquor Cabinet are discussed – Chartreuse, Bénédictine and Buckfast Tonic Wine — as do some ancient health measures that have echoes today. English likens the tiny “wine windows” built into Italian establishments to minimize face-to-face contact during outbreaks of disease to the snack windows of city bars that struggled to stay open in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic as “Aperol Spritzes waters stood there as a modern plague.”
He later mentions the 105-year-old New Jersey woman who credited her daily consumption of nine gin-soaked raisins as a factor in surviving the disease. Maybe it’s the current proximity, but English’s inclusion of past pandemic practices gives Doctors and Distillers an extra dose of insight into human nature. Always aware of certain tendencies to seek alternatives to established science, he offers his wisest words in the book’s introductory disclaimer: “If you need medication, talk to your doctor. If you need a cocktail, ask your local bartender.”
DOCTORS AND BURNERS: The Remarkable Medical History of Beer, Wine, Spirits and Cocktails, by Camper English | 348 p. | Penguin Books | Paper, $17.99