Medicinal Cocktails: The Better-For-You Cocktail Trend on the Rise
History dating back millennia is replete with beliefs that alcohol—by itself or combined with herbs—is a cure for various ailments. During Prohibition in the U.S., a pharmacy was the only place one could legally grab a bottle in exchange for a doctor-signed note. Today, bartenders across America are coming up with concoctions that combine spirits with herbs, fruit, and produce that have beneficial properties. And, often in a nod to history and for a bit of play, bar and beverage menus increasingly reference medicine, alchemy, and drugstores in names of drinks and establishments.
“I don’t necessarily want to say we design the drinks on medicinal theories, but we focus on fresh and often healthful ingredients for the best tasting cocktail,” says Danielle Fattal, events director for Apotheke in New York. The cocktail bar’s name is German for pharmacy.
Matt Scott, beverage director at The White Bull in Decatur, Georgia, is also wary about overpromising a drink’s medicinal benefits but offers advice when he can. A hot toddy, for instance, will make you feel better if you have a cold, he says.
Following the functional foods movement, ingredients with perceived health and medicinal benefits are popular in cocktails. “Everyone is so health-conscious, but they still want to go out and have a good time,” says Jon Schott, beverage manager and general manager at The People’s Drug in Alexandria, Virginia.
Even P.F. Chang’s, with 218 domestic units, is jumping on the better-for-you cocktail vibe. “The big payoff for both the customers and the staff is crafting drinks with great ingredients that are made fresh every day,” says Mary Melton, beverage director. The Asian-themed brand uses several items that have gained popularity due to their health benefits, such as nutrient-rich chia seeds in the Blushing Geisha. The seeds are soaked in water to soften and then poured on top of a mixture of grapefruit vodka, blood orange purée, and lemon juice for a beautiful suspension, Melton explains. While it’s a little bit more labor intensive to make drinks with fresh ingredients like fresh pomegranate juice and seeds in its spike Pomegranate Lemonade, Melton says the brand’s guests love them.
Other operators have closer ties to the pharmacy world and some health-related alcoholic beverages. Both The People’s Drug and The White Bull are housed in former drugstores, and each features at least a couple cocktails that depict medicinal ties. The White Bull and Apotheke even dub their cocktail menus prescription lists.
The People’s Drug melds a nostalgic atmosphere with drinks like What’s Up Doc?, which Schott calls a “nice healthy cocktail.” The Witch Doctor’s Cure All has pisco; lemon juice; Peruvian sweety drop peppers that are rich in nutrients; and honey infused with cayenne, turmeric, and coriander—spices that are trending for their functionality in lowering cholesterol and reducing pain. The Schrute Farms Margarita even employs glasses rimmed with black lava salt, which supposedly helps with skin tone and blood pressure, while Irish Afternoon includes matcha—believed to have multiple health benefits. Many cocktails include bitters, too, which Schott notes historically is seen to help digestion.
The cocktail menu at Apotheke, which has a sibling location in Los Angeles, is segmented by health or medical benefits—aphrodisiacs, pain killers, euphoric enhancers, stimulants, stress relievers, and health and beauty. Fattal says the Sitting Buddha, one of the euphoric enhancers, is among the crowd favorites. It includes vodka with lemongrass, pineapple, squeezed lime, and agave, along with pressed ginger root and cilantro, which is said to aid digestion. Deal Closer, which combines vodka, cucumber, mint, lime, agave, and vanilla essence, also includes local Chinatown aphrodisiacs, Fattal says.
The White Bull’s A Pisco My Heart features pisco, lemon, botanical gin, and syrup with chamomile, long seen as a stress reducer and anti-inflammatory. Its Hazy Eye includes green chartreuse that is said to help relieve chest colds, Scott notes. Another drink, Black Parade, combines tequila, vermouth, lime juice, and sugar-citrus syrup with squid-ink water—“that’s supposedly anti-everything,” Scott says. “If it really helps in that way, that’s fantastic. If not, well, it’s still a fun ingredient to deal with.”