It’s been said that civilization begins with distillation. So it should come as no surprise that the custom of toasting with a drink is almost as old as drinking itself. Salud, santé, sláinte–it’s no coincidence that in every culture, a phrase which translates roughly into “to your health” accompanies the raising of a glass in good cheer. The reason why is devastatingly simple: for most of human history, alcohol was consumed for medicinal purposes.

Before Antony van Leeuwenhoek discovered bacteria in the late 1600s, people had no idea why drinking water–the very thing that kept them alive–also made them deathly ill. What they did know was, drinking tea or alcohol provided valuable fluids without causing afflictions.

Equally well known were the curative properties of botanicals. Roots, herbs, tree barks, berries, and leaves all make up the natural order of healing. Long before there was a Duane Reade dispensing pharmaceuticals on every corner, the natural world provided antimicrobials, antivirals, antifungals, and antibacterials, in the form of plants.

Alcohol proved to be the most effective method of liberating essential oils from botanicals, and–more importantly– preserving them. In this manner, alcohol became the preferred delivery method for many herbal remedies.


By the 11th century, Moorish culture had brought the science of distillation to Europe, along with a bevy of exotic spices to add to growing apothecaries. Benedictine and Chartreuse–both developed in 16th century monasteries–are but two examples of liquors that began their lives as curatives, and elixirs of longevity. From aperitifs to digestives, alcohol infused with herbs teeming with purported medicinal properties played a significant role in both the social lives and well-being of the populace.

In modern culture, most alcohol is consumed for recreational purposes. With the advent of technology, many elixirs which were born of alchemy have given way to the chemistry of mass-production. Once it became possible to synthesize the flavors and colors contained in spirits, industrial alcohol manufacturers (largely) abandoned the use of actual botanicals, for basic fiduciary reasons. While it is inarguably less expensive to produce higher volumes of alcohol with modern flavor agents and artificial dyes, one fact is inescapable:

Thousands of years of the medicinal benefits provided by elixirs are (nearly) lost to antiquity.

One of the great things about the craft distilling movement is the return to the application of natural ingredients. While claiming no specific health benefit, the purpose of this series will be to document the curative properties of the botanicals that provide flavor, color, and character to your favorite tipples, made by craft distillers around the world.

*Warren Bobrow, author of Apothecary Cocktails, is the expert consultant for this series.

JFB 2014