Wherever bartenders are experimenting with a new, scientific drink hack, or infusing yet another mind-boggling ingredient into spirits, Camper English will be there to investigate. English is an awarded cocktail and spirits writer, and his background in physics frequently leads him to explore the self-described “nerdy” side of mixology, founding the websites Alcademics, CocktailSafe (dedicated to safety in drink ingredients), and CocktailGreen ( focused on sustainability), and even pioneering the technique for freezing crystal-clear ice. So it comes as a delight, and with little surprise, that his new book, Doctors and Distillers: The Remarkable Medicinal History of Beer, Wine, Spirits, and Cocktails, offers a historical and scientific deep dive perfectly suited to the writer’s oeuvre. We spoke with English about the drink that sparked the idea for the book, the cocktail trends he’s excited about, and the unfortunate link between syphilis and sarsaparilla.
Imbibe: What sparked the idea for a deep dive into the subject of alcohol and medicine?
Camper English: It all started with the Gin & Tonic. I was writing a trend story and went to look up an official first reference date for the drink. I had only seen dates that looked like hearsay, and they were. So I kept reading books about the history of malaria to try to find it there, because medicine is so much better documented than cocktails. After a bunch of books on malaria, I never got closer to a creation date on the drink, although I did find the earliest reference we know of, using Google Books. Along the way, learning about the history of medicine, I kept running into alcohol all over the place. Like any good journalist, I’m always looking for trends and making lists, and I had a document about all the medicinal connections to alcohol, and eventually I realized I had reached enough that it could be its own book.
How did you go about researching?
I looked in a lot of books. Most of the research, though not all of it, took place during the pandemic, and the libraries were closed. But luckily both the San Francisco Public Library and a private library where I have an office upstairs were lending by appointment. I independently read the individual histories of every different base spirit that I could find, in addition to the history of medicine, to try to get more context on where medicine and alcohol interacted. Surprisingly, I also found that those Great Courses that used to be advertised in the SkyMall magazine on airplanes, those college-level courses, are available on a library website service. I watched a lot of hours on histories of different eras. I started with the Black Death, as one does, and it was so great I decided to watch anything that might be relative. I found that to be really useful, and a break from using books exclusively, to get more context. I was worried about not accurately describing what was going on in the world at the time these medical and alcohol connections were happening. But on the plus side, I couldn’t go anywhere anyway.
What were the most unexpected things you learned?
I’d originally thought it was going to be a light and fun exploration—like, “look at scurvy, and you have limes for that, how cute.” But that was not the book I ended up writing. Instead of tracing each drink backward in time, I ended up going in chronological order for the most part throughout history to show how and why different spirits, in particular, were created and used medicinally, as well as the parallels between the spirits, which I did not expect at all. I found that things like whiskey and rum—though they were created in different places and different eras—would end up being used in very similar ways over time.
It got really fun when the physicians and scientists of the time began comparing them to see which was more healthful—French brandy or rum from Jamaica? They would preserve meat in them and then compare the meat several weeks later to see which had decomposed, and they would decide that that was the worst liquor for you. There’s also a lot of syphilis in the book, and I wasn’t expecting to run into that. A lot of the botanicals from the soon-to-be United States were the same things used to attempt to cure syphilis, because syphilis was, essentially, a New World disease brought to Europe and then it spread very quickly, so they sought the cure for the disease where they thought it originated. They used sassafras and sarsaparilla, which was very en vogue in medicine in Europe for a short amount of time before they realized that sarsaparilla doesn’t cure syphilis.
Have history and science always been angles of drinks culture that interested you?
I was never all that much a fan of history, to be honest. I love new and exciting things—that’s my jam. There are people who are only interested in classics and classic cocktails, and I am the opposite—I want laser beams and disco balls and stuff like that shooting out of the drink. For the history stuff, I’d always allowed the people who are better at it to do it, until I found a topic that had been largely unexplored, or at least unexplored as a concept. I found a niche that I felt I could exploit and went deep. But I am so interested in the science side. My undergraduate degree was in physics, and I haven’t used it very much, but in reading about the history of the science that comes into alcohol and medicine, I got really excited. I have probably 500 words on an element called phlogiston that doesn’t actually exist. I don’t think most people who pick up a book on cocktails are going to expect to find that, but I couldn’t resist. The gas law scientists of the 1700s I think are fascinating, and they made so much progress in one century. It’s become one of my favorite eras of science. Plus, too many years after that and it becomes too hard for me to understand. My understanding of science is stuck at about 1785.
Speaking of science, you were the pioneer of the directional freezing technique to create clear ice. How did you start experimenting with that?
It’s my greatest achievement. Growing up, we were told you had to boil water to make clear ice. That urban myth just never died, so I was interested in disproving that and seeing if there was a way to make better and more clear ice. I did a very systematic set of experiments to show that boiling water did not help. I didn’t expect to find my simple and elegant solution of sticking water in a cooler with the lid off, but I guess I got lucky on that one. I read some books at the time, and there was a whole chapter in this amazing book called Ice by Mariana Gosnell. She moves next to a pond and watches it freeze and then talks to scientists about how specifically the pond is freezing. I learned more from that than almost anything. It just brought into clarity that ponds are usually clear, and what is the difference between a pond and an ice cube tray? That led me down the path toward directional freezing.
Are you seeing any industry trends you’re fascinated by?
I’ve been excited about the “super juice,” which I’ve neither tried nor tried the experiment to make it yet. It’s something similar to an oleo saccharum but using isolated acids and combining that with juice to extend the volume of juice that one gets out of citrus. I’ve also long been paying attention to environmental causes, and I couldn’t be more excited about reducing glass waste and changing containers to reflect that. We have, coming to the U.S. probably this fall, the ecoSPIRITS reusable containers. They’ve been used in Asia in particular, and now they’re pilot launching in the States. That will keep a lot of bottles from being thrown out at the end of the night.