When I first read the recent Harvard School of Public Health study declaring that a couple of drinks a day is not only not bad, but can actually improve your health, I imagined my non-cursing German mother muttering under breath, “No scheisse.”
To this day if ever she’s overfilled her belly with too much bratwurst and strudel, she takes a nip from an itty-bitty bottle of Underberg, an alcoholic German elixir that tastes like Fisherman’s Friend cough drops with a tinge of alpine meadow.
Developed in 1846 using a secret herbal recipe and process mysteriously referred to by the brand as semper idem, Latin for “always the same,” it’s packaged exclusively in 2-centiliter bottles, each carefully wrapped in a twist of straw-colored paper like a grand cru Bordeaux.
I myself was once given a homemade dose of high-proof pinecone-infused zirbenschnaps that cured my head cold while on a visit to Austrian ski country.
For ages, alcohol was used to make water safe for drinking, and it was the top medicine in the Middle Ages—literally called aqua vitae, or “water of life,” a term preserved by the Danish caraway-flavored liqueur, aquavit.
The French liqueur Chartreuse, still produced by Carthusian monks, traces its complex herbal sip back to a recipe for the “elixir of long life.”
Absinthe also began as a medicinal product. Its controversial ingredient is wormwood, which was used as far back as ancient Egypt to treat anything from indigestion and fever to menstrual cramps.
“Patent” and side show medicines made during the 19th century were usually heavily alcoholic (sometimes with other ingredients like opium and cocaine).
Plenty of spirits are still categorized as digestifs, from Italian amaros to my mom’s beloved Underberg.
While I can’t stand the taste of Underberg, preferring Rolaids to soothe my stuffed stomach, I relish the fact those white lab coats at Harvard are just now catching up to what my mother, and her mother before her, have long known.