My mother had two remedies for colds. One was chicken soup; the other was a mix of lemon and honey.

I never thought to ask her if she really believed these nostrums cured anything, but they certainly had psychological benefits—at least they made us all feel like we were doing something.

The honey was the best—when you’re five years old, drinking honey is an astonishing indulgence, sweet and soothing on irritated throats. (And since my mother was Canadian, maple syrup got involved, too. Nice.)

The lemon supplied vitamin C; sweetened with honey, it made a very nice lemonade.

I knew people who added ginger to that mix. Fresh ginger would add a bit of spicy heat, and has a long folk tradition of fighting colds and flu and of aiding the appetite. I think my mom didn’t like fresh ginger—I don’t recall eating it in my youth, not once. We stuck with the lemon and honey, and maybe some nice, cold Canada Dry ginger ale.

Then I got old enough for whiskey. That was the end of lemon and honey.

Whiskey as medicine

I’m always happy to self-prescribe a little Scotch or bourbon when I’m under the weather. And no, I don’t believe it’s really a cure for my colds, or my flu, or my sore back. Like the straight honey of my youth, it’s an uplifting indulgence that always makes me feel happier, if not healthier.

But there was a time—not so very long ago—when whiskey was a generally accepted cure, a respected part of the medical doctor’s bag of remedies. Whiskey’s power to cure was medical tradition, and in a hidebound industry, tradition counts for a lot.

Change was slow, but by the end of the nineteenth century whiskey’s cure-all reputation was being doubted in some circles, and its use increasingly deprecated. Nonetheless, administering whiskey remained part of common medical practice through Prohibition and the first half of the twentieth century. I still remember my father’s astonished amusement with his tee-totaling mother taking her doctor-prescribed nightly tot to soothe her nerves after my grandfather died in the 1960s. Apparently it worked.

The generally accepted rationale for whiskey’s claim to medicinal benefit was a belief that whiskey (and brandy) stimulated and strengthened circulatory function. Doctors also used it as a sedative to quiet the distraught or overexcited. (There was apparently little examination of the contradiction that whiskey was being administered both as stimulant and depressant at the same time.) 

Both whiskey and brandy were generally accepted medicine for colds and flu (or “the grippe,” as it was known then).

There were plenty of mountebanks, often the distillers themselves, who made claims that must have seemed astonishing even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some believed whiskey would cure cancer. Some claimed it could cure everything.

One of my favorite whiskey charlatans was a blender named Walter P. Duffy, who moved from New York to build a large rectifying plant in Baltimore. According to the Maryland Historical Magazine, he bought ad space across the bottom of all 1684 pages of the Baltimore City Directory in 1886, advertising

Duffy’s Pure Malt Whiskey!

Cures Malaria. Price One Dollar Per Bottle.

Sold by Druggists, Grocers and Dealers.

Apparently, Baltimore’s citizenry was not as gullible as Duffy hoped. He went bankrupt the next year and moved back to New York.

There was, though, a widespread belief in the idea that whiskey had certain cure-all attributes. Whiskey labels admonished that the contents were “bottled expressly for Family and Medicinal Use,” and there was widespread acceptance of the idea that whiskey should be included in every family’s medicine cabinet. 

H. L. Mencken wrote that “Dr. Z. K. Wiley, our family practitioner… believed and taught that a shot of Maryland whiskey was the best preventive of pneumonia in the R months.” According to Mencken, his father always had Monticello Maryland Rye in the pantry, and “before every meal, including breakfast, he ducked into the cupboard in the dining-room and poured out a substantial hooker of rye, and when he emerged he was always sucking in a great whiff of air to cool off his tonsils. He regarded this appetizer as necessary to his well-being. He said it was the best medicine he had ever found for toning up the stomach.”

But some in the medical profession were troubled, and with time the industry apparently developed grave doubts that whiskey was a successful medicine. By the beginning of the twentieth century the AMA was already recommending against prescribing it. Their tone changed as Prohibition rolled around and the government began to regulate what doctors could prescribe for their patients; the Hippocratic Oath became more like the Hypocritical Oath, as the profession lobbied to assure a loophole in the Volstead Act that allowed them to retain a hold on the profits they could gain from writing whiskey prescriptions.

Predictably, after Repeal the AMA again deprecated whiskey.

Back to home remedies

Lemon, honey, ginger, and good old traditional whiskey. It’s quite a collection of home remedies. No one believes they actually cure anything, but everyone agrees that they ameliorate symptoms, make you feel like you’re doing something about your sorry lot, and offer a little psychological pick-me-up while you suffer your cold or flu.

So why not combine them all together?

That’s exactly what Australian bartender Sam Ross did in 2005 while he was working at the now-closed Milk & Honey in Manhattan. The way Ross tells it, Compass Box was starting to promote their line of blended Scotch on the East Coast, and Ross was trying to figure out how to make use of it. His experimentation led to the Penicillin Cocktail, a honey-sweetened whiskey sour that seems inspired by another Milk & Honey original from the same era, T. J. Siegal’s bourbon, lemon, and honey Gold Rush—substitute Scotch, add the hallmark ginger, and the rest is history.

The Penicillin Cocktail, photo ©2018 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Penicillin Cocktail
 

The Penicillin Cocktail

Based on Sam Ross, 2005

  • 2 oz (60 ml) blended Scotch whisky (Monkey Shoulder, Famous Grouse)
  • ¾ oz (20 ml) honey syrup
  • ½–¾ oz (15–20 ml) fresh lemon juice
  • ½ oz (15 g) fresh ginger, peeled
  • ¼ oz (10 ml) smoky single malt Scotch whisky (Laphroaig)
  • candied ginger (garnish)

 

Cut the ginger into thin coins and muddle well in the mixing tin. Add blended whisky, honey syrup, and lemon juice, and shake well with ice. Add a large piece of ice to a rocks glass and double strain the mixture over the ice. Pour the smoky whisky over the back of a bar spoon to float it on top of the drink. Garnish with candied ginger.
 

Ross used a ginger-honey syrup in his original Penicillin; that makes sense for a bar making a lot of these drinks in a short time, but ginger juice doesn’t keep its bright taste for long, so it’s wasteful for the home bartender. Muddling for each drink is slower and messier, but if you’re only making one or two Penicillins at a time that approach gives a much fresher ginger flavor than a syrup left over from yesterday.

The idea behind using two Scotches is to use a less aggressively flavored (and usually less expensive) blend for the main body of the drink, then a  peaty float to provide a rich, smoky nose. It doesn’t have to be a blend, of course, but the subtleties of a single malt might get lost here, what with all the lemon, honey, and ginger. The blend makes for a relatively lighter body in the drink, and the float is enough to bring a good heady interest to the nose. Any decent, peaty Islay whiskey will do for the float; I suggest Laphroaig. (You don’t like peaty Scotch? At least give it a try here, it makes the drink.)

The garnish for the Penicillin is a chunk or strip of candied ginger. It’s pretty easy to make your own, but you may be able to buy large enough pieces at your grocery. Absent candied ginger, a good lemon twist is an appropriate substitute.

A detail of raw, fresh ginger, an essential element of the Penicillin Cocktail. Photo © 2018 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved. The honey is the wild card in this formula — so many regions, so many flavors. Ginger and Scotch whisky aren’t shy, and can stand up to strongly flavored honeys; I recommend that you find an assertive regional honey to give your Penicillin the local touch.

There truly is something medicinal in the Penicillin’s flavor. The Scotch, the peat, the ginger and lemon, all working together. The nose is all smoky peat, with a little hint of lemon and honey. If the lemon and honey are balanced, the first sip is a hit of their sweet-and-sour, with the honey’s flavor tones coming through, but neither sensation dominating. Then the there’s a rush of ginger across the sides of the tongue. That fades a bit, and the blended Scotch finally appears as you swallow. Finally, there’s a long aftertaste of the whiskey and, longest of all, the warming ginger.

It’s a genius combination.

I’ve written often that Scotch is not the friendliest of spirits for cocktails, and the dry, peaty Islay Scotches are the spikiest of the lot. That said, I rank the Penicillin Cocktail as the most approachable and most drinkable of all the Scotch cocktails I’ve encountered. The flavor combination adds up to more than the sum of its parts, and has put the Penicillin on track to become one of the cocktail world’s classics—probably the first of the twenty-first century’s cocktails to reach that status.

And that means it is becoming, or has already become, part of the regular canon of drinks that most bartenders know and serve, whether it’s on the drinks menu or not. It’s an everyday drink, and you don’t have to wait until you have a cold to indulge. You’ll want one then, too, of course, but don’t forget about straight honey. And have a bowl of chicken soup.