The Bartender’s Pharmacy

A well stocked home bar is useful for more than just entertaining and mixing delicious social lubricants. Many of the bottles and jars you have in there contain substances with significant health benefits… beyond the increasingly well-documented benefits of simple moderate alcohol consumption, I mean. The saying goes, “A bartender is just a pharmacist with a limited inventory.” To this, I can only say, “whose inventory is limited Kemo Sahbee? Does your Walgreens have Four Roses Small Batch or Old Raj gin behind the counter?” I didn’t think so.

(Somewhat) more seriously, many of the really cool additives and ingredients that are the hallmarks of great drinks came to us first from pharmacists or their historical antecedents, herbalists or even shamans. And just because they are currently nestled on a shelf next to that bottle of Jåger you don’t admit you own, doesn’t mean they have lost any of the health benefits they possessed before becoming a part of our toolkit.

This post is about three of those ingredients, and is prompted by the convergence of some recent symptoms of my own and some chance reading I did recently.


The most obvious is bitters. If you have a bar, you have bitters. This is because if you don’t have bitters, you don’t have a bar. This goes for more than just fancy-dan home mixology labs, but big commercial restaurant counters with multiple drinks mixers and $10,000 worth of fancy vodka backlit on shelves behind them.
If anyone in your employ ever utters the words, “we don’t have bitters,” you are not a bar, but merely a nexus for intoxication and/or arranging casual sex.

Despite their inextricable connection to the cocktail, bitters originated in the pharmacy as an herbal concoction to remedy various gastrointestinal distresses. Indeed, the original cocktail in 1803 was apparently first invented as a hangover remedy.

Oh come on. What hangover remedy? That was just a Hair of the Dog what bit them.

Well, the actual analgesic benefits of alcohol are highly debatable. I suspect that the booze and sugar in the proto-cocktail were just there to convince surly morning-after victims to slug down a prodigious dose of the active ingredient: bitters. Unlike modern barnerds, normal, mentally stable humans will usually rather just die than choke down a solid half ounce of bitters.

This explains Gas-Ex, Di-gel, Alka-Seltzer, and TUMS, because none of them work as fast or as well as a good, sturdy dosing with a broad spectrum aromatic bitters like Angostura.

Remember kids, Doug is not a doctor.
He’s right, but you have no legal reason to believe what he’s saying.

You see, the human hind-brain rightly associates the taste of bitter with the danger of poison. It is why you have an order of magnitude more taste buds dedicated to detecting bitter flavors than any other. It is also why, if you dose an unprepared patient with a big ol’ spoonful of bitters, the response will range from a shout of, “What are doing? Trying to kill me?” to a violent act of self-defense. This is why a twelve year-old can buy a bottle of 95 proof Angostura Bitters. It is legally “Non-Potable”.

And if you are a government busy-body who read that and now thinks, “Something Must Be Done™ about the dangers of the alcohol-based bitter loophole,” kindly kill yourself now. The rest of us will wait and applaud while you take care of that.

But you, dear reader, likely have made some strides in acclimating your brain to bitter tastes, since you have the taste and style to occasionally imbibe a true cocktail (meaning one containing bitters) from time to time. If you find yourself with a sour stomach, whether it be from a hangover, over-eating, under-eating, or bad-eating, repair to your “Pharmacy” and compound the following medicine:


  • Your favorite aromatic bitters (use an alcohol-based one for best results)
  • Soda water

Dump at least 10 good dashes of the bitters into a small single old-fashioned glass. Fill with soda. Drink quickly. Feel relief.

You will need to add the soda slowly, as the bitters will produce a prodigious, long-lasting head. Slurp it off and fill the glass the rest of the way. The soda adds some mild benefits of its own, and makes the bitters downright palatable for all but the most neophyte palate. You’ll feel better as fast, or probably faster, than with Alka-Seltzer or Tums, and the effects last.
As a final note, make sure there are at least two teaspoons of the bitters in there, and use more if you can take it. Your stomach will thank you.


While it is possible to have a bar without honey, your home bar should certainly keep some on hand.

Honey’s value as a cough suppressant is one of the oldest and creakiest of wives’ tales. My family has certainly been subscribers to this. For far longer than I’ve been alive, our best cough medicine has been along the lines of the following:


  • 1 tbsp. honey
  • 1 oz. Jack Daniels
  • splash of lemon juice

Combine in a small glass and stir vigorously to loosen up the honey. Slug the first half down, then sip the rest.

Now, this stuff works. I still to this day use it for myself in evenings. But to tell you the truth, I always assumed it wasn’t really the honey, but the Jack Daniels that was at work here. The honey, I assumed, was just there to make the JD viscous so it would coat the throat and anesthetize the irritate tissues. And it is a hell of a lot more tasty and fun than taking Robitussin. And when my cough was persistent, or a shot of whiskey was contra-indicated, I’d deploy the pharma options.

But then, several days ago, I was reading the Cracked website. Yes, Cracked. As in the crappy Mad Magazine knock-off from the 70’s. It still exists, but as a web zine, and it is totally awesome.

Hey, blogger boy!
You know, if you quit spending so much time reading funny internet lists on defunct magazine websites, you might have more time to produce content for this here blog.
I’m just sayin’, you know?

But I wouldn’t have this blog post if I didn’t. So shut up and be glad I let you out today. Besides, Tiki Month is coming.

Anyway, the post in question is entitled 5 Old Wives’ Tales About Health (Confirmed by Science). It pointed me to this article, from the Journal of the American Medical Association. It details a study comparing the cough suppressant efficacy of pure honey versus dextromethorphan (DM). DM is the active ingredient in, well, whatever cough suppressant you probably have in your medicine cabinet, from Mucinex to Robitussin and so on. The scientists, who will likely never get another research grant from any pharmaceutical company again, found that pure, plain honey was more effective than DM in reducing the frequency and severity of cough and in improving quality of sleep. More effective than the best medical science has to offer.

As I am fighting a cold, the cough has been hitting me hard about bed time, so I decided to experiment and omit the Jack Daniels in treating myself. I went down to the basement bar and poured myself a big barspoon’s full of sweet goodness from the little bear-shaped plastic bottle.
My first observation was that this is the most tasty, pleasant medicine-taking experience evar.
My second observation was that the cough went away almost immediately! Furthermore, it stayed away. The next evening, the cough was worse. I took the same dose, and while it knocked it down, I started coughing again in about an hour. I took a second spoonful, and it was all good. My daughter has a cough, so today, I gave her two spoonfuls of honey, and she hasn’t so much as cleared her throat since.

What I’m saying is, the Jack Daniels may in fact have been reducing the effectiveness of the honey. This distresses me no end. But in the future, I’ll be taking a spoonful of honey, then drink my cocktail, then have a second spoonful. I see no reason to omit the health benefits of moderate alcohol intake just because I have a cough. And there are no drug-interaction concerns between alcohol and honey.


OK, not her. Tina Louise may be good for what ails you, but I don’t have her in my home bar, and neither do you. I’m talking about the ugly, fibrous tuber. My bar has ginger simple syrup some of the time and ginger extract most of the time. And most any bar will have ginger ale or ginger beer almost all the time.

Ginger’s anti-nausea effects are the most well-known among these three natural medications, so it gets the least space here. Whether it be from motion sickness, flu or “flu-like symptoms”, or over serving, ginger is the Saddam Hussein of putting down stomach rebellions.
Keep ginger ale on hand. Better, since we are talking about your home bar inventory, keep ginger beer on hand. It has better cocktail applications and contains a higher ginger content to fight any attempted… jail breaks.

Bringing things back full-circle, if you are suffering from both heartburn and nausea (a popular hangover double header), dose your ginger beer with bitters heavily, and they will both work, and taste great doing it!

As a final note about these home remedies, all three have the added benefit of being nearly impossible to overdose on. If your first treatment doesn’t quite do the job, you can do another hit as soon as you want to, without worry. Actually, you can overdose on ginger… if you try really hard. For instance a little math done by readers here in this thread at VaginaPagina notes that a 150 lb. person would overdose on ginger supplement pills by taking as few as… 272 capsules.

So that wraps things…

Why are you reading something called VaginaPagina?

Well, as I said, this post owes its existence to a sudden surge of pharmacological use being put to my bar supplies. And someone in my house, who I will not name since she may one day read this blog when she finishes growing up and then kill me for naming her, has suffered a real serious bout of, um, “lady cramping” today. As it happens, ginger is purportedly effective in alleviating this too. How effective remains the subject of much debate, and since I have no personal experience to back this up, I’ll simply leave it at that.

So that really does wrap things up. There is lots of good stuff in your well-stocked bar. Good stuff that will make you feel better. In lots of ways. Anyone got other bar ingredients that are as good as or better than what you get from the guy with the white coat and the fancy degree?


  1. Dagreb

    20 January


    …as always.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  2. Kate

    20 January

    To add on to your discussion on honey: the stuff has anti-bacterial properties as well (which is why it’s been an ancient form of Neosporin for wound healing:

    Why does it seem that as my alco…er, interest in mixology grows, so does my interest in herbalism?

      (Quote)  (Reply)

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