Humans have been fermenting beverages for more than 8,000 years, and we’ve been extolling their supposed medicinal virtues ever since. Unearthed writings from ancient China show alcohol dosage recommendations for patients, based upon age and gender—in other words, prescriptions. The Romans strengthened their wines with roots and herbs, thought to aid in digestion. These 2,000-year-old recipes were the direct precursor to what we know now as amari.
Seemingly every culture on the planet has, at some point, linked alcohol to alimentary ends. And even though modern science has debunked much of that mythos, even the Mayo Clinic admits “moderate alcohol consumption may provide some health benefits, such as reducing your risk of developing and dying from heart disease.”
Are you willing to get on board with that assessment? Well, then consider entertaining some of these slightly more eccentric medicinal claims from across the globe.
There’s no way to sugarcoat the marketing material here. This traditional distilled spirit comes bottled with a whole cobra immersed within. Although the Vietnamese have suspended everything from termites to geckos in their medicinal liquors, this particular offering is preferred by men for its supposed effect on virility and as a remedy for hair loss. If the snake seems to peer out from behind the glass with a menacing look, perhaps you’re not imagining things. On several reported occasions, the deadly reptile has miraculously snapped back to life upon opening of the bottle, striking an unsuspecting drinker.
This curiously rich concoction, brewed from mare’s milk, is native to Mongolia and parts of central Russia. Fermented over just half a day, it typically only contains between 1 and 2 percent alcohol by volume. It’s a workable replacement for beer and dairy in a region of the world where the supply of both can be scant and unreliable. In the late 1800s, the beverage gained notoriety as a remedy for tuberculosis. An industry of so-called kumis-cure resorts sprouted up throughout southeastern Russia. Today, it’s used as a stomach-soothing antidote for duodenal ulcers. Served cold, it has a distinct yogurt-like sourness.
This popular Italian tonic traces its roots back to the eighth century, when it contained everything from raw silk to gold leaf and ground pearls. Its defining ingredient, however, is kermes, a small insect from which its name and bright red color is derived. The recipe has evolved throughout the ages, but the insect remains. It has been used to treat heart palpitations, measles and even smallpox. Up and down the country, you’ll still see it served at pharmacies or in bottles bearing its conspicuous Campari-like hue.
Indigenous peoples of South America have been fermenting maize into chicha for thousands of years. Andean pottery dating back to 5,000 B.C. was used to store the ancient adulterant. While its production today has been modernized by many different cultures, the chicha de muko made in Amazonia remains the most true to its original roots. Ground corn is chewed and spat repeatedly into a collecting bowl. There, the enzymes from saliva break down the starches, allowing fermentation to occur. Even in its native regions of Bolivia, Brazil and Peru, it’s exceedingly rare to find. But those that drink it praise its anti-inflammatory properties, regulation of blood flow and even the slowing of cellular aging.
Nothing works up a thirst quite like a massive, poisonous centipede floating in your whiskey. If you agree, then a distillery in Thailand has just the bottle for you. The approximately foot-long critter has been detoxified prior to bottling, which ought to provide little comfort considering its disturbing appearance. But if you can get over the fear factor, some Southeast Asian pharmacists promise this liquid will ease back and muscle pain, as well as serve as the unlikeliest of aphrodisiacs.
This bright green herbal liqueur is made using actual coca leaves, the same ones used in cocaine production. But long before the narcotic became an illicit international scourge, coca leaves were used to treat headaches and altitude sickness in the high elevations of the Andes. It was also effective in combating lethargy. Some drinkers purport to find similar benefits in this elixir, although its producer claims to strip the plant of all its psychotropic components prior to distillation.
Not for the squeamish, this traditional remedy from northeastern China and Korea calls for the use of newborn mice. No more than three days old (when their eyes are still closed from birth), they are drowned in a bottle of high-alcohol rice wine and left to pickle for upwards of a year. The resulting liquid, pungent with notes of petrol, is touted as a cure-all. It has been prescribed for everything from respiratory infections to liver failure.
Mixing your cocktail