Guinness is good for you, so the advertising used to say. It seems almost laughable amid today's responsible drinking messages that such an advertising campaign was allowed to be published, but this slogan was used for decades up until the 1960s: Guinness was prescribed to patients recovering from operations, and given to blood donors and pregnant women as the iron content of stout was considered good for the blood (the truth is that a pint of Guinness has less than 3 per cent of the daily recommended iron intake). But it wasn't all pseudo science: a group of researchers in America recently proved that Guinness helps to clear blood clots from the arteries and is therefore a good preventative against heart attacks (although Diageo, the current owners of Guinness can't concur for 'social responsibility' reasons).
But stout is not the only form of alcohol to have been used medicinally. In fact, pretty much all alcoholic drinks have been used in the past as remedies in some from or another. Just look at gin: the common story of gin's creation was by a Dutch Professor of Medicine, Dr. Franciscus Sylvius, who wanted to cure the new colonists in the West Indies who were suffering from numerous tropical diseases. He captured the diuretic properties of juniper berries in alcohol in the mid-1500s and created 'Juniper Eau de vie'. Juniper was already well known throughout Europe as having antiviral and antibacterial properties and it is likely that monks throughout Italy were making a form of juniper tonic from their locally grown berries for hundreds of years prior to this.
It turns out that alcohol is the perfect base for medicines, as the health-giving properties of botanicals (contained within alkaloids, oils, resins) are more easily broken down in alcohol than in water. Alcohol also inhibits fermentation so acts as a preservative and when consumed will enter the bloodstream quickly to have the desired effect.
Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, used this principle to create his own medicines to treat intestinal worms by infusing wine with local herbs, roots, berries, nuts, peels and barks. It was known as 'Vinum Hippocraticum', which some consider to be the first vermouth recipe.
The use of natural remedies starts at the beginning of time as an integral part of the food chain. Animals naturally gravitate towards certain plants depending on what is ailing them (parakeets in New Zealand chew on the antibacterial manuka bushes when they have stomach parasites). Humans have taken inspiration from the animal kingdom and utilized the same medicinal properties. The earliest civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece and China all used both alcohol and natural remedies as cures. The founder of Chinese Medicine, Shennong, wrote a pharmacopeia around 5000 years ago which listed 365 botanicals, many of which are still used today in Chinese as well as western medicine (Shennong is believed to have been the first to notice the restorative properties of tea, developed acupuncture and noted the powerful effects of ginseng and goji berries). It was also the Chinese who first starting purifying fermented alcohol by distilling, the concentrated alcoholic content made for more effective remedies with quicker absorption rates, better extraction and more effective preservative qualities: tinctures were born.
This theory of taking high-strength alcohol and infusing natural botanicals has been the basis for medicines for the past 1000 years and is still used today to create tinctures readily available in high street pharmacies.
Knowledge of distillation spread west from China into the Arab world and then into Europe where alchemists (along with trying to turn lead into gold and looking for the 'fifth element') were searching for the elixir of life. They weren't terribly successful at any of the above, although laid the foundations for commercial spirit production and brought us the term 'Aqua Vitae' - Water of Life, which did actually have an element of truth attached to its grandiose moniker. Life expectancy in the middle ages was approximately 30 years, so if you were privileged enough to drink wine, beer and spirits then by default you avoided the disease-ridden water and reduced your chances of death.
The alchemists paved a way for apothecaries who by the 1400-1500s not only had the local natural bounty at their disposal but also had access to the more exotic ingredients imported from the colonies by the East and West India trading companies. Apothecaries sold whole, powdered and tinctured forms of hundreds of botanicals, many of which would have had very bitter qualities.
We are currently seeing a surge of new bitters brands come onto the market with new flavours and infusions each month, but this is nothing compared to the 1800s and 1900s when there were hundreds of tonics, tinctures, elixirs and bitters crowding the shelves of the pharmacies. Peychaud's bitters is one brand that has survived, originally created in New Orleans by an apothecary named Antoine Peychaud in 1824. Like many of the other main bitters brands such as Angostura (created by a doctor), Peychaud's was invented as a digestive tonic but found its way into the limelight as an important ingredient in a Sazerac cocktail. Over in Italy at this time, Gaspare Campari, Luigi Rossi and Alessandro Martini were all creating bitter aperitifs and serving them much in the same way that apothecaries had been for centuries - as a stimulating drink.
Even during Prohibition, many bitters were not banned due to their medicinal properties and there was even a group of doctors who lobbied against the government to allow them to prescribe beer to patients (the argument claimed that they had been recommending drinking beer as part of a balanced healthy life for years).
The need for alcohol as a base for medicine slowly died out in the beginning of the 1900s as chemists found a way to synthesize natural properties to create chemical drugs. One major discovery was the isolation of acetylsalicylic acid from the willow tree which was later developed into aspirin. It was Hippocrates who had originally noted the pain-relieving properties of willow but it was a German company called Bayer who managed to get the patent for Aspirin in 1899. Interestingly, one of the first patented medicines in this country was secured in 1712 by an apothecary, Richard Stoughton, who invented Stoughton's bitters (officially known as: Stoughton's Elixir Magnum Stomachii, or the Great Cordial Elixir, otherwise called the Stomatick Tincture or Bitter Drops), which was one of the ingredients in a 'Brandy Cocktail' from 1850.
Powered and pill-form drugs were gaining popularity and with increased marketing and advertising budgets, modern drug culture grew and left herbalists and natural remedy practitioners feeling old-fashioned and out-of-business. Today GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and Bayer are some of the biggest businesses in the world and are of course very keen to promote their own brand of trademarked, patented drugs and to paint a picture of natural remedies as hippyish and outdated...well, where is the money in willow trees?
However, in the face of all the responsible drinking messages and warnings about giving your liver a break from alcohol for at least two days a week, the fact remains that people that drink alcohol live longer than those that abstain.
Dr. Arthur Klatsky, a senior consultant in cardiology at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in California, has been leading studies on the relationship between alcohol and health since 1977 and writes and lectures specifically on the relationships of alcohol consumption to cardiovascular conditions.
"I believe in advising people about alcohol on a one-on-one basis. It's very difficult for governments or public health officials to make broad, sweeping statements about alcohol consumption that apply to everyone." But he goes on to say that "abstinence can be hazardous to some persons' health. If my patients can benefit from light drinking, I advise them to do so."
He also exposes the myth that wine is better for you than other types of alcohol by the fact that coincidently wine drinkers tend to drink more moderately and also generally eat well and look after themselves more than spirit and beers drinkers do.
So botanical medicine has been practised since pre-history, alcohol has been used as a drug since it was discovered and the two have been joined to form effective remedies for thousands of years, the burning question still remains: is alcohol good for you? Well, like any drugs, you need to treat it with respect and consume with moderation. The analogy I use is that you wouldn't take a whole pack of aspirin if you had a headache, so why would you drink a whole bottle of bourbon if you were feeling a bit under the weather?
Personally, I am a firm believer that drinking good quality alcohol and on a moderate scale is part of a healthy lifestyle, alcohol relaxes the mind and relieves stress in muscles, it has antibacterial and anesthetizing properties and has been used for thousands of years as a medicine. Let us not be fazed by paranoia and raise a glass to 'Good Health!'