Book Review: “Doctors and Distillers,” by Camper English
DOCTORS AND DISTILLERS: The remarkable medical history of beer, wine, spirits and cocktails, by Camper English
We have many reasons to be grateful for a good gin and tonic, but as a malaria-causing drink, it has also proven more effective than a previously prescribed cocktail of brandy mixed with animal blood and pepper. As Camper English explains in “Doctors and Distillers,” it did Take a few centuries of scientific experimentation to get past these medieval pharmacies. Colonizing observers had to copy the indigenous use of South American cinchona bark (which contains the alkaloid quinine), before anyone got the idea to mix quinine with carbonated mineral water – together with the juniper-infused gin spirit that had its own medical history around Europe.
According to English, the blended drink was basically a multi-stranded approach to the 19th century public health: “Gin and tonic were probably created in India by the British and consist of many medicinal parts,” he writes. “Lime against scurvy, the rushing water against anemia and other conditions, quinine against malaria and gin as a diuretic.”
Besides, it was delicious.
In “Doctors and Distillers”, English, a San Francisco-based cocktail and liquor writer, has collected many similar stories about alcoholic beverages used as treatments for what bothers the mind and body. It is mostly a chronological journey through major milestones, spanning the BC days with fermented Chinese rice drinks and therapeutic wine-growing in the Indian Vedic period, to the 21st Century: “In Ireland, the practice of giving blood donors a free pint of Guinness did not end until 2009.” As one might expect, sketchy patent drugs and play prohibited whiskey is also in the mix.
But as he freely admits, the book is not a comprehensive treatise on the common past of medicine and alcohol. English also avoids deep dives in recent medical studies on the effects of alcohol on the body. Instead, “Doctors and Distillers” comes out as a cheerful, informative highlight – the literary equivalent of a bowl of tasty bar snacks to consume between sips of social history.
The drink recipes sprinkled throughout the book also adorn the story. The mixology notes often coincide with a relevant text, such as when the author describes the history of Dubonnet – a quinine-infused wine made in 1846 as part of a French government competition to get soldiers in North Africa to drink their medicine – before giving instructions for The Dubonnet and gin cocktail preferred by Queen Elizabeth II.
The pace of the book may be uneven (English gasps about the evolution of carbon dioxide in several pages in the name of science), but he has a sense of digging up fun facts. Take, for example, Dom Pérignon, a Benedictine monk born in 1638 who later developed a strong interest in wine culture: The guy did not invent champagne.
Other monastic medical contributions to the liquor cabinet are discussed – Chartreuse, Bénédictine and Buckfast Tonic Wine – the same is true of some old health measures that resonate today. English compares the tiny “wine windows” built into Italian establishments to minimize personal contact during outbreaks with the takeaway windows of urban bars that struggled to stay open in the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, when “Aperol Spritzes stood in like modern plague water.”
He later mentions the 105-year-old New Jersey woman who credited her daily consumption of nine gin-soaked raisins as a factor in surviving the disease. Maybe it’s the current closeness, but English’s inclusion of past pandemic practices gives “Doctors and Distillers” an extra dose of insight into human nature. Fully aware of certain tendencies to seek alternatives to established science, he comes up with his wisest words in the book’s opening disclaimer: “If you need medicine, talk to your doctor. If you need a cocktail, see your local mixologist. ”
DOCTORS AND DISTILLERS: The remarkable medical history of beer, wine, spirits and cocktails, by Camper English | 348 pp. | Penguin books | Paper, $ 17.99