In Nerdery

Cocktails have a lot going for them already — delicious flavor and complexity, endless opportunities for variation, and the benefits of relaxation and “social lubrication,” depending on when and where they’re consumed. Cocktails have other famous uses too — bloody marys and mimosas are popular “hair of the dog” remedies for a morning hangover, and hot toddies are the classically cozy winter warmer when you’re experiencing the sniffles. But is there actually any basis to these old remedies from the days before modern medicine?

You may have already heard some of the legendary health applications of certain spirit-based concoctions, from preventing scurvy (the Gimlet) to curing malaria (the Gin & Tonic) to being somewhat of a general cure-all (many different distilled spirits). But the number of ingredients in some favorite cocktails that originated for medicinal purposes may be much more than you expected!

For those familiar with the long history of using botanicals medicinally, this makes sense. Even before ingredients like herbs and spices were added to food and drink to provide flavor, humans already gathered them to use therapeutically. The list of the benefits they were thought to bestow is long:

  • Caraway: to treat digestive disorders
  • Cumin: to help digestion, then against heart disease, swelling, vomiting & chromic fever
  • Saffron: to soothe stomach issues, as well as treatment for any number of ear, eye and dental pains & ailments
  • Cinnamon & cassia: to stimulate circulation, to protect against cold, chills and coughs (and they’re associated with hot wintertime drinks even now)
  • Ginger: to prevent or soothe nausea (and as an aphrodisiac, a protector against colds & an anti-inflammatory against arthritis)
  • Juniper & black pepper: to cure chills from fevers, heal snake & insect bites, among many other applications
    • Juniper was famously included in the plague masks that were thought to prevent the spread of the bubonic plague, and were also burned to cleanse the air from disease

Similarly, alcohol was originally invented to support medicinal uses, and later became favored for drinking. Alcohol itself was considered to be a beneficial substance, and a cure for many (or all!) ills (whiskey prescription during Prohibition, anyone?). And, alcohol’s extractive abilities — it’s very good at separating substances through either infusion or distillation — led to endless possibilities for preserving beneficial qualities of herbs and spices.

So how does this actually play out in some of your favorite classic cocktails? Read on to see!


Corpse Reviver No. 2

This cocktail has long been an all-time favorite at the distillery! It’s no surprise, as it has all the components of a classic: fantastic flavor, a fabulous name, and an intriguing story to back it up. According to lore, this hair-of-the-dog drink could be consumed in the morning, and would indeed raise a corpse from the dead. Watch out, though! Three more in quick succession was said to un-revive the risen corpse. It’s certainly a cocktail that packs a punch, combining Gin No. 6 with North Shore Curaçao, Lillet Blanc, fresh lemon juice and a touch of Sirène Absinthe Verte.

Gin originated as a distillate of the botanical juniper; this berry (which is actually a cone of the juniper bush!) dates back to ancient Egyptian times as a remedy for headaches, and acquired a host of other alleged healing properties as history progressed.

Many of these properties have been backed up by modern experimentation, including anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, as well as being an insect repellent! In fact, that last property may have helped prevent the spread of the bubonic plague. At the time, doctors believed the disease was caused by poisoned air, so medieval physicians used juniper in their famous plague masks to cleanse the air before it reached their noses, and it was also burned to purify the air. It turns out the plague wasn’t spread by air, but by fleas — so the juniper probably helped prevent the spread, but for a different reason than first thought.

Lillet Blanc is wine that has been fortified, and infused with herbs and spices, including cinchona bark, which provides quinine. Quinine is probably more famous for its use in tonic water, where it did an excellent job at curing the devastating mosquito-borne illness malaria. In addition to its presence in Lillet Blanc, cinchona is found in a number of amaros and other spirits developed originally for healthful applications.

Absinthe is an intensely herbal spirit, made with the herb grand wormwood (artemisia absinthium) along with many other herbs. Wormwood is a bitter botanical that was prized for its ability to settle the stomach and promote good digestion, and for purging in cases of poisoning or stomach worms. Because of its particularly bitter character, absinthe combines wormwood with anise and fennel, both of which bring a flavor reminiscent of black licorice. These three make up the “grand trinity” of herbs used to make absinthe, and balance the bitterness of the wormwood. Our Sirene Absinthe Verte combines these three with 15 other herbs & botanicals!

Because of the abundance of herbs in it, absinthe goes in the bottle at a very high proof to keep the herbs properly combined in the spirit. The combination of its high proof and artemisian character made absinthe one of the most controversial spirits in history; it was banned for almost 100 years in most of Europe and North America! Fortunately, modern science proved those rumors false, and we can again enjoy a proper Corpse Reviver No. 2.


Last Word

Gin also makes an appearance in one of Sonja’s absolute favorite cocktails, the herbaceous and complex Last Word. In addition to the botanicals from gin, it adds in the super-herbal Green Chartreuse, along with lime and maraschino liqueur.

Green Chartreuse famously contains 130 ingredients, in a recipe that is closely guarded and kept secret by the Carthusian monks who perfected it and to this day are the only makers of this cult-favorite spirit. Like absinthe, this botanically rich spirit is bottled at higher proof (in this case, 110 proof).

As the educated class of Middle Age Europe, monks and nuns were the keepers and promoters of all sorts of medical, agricultural, and alchemical knowledge. So it’s not surprising that Green Chartreuse was conceived in that very environment! According to legend, the recipe came to the French Carthusian monks from the royal French court, in a manuscript that contained the secret for “the elixir for long life.” After many additions and modifications, the final Elixir Vegetal was recommended “as a remedy in most surprises, ailments, or accidents which could not wait for a doctor to come.”¹ Although none of the botanical ingredients are publicly known, to this day the elixir is sold in French pharmacies, and is used by some as a daily preventative medicine to ensure good health.

The Green Chartreuse we know and love in cocktails like the Last Word is one of three herbal liqueurs based on that final recipe (the others being Yellow Chartreuse, and a White Chartreuse that was based on lemon balm, and is no longer produced). Although the recipe is still a secret, known to only two Carthusian monks, it’s almost certain that many of the herbs & spices listed above made their way onto the ingredient list.


Boulevardier with Bokamaro (the Mondaine)

The Boulevardier follows in the classic cocktail tradition of tracing its origin through a complex family tree of cocktails, itself stemming from the Negroni. With the release of our new Bokamaro, we created a riff on that riff using Bokamaro as the bitter amaro.

Bokamaro is our own limited release amaro-style liqueur, which we infused and distilled with bok choy. In the tradition of Italian amari, Bokamaro also contains an abundance of herbs, fruits and spices, many of which have been used medicinally. Quassia bark, for example, carries many of the same beneficial qualities of cinchona bark, and has also been used to treat worms. Many other botanicals, like cape aloe, confer anti-inflammatory benefits. Along with the bright, leafy vegetal notes, this spirit has a complex, layered flavor that is surprisingly versatile in cocktails.

Vermouth, like Lillet Blanc, is a fortified and aromatized wine — with wormwood used as a component of the recipe rather than cinchona bark. The wine base provides a sweetness to counter wormwood’s bitterness, along with many other botanicals and spices to enhance the flavor. Due to wormwood’s beneficial digestive properties, spirits & wines that feature this herb have a long tradition as palate stimulants before a meal, exemplified in France’s “l’heure verte,” or “the green hour.” Although that tradition fell out of practice under the absinthe ban, it is still alive in countries like Spain, which has “la hora de vermut,” or “the vermouth hour,” (which can be prior to either lunch or dinner) and the similar Italian practice of “aperitivo hour,” replacing vermouth with their own local, botanically-rich bitter liqueurs.


Many of these cocktails are related, and it is easy to trace them through the complex family tree of cocktails, which not only travels vertically, but also latitudinally from drink to drink. For example, the Boulevardier is a riff on the Negroni, trading the original botanical gin out for whiskey. However, with the addition of whiskey the Boulevardier brings itself closer to the classic Manhattan, which would remove the amaro and add high-proof bitters instead. Going in another direction, the Negroni becomes the White Negroni, re-imagined from the colorful classic into a clear (or nearly clear) cocktail. If you lose the amaro from the White Negroni and add in orange liqueur & lemon, with a dash of absinthe, that takes you back to our original cocktail, the Corpse Reviver No. 2!

Oh, the life of a cocktail nerd… destined to taste through these iterations one by one to discover their unique traits. We know just the right people to tackle that challenge – onward!


Sources & Reading Material:

¹English, C. (2022) ‘3: Monks’, in Doctors and Distillers. New York, New York: Penguin Random House, pp. 84–84.

English, Camper. 2022. Doctors and Distillers : The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails. New York: Penguin Books.

Raina, Rajinder, Pawan K. Verma, Rajinder Peshin, and Harpreet Kour. 2019. “Potential of Juniperus Communis L as a Nutraceutical in Human and Veterinary Medicine.” Heliyon 5 (8): e02376.

Hicks, Jesse. 2010. “The Devil in a Little Green Bottle: A History of Absinthe.” Science History Institute. October 5, 2010.