In the Holiday Spirit

By Glenna W. Sheaffer

Botanicals used in alcoholic spirits have been around since probably prehistory.  Beers, wines, aperitifs, digestifs, bitters, liquors, and liqueurs were one way to get people in the old days to drink medicinal bitter aids to the digestive system and get important vitamins and minerals in the body.  Aperitifs were often dry vermouth, gin or dry white wine with herbals added to aid digestion and stimulate an appetite.  The herbs commonly used were gentian root, barberry, angelica and seeds of cardamom and fennel.  Aperitifs are low in sugars and dryer with a more bitter flavor.  Digestifs are like a tonic to aid after dinner digestion and include brandy, port, sherry and liqueurs.  Port is a dark red wine from Portugal is made from specific small, dense, grapes with concentrated flavors.  Sherry is a white wine from Spain from their indigenous grapes.  Brandies and liqueurs are from grapes and other fruits.  Bitters are added to cocktails for their healthful flavoring often from bitter or sweet oranges, rhubarb, mint, thyme, and marjoram.


Humans are great contaminators of fresh water and when the waters were contaminated, beer and wine were one way to get life-giving liquids into you.  Beer uses grains [including barley], hops, grains of paradise, and a variety of other botanicals to make a healthful beverage. During at least the 16th to 17th century, everyone drank beers and wines rather than water.   Grains of paradise are the seeds of a perennial from W. Africa that is of the ginger and cardamom family and is also used as a black pepper substitute.  There is a Samuel Adams beer that incorporates grains of paradise in its mix.


Using ripe juniper berries in gin or gin-like beverages goes back to the 13th century and aided upset stomach, inflammation, scurvy and cleansed the kidneys.  Barley was also used in gin and barley is an extremely healthful ingredient.  Barley is full of vitamins and minerals that lower blood sugar, blood pressure, and lower cholesterol.  It also helps inflammation and pain.  Gin and tonic was used against malaria and also to replenish potassium, phosphorous, salts and calcium when heat produced heavy sweating.  In tropical climates, gin and tonic was a lifesaver.  Distilled 80 to 100 proof gin and rum contains 4 mg. of phosphorus and 2 mg. of potassium.


Botanicals used in the making of spirits is a fascinating study.  Bon Appetit!

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