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Whisky’s properties for homemade remedies

history of whisky

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May 8, 2022

Whisky, or aqua vitae, as a magical and alchemical healing remedy to all the world’s ills throughout the centuries.

Every enthusiast might think that whisky can cure all ills. Nowadays we generally refer ironically to those illnesses as ‘ailments of the spirit’, a.k.a. a bad day at work or a fight with your best friend. However, in the Middle Ages, whisky was actually the cure for EVERY ill. Not surprisingly, whisky was called aqua vitae (water of life). 

We have already looked at whisky as the main ingredient in cocktails and dinner recipes. In this article, we are going to explore the curative benefits attributed to whisky. As a matter of fact, some of these homemade remedies actually do have a scientific basis. However, we still wouldn’t go into treating a bad toothache with a sip of whisky. Just call a doctor. At the most, a dram will help you get over your fear of the dentist.

The origin of the distillation process

Whisky can cure all ills
Men making and sampling wines, spirits, or other beverages or medicines. Oil painting. (Wellcome Collection)

Distillation originated in the alchemical studies of early Persian scientists and physicians. It was from the Arabs that European scholars imported the secrets of distillation into the continent around the 12th and 13th centuries.

Then in Europe, it was the monasteries that immediately began experimenting with the new technique. After all, it was the only place where educated men could easily get access to that knowledge. Moreover, the monks could count on freshwater reserves and regular supplies of grain from tithes to draw from and set their distillation process started. And so the history of whisky began. The rest, as they say, is history.

Curative Cocktails

Although laymen quickly discovered the delights of a glass of whisky, aqua vitae immediately became popular in medicinal cocktails. This was both because of the almost mystical properties ascribed to it, and objectively because alcohol could preserve the medicinal herbs included as ingredients for a longer period. Thus, aqua vitae was used to mix ingredients, and it could have served a range of functions in the recipe. 

The cure for deafness and joins ache

In Warren R Dawson’s compilation of manuscripts – A Leechbook or Collection of Medical Recipes of the Fifteenth Century – aqua vitae is listed as a key ingredient to cure deafness. Here’s the magical concoction recipe:

‘For deafness [….] take the bile of a hare with aqua vite and the milk of a woman’s breast in the same quantity and mix them well together and put them in the ear.”

Yeah, right. A rather bizarre topical cure. We guess the only possible outcome from such medicine was some sort of earache. And you should count yourself lucky if the effects stopped there.

But what was suggested to the patient who had a few aches and pains in the joints? Still from Warren R Dawson’s manuscript compilation, we can read this peculiar remedy:

‘For ache of the shoulder joint […] mix an ointment called marciaton [ointment containing beeswax, olive oil, butter, animal fats, gums and herbs] together with an ointment known as Agrippa [mastic oil and herbal roots] and a little aqua vita and then apply it to the shoulder. This is proven to work.’

But let’s leave the medieval monks to their experiments on how whisky can cure all ills, and let’s move on to talk about more renowned people.

Turn everything into gold

Portrait of James IV

If you have a particularly poetic vein, you might refer to whisky as a golden liquid. Yet for King James IV such a sentence was not intended as a metaphor. 

King James IV had a keen interest in aqua vitae and invested in its development. In particular, he was the benefactor of John Damian, a peculiar alchemist that claimed he could create the “quintessence”, the mysterious element that apparently can turn all the humbles metals into more precious gold.

Hence, King James paid for the alchemist’s laboratories in Stirling and Edinburgh castles and everything else the scholar needed to carry out his enigmatic studies. Apparently, one of the key ingredients for making the wondrous element was once again aqua vitae. 

Quite fascinating to think that as well as serving as a basic ingredient for curing sore throats, whisky could also be used to make homemade gold.

Sore throat and cough

If at this point you are wondering what is the recipe for that awful cough that just won’t go away, the English poet Gervase Markham of 1683 might have some advice for you. In his farmer’s handbook A Way to Get Wealth we can read:

‘For a dangerous cough:
Take Aquavitae and Salt, and mix with it strong old Ale, and then heat it on the fire, and therewith wash the soles of the feet when you go to bed.’

Again, our suggestion is to just drink the glass of whisky. After all, the alcohol acts as an antiseptic and could at least relieve the pain in your throat.

A cure for the plague

King James IV was not the only great figure in history to have taken an interest in distillation.

Indeed, Catherine Sforza was fascinated by alchemy. In her Experiment, known today as “Experiments of the most excellent Lady Caterina of Forlì mother of the most illustrious lord Giovanni de’ Medici”, she provides various curious recipes based on aqua vitae. Another example of how whisky can cure all ills.

La dama dei gelsomini, by Lorenzo di Credi (Pinacoteca Civica di Forlì), presumed portrait of Caterina Sforza.

During 14th and then 16th centuries, with the spread of the Plague, many doctors prescribed alcoholic beverages, useful mainly to relieve pain and give relief to the sick. Catherine suggested using aqua vitae as an ingredient for a cure to heal from the plague. However, we must warn you. The recipe itself is rather bizarre. A clear indication that people were really trying everything to control the spreading epidemic:

“Take the dung of a man from ten to twelve years of age, not otherwise, and let it dry and make powder, and said powder is to be made in this way. At the most two tablespoons in a glass of aqua vitae and distemper”.

As you can see, whisky could really cure all ills back then!

There is no doubt that whisky has certain benefits for the health when taken in proper amounts. However, we would stay away from the creative cures listed above. 

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*The featured image in this article illustrates a 16th-century drawing showing distillation equipment in use (Wellcome Collection)

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