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How the Apothecary Gave Birth to the Modern Cocktail Movement

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The rise of the apothecary cocktail.


Folk medicine techniques in the early apothecary, incorporating herbs and distilled spirits, are as old as known healing methods. Wild gathered botanicals and spices made up folk healers' satchel of curatives.  And many of these ancient flower and herb-based remedies are still in use today, with the modern resurgence of concentrated flower treatments and herbal bitters used in healing, cooking and craft cocktails.

In the decades before electricity and the much later discovery of life sustaining refrigeration, alcohol, long known as a potent preservative, kept fragile herbs and healing flower potions from rotting. Consider a time when even a sip of basic drinking water was potentially poisonous to the body, consuming food could be deadly, and diseases no more offensive than the common cold ran largely unchecked, killing thousands around the populace. Life expectancy was short and there was an overall lack of standardized healing techniques and procedures. Highly trained doctors like we have today just didn’t exist in America or much anywhere else outside the areas of wealth and modernization.

The Apothecary

Enter the early apothecary. The apothecary was part folk-medicine healer, part entrepreneur, and part snake oil salesmen. The local or traveling apothecary was the default medic around the myriad of small towns where doctors (for those who could find one) were usually predisposed healing serious wounds or fixing broken bones. Early barbers also served as dentists in the 19th century, but snake oil dealers (traveling salesman selling faux cure-all elixirs) were just about the only ones who would dispense their own definition of panaceas to heal the ill and infirmed.

One of these early pharmacy-made elixirs was named the Sazerac, highly beneficial to the gut.

Early apothecary shops prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 were masters and harnessers of mass hysteria.  Proprietors looked to disease as an integral way to fatten their wallets without the necessity of formal doctor’s training. Many preparatory pharmacists did take their business of healing seriously, but then, as now, snake oil purveyors offered potent methods of healing with untested and therefore unsafe ingredients as a means to an end. The end of what however? These potions offered scant assistance to cure a sickness or an affliction.

In larger towns, the apothecary may have had a shop where a pharmacist would help with basic complaints of poor health, headaches, sleeplessness, stomach aches, lack of energy and so on, by growing and harvesting their own medicinal herbs in kitchen gardens.

Boozy "Cures"

Snake oil, or quack cures, were quite the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, and to some degree the early 20th century, with the potency of ingredients for the cure sometimes exceeding the complaint itself. Highly addictive core ingredients were utilized in the early days of un-standardized medicine, such as morphine, opium, cocaine and cannabis extracts. These habit-forming substances were commonly used to cure all sorts of maladies, be they real or the vividly imaginative. Incorporating alcohol would become more than a metaphor for concocting basic cocktails in the traditional model of the preparatory pharmacy. One of these early pharmacy-made elixirs was named the Sazerac, highly beneficial to the gut.

Photos by Glenn Scott/ Apothecary Cocktails

Strangely enough and almost unknown to the modern drinker, the Sazerac is quite potent against outbreaks of intestinal worms, although most modern Americans have never experienced such an illness thanks to modern food safety laws. Centuries ago, a case of tapeworm could be fatal to a child, but swallowing a potion with bitters and a digestive would alleviate and rid the body of this insidious insect. These early concoctions of bitters, concentrates of tinctures and extracts along with potent, home-distilled alcohol led to the modern word: cocktails. This term, describing our drinks, extends to the present day. Alcoholic beverages made in the apothecary had the power to heal or hurt as necessary. This ensured more business for the "entrepreneur" (or snake oil salesmen) in the years before the Pure Food and Drug Act removed alcohol based "curatives" from the pharmacy permanently and sent them to the cocktail bar.

The serious nature of healing wasn’t intended to make the patient drunk. And after the Pure Food and Drug Act became law, one of the great changes affecting the taste of medicine was not a pleasurable one. Removing sweet, herbal flavors was meant to discourage overconsumption of "healing" curatives by using highly bitter herbs. These herbal extracts were dripped into healing medicinal curatives drop by precious drop. Just like a modern mixologist would drip bitters into a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned. Pharmacists originally healed sickness during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries around the globe by dispensing "snake oil." By the time the 19th century rolled around, there were "serious" formularies selling cures for stomach worms and head lice, often on the European market. It was believed that vermouth or absinthe, with their active ingredient of wormwood, functioned as powerful curatives against stomach and head ailments.

The early apothecary shop was the place to go for curatives of all types, most of them embracing alcohol.

Who was the seafaring man that didn’t know about rum heavy, hot grog as a powerful medicine against seasickness? Or "the Haymaker’s Punch" also known as switchel (which is making a comeback these days), consumed by farmers needing a quick pick-me-up or seeking treatment against a sprain thanks to the punch's high proof country-distilled rye whiskey? Still others would mix mind-numbing brandy with bitters and home-distilled rye whiskey along with a few ounces of richly textured, sweet vermouth (the vermouth was no more than brandy, wine and herbs combined to increase shelf life) for healthy digestion and to eliminate deadly waste from the body. The early apothecary shop was the place to go for curatives of all types, most of them embracing alcohol. Why? In the age before electricity, alcohol acted as more than just preservatives and relaxing liniments against illnesses and injuries. It was part of the social thread as it was since the dawn of distillation many hundreds of years prior.

Peychaud and Angostura

At the early 19th century apothecary, men like Antoine Amedie Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from present day Haiti, set up shop in New Orleans to cure residents. In steamy New Orleans, the lack of refrigeration contributed to vast outbreaks of debilitating dysentery because the drinking water itself was highly poisonous. So, he administered small "egg cups" (which is what an egg shell would have rested within) of his newest inventions against stomach ailments.

Food preparation techniques in the early days of our country were prone to cross-contamination. And many people became sick from lack of basic food safety, which lead to the industry of digestion cures, many of which included alcohol.

Dr. Johann Siegert is best known for a product named Angostura Bitters. Angostura, like Peychaud’s Bitters, were originally developed to sooth the ill effects of nausea and stomach sickness. The Peychaud’s bitters that exist today were not originally made to be the essential ingredient in a Sazerac. Rather, they were used to cure horrible stomach ailments. The vivid red color of Peychaud’s, supplied by bright red insect shells, ground up and held in suspension along with wormwood and alcohol, gave the visual impression of power and strength of healing. Red shouts strong and effective. If a shelf is crowded with similar bottles, it only made sense to pick the one that was visually arresting, like the color of Peychaud’s or Campari.

Herbal bitters have had a place in the medicine chest since the early days of healing. Bitters make for a wondrous tonic to aid in digestion and blood circulation. Early bitters used in cocktails during the 18th and 19th centuries by men like Professor Jerry Thomas, considered the father of American mixology, were not far removed from the digestive, flavor-driven bitters that still grace mixology barrooms today. As bartenders reach into their rucksack of concentrated flavors, these original medicinal products are making a great resurgence into the modern era. In the apothecary, bitters were an integral part of healing until the Volstead Act, also known as The National Prohibition Act, took all the fun out of social drinking and "healing at the pharmacy."

Who knew that Fernet Branca was originally invented against stomach and head distress, or that Campari was originally administered as a curative against bad digestion? Or that topical applications of vodka as a liniment would heal boils and bruises on farm animals? With bartenders' rediscovery of tinctures, bitters, shrubs and elixirs, the early apothecary shop is closer linked to modern mixology than ever before.

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