By Michael P. Foley
As the coronavirus spreads across the globe and medical professionals struggle to contain it, there is one thing that the rest of us can do besides pray and use hand sanitizer: drink more.
Dr. Todor Kantardzhiev, director of Bulgaria’s Centre for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases, reportedly asserted that regular drinkers of hard liquor are at less risk of contracting the coronavirus because “alcohol kills the virus in a matter of seconds.” News of the claim spread quickly, followed with almost equal speed by denials of its authenticity. It turns out that the story was the result of a game of telephone. The good doctor had been quoted as saying that the virus is highly susceptible to disinfectants and dies very quickly from alcohol. From there some tipsy hopefuls apparently applied his observation to the inside of their gullets. Their scheme could have had a dash of merit were it not for the fact that a solution of 60 percent alcohol is required to kill the virus while most hard liquor only contains 40–45 percent.
This short-lived urban myth brings to mind a long and venerable association of alcohol with bodily health. Roman soldiers were given a daily ration of wine not in order to grow inebriated but in order to kill dangerous bacteria in the local water supply. A similar strategy was used in the Middle Ages and early modern period with beer. “Small beer” was defined as beer that was fit for women, children, and manual laborers, for it contained just enough alcohol to eliminate water-borne pathogens but not enough to affect one’s judgment or motor skills. Saint Arnold of Metz (580–640) is a patron of brewers because he saved his flock from a plague by admonishing them to drink beer instead of water.
As for the stronger stuff, one of the reasons why medieval monasteries were pioneers in the development of distillation is the conviction that alcohol had medicinal value. The first written reference to whiskey is in a medical document by Irish monks in which whiskey (I kid you not) is prescribed as a cure for “paralysis of the tongue.” Monks also developed herbal liqueurs as tonics for different ailments. The most famous of these is chartreuse, a magical elixir that has been made by the Carthusians from 130 hand-picked herbs in the French Alps for the past five hundred years. The formula is so tightly guarded that only two monks at a time know it.
In this spirit, why not ward off worries about coronavirus by sipping green chartreuse? At 110 proof or 55 percent alcohol, it comes awfully close to the 60 percent minimum necessary for becoming the virus’s mortal enemy. (There is also a rare Élixir Végétal de la Grande-Chartreuse that, at 138 proof or 69 percent, could kill the virus, at least outside the body.) But if this celestial nectar is too strong for your palate undiluted, try a Last Word. One of the greatest products to come out of Prohibition, the perfectly balanced cocktail fell into oblivion but more recently has made an impressive comeback.
Last WordPour all ingredients into a shaker filled with ice and shake forty times. Strain into a cocktail glass.
¾ oz. gin
¾ oz. green chartreuse
¾ oz. maraschino liqueur
¾ oz. lime juice
One final suggestion is to drink in honor of the saints invoked against contagious diseases. As it turns out, there is a Saint Corona, and believe it or not she is traditionally invoked against pandemics. Readers are welcome to participate in a contest I am sponsoring to honor Saint Corona by finding or inventing the most appropriate cocktail with which to toast her (simply go to the Facebook page of Drinking with the Saints).
In the meantime, turn to Saint Roch, who during his life helped victims of the Plague, sometimes curing them with the sign of the cross. There is a legend that upon Saint Roch’s death God promised that he who “calleth meekly” to the saint will not be hurt by any pestilence, and one way to call meekly to Saint Roch is to toast him with a stiff bracer. The Desert Healer is an apt choice for paying tribute to a refugee from the desert who healed diseases.
1½ oz. ginPour all ingredients except ginger beer into a shaker with ice and shake forty times. Strain into a highball glass filled with ice and top with ginger beer.
¾ oz. Cherry Heering
2½ oz. orange juice
Cocktails may not make the coronavirus go away, but used in moderation they can steel our courage and reduce a sense of panic. And that, too, is important to our overall health.