“Here’s to your health” is a toast so old and ubiquitous that it qualifies as a universal ancient prayer—and prescription. In the part of the Fertile Crescent where civilized drinking began, Babylonians would sip a bit of wine with honey to relieve a cough, thus launching the career of “man’s oldest documented medicine” and incidentally initiating the tradition of getting crunk on cough syrup. All early cultures acknowledged the health-promoting benefits of alcohol as a stimulant and an anesthetic. Egyptian scrolls indicate that wine and beer figured in potions promising to restore appetite, induce labor, treat jaundice, and cure epilepsy, though that last therapy depended on sprinkling fine-ground donkey testicles into the mix.
Some ancient observers marveled at the power of booze to expel evil spirits, others at its ability to evacuate the stomach, as in the pre-Hispanic Yucatan: “This wine is healthy for them because it acts as a purgative and it makes them vomit worms; for these reasons they grow up strong and healthy.” Such beliefs persisted over the centuries. Gin, for instance, is supposed to have originated as a treatment for lumbago and Angostura bitters as an aid to digestion. Put them together and you get pink gin, a traditional remedy for British naval officers fighting off attacks of sobriety. You get the idea: These things were always supposed to be good for you.
And now, some nights, it seems that four out of every five bargoers are boasting about the new and improved medical powers of their cocktails. High and low, coast to coast, Americans are again taking the old toast literally. Is a new age of “healthy drinking” upon us? People are ordering sours sweetened with coconut water and highballs bright with beet juice, and they’re preordering books about “apothecary cocktails” made with “healing herbs, flowers, and spices.” While Seattle is preparing to welcome a “juice bar-meets-cocktail bar,” and San Francisco saloons are “all about the vegetables,” New Yorkers have refrained from laughing out of town a biochemist who promotes his drinks’ “anti-aging, anti-inflammatory” effects. The big restaurant chains now follow hostessing guidelines laid out by erstwhile Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel, whose low-cal booze brand, Skinnygirl, has generated a fat bankroll. You can grab a Skinny Patron Margarita at Chili’s or a Skinnybee Margarita at Applebee’s or a Skinny Blackberry Margarita at T.G.I. Friday’s. “Mentions of the phrase ‘skinny’ on menus at leading restaurant chains jumped 44% in the first quarter 2013 from a year earlier,” Advertising Age reports, further explaining that although “the drinks are not a major volume driver, they eliminate the ‘veto vote’ of the one or two people in a social group who might be dieting.”
A booze columnist can keep up with what it is going on, just barely, but the idea of putting down all the healthy drinks they’re coming up with these days is sickening. The culture is several rounds ahead of me, and the notion of catching up by going on a “juicetailing” binge was itself enough to loosen my bowels. Thus, I haven’t managed to nail down the specs on a highball I want to invent involving mezcal, celery bitters, and one of the new fruit liqueurs boasting “antioxidant” properties. Nor gone around the corner in Brooklyn to pick up drinking vinegar, a mixer “billed as a system-flushing health beverage.” I didn’t make it to a brunch celebrating a pair of Cooking Channel personalities who gave Glamour a recipe for their Gin and Juice Cleanse (“Detox while you retox”), and I haven’t been inspired to track the undelivered package of gluten-free vodka a publicist promised to send.
Surveying all the options available to a health-conscious imbiber, one is inspired to say, “Oh, come on. Booze is booze.” And yet, connecting these data points of hooch news, one also captures an intriguing perspective on culinary culture at large in the land where you are what you eat. Happy hour is increasingly in sync with socially aware (and social-status-ly aware) dietary values. The synthesis of foodie ethics and cocktail-culture aesthetics sometimes feels organic (the common emphasis on fresh ingredients, the shared fetish for artisanal craftsmanship). But sometimes making that synthesis appear sensible requires ridiculous contortions, and sometimes those contortions are bodily, as in the case of a New Orleans woman promoting a “yogic approach to the imbibing lifestyle” and a Brooklyn establishment constituting “NYC’s first yoga studio and bar hybrid.” That’s the Cobra Club, which offers a Sunday afternoon “hangover yoga” session: “The gentle poses in this class can help relieve headaches, nausea and fatigue … The class price ($15) includes a free bloody mary or mimosa.”
Being the sort of yogaphobe who regards the Cobra Club’s free Bloody Mary as quite costly indeed, I ventured elsewhere to pursue my fieldwork for this story. Directing my research team to Midtown Manhattan, I toted my notebook into the LCL: Bar & Kitchen, a newish joint located on the lobby level of New York City’s flagship Westin and named with an eye toward capitalizing on the recent fashionability of locavorism (or, as its management might say, lcvrsm). From its website, we learn that the LCL menu features “an ever-changing selection of creative ‘enhanced juice’ cocktails that highlight cold pressed juices, market fresh ingredients and locally sourced seasonal favorites.” The bar is owned by the Gerber Group, famous operators of tastefully douchebaggy lounges staffed by waitresses in black tube dresses that an urban professional is likely to have visited on somebody’s expense account. LCL puts out drinks that are fundamentally sound, though not half as memorable as the accompanying schtick, low-key though it is. I’d arrived eager to try a French 75 variation involving pear juice made by Organic Avenue, a Gwyneth-approved brand further endorsed by a blog called Vegan American Princess. They were fresh out of pear juice, however, so I went with a highball involving gin, Maraschino liqueur, ginger-lime juice, cucumber, and mint. Though not actually nutritious, the drink bore a name promising spirituous spiritual healing and a Zen buzz: Serenity Now.
No discussion of contemporary dining trends would be complete without reference to kale—the sexiest roughage since PETA’s lettuce bikini and such a mainstay of 2013 food culture that it’s a cliché to cite it as such. If you own a copy of the new recipe collection Fifty Shades of Kale: 50 Fresh and Satisfying Recipes That are Bound to Please, please let me know whether (as I dearly hope) its book ribbon resembles a dark-green cat o’ nine tails. If not, then just soak in the fact that a book with this title exists, and know that it contains a recipe for a kale mojito. The drink’s creators—Jennifer Iserloh and Drew Ramsey, M.D.—explain that the mint in the Kalejito relieves stress, while enthusiasts tout its “veggie virtuousness,” and in so doing attempt to mist an aura of moral correctness over a form of pleasure indifferent to morality. This is an interesting test of the limits of the subtextual philosophy of the new food connoisseurship: I think I eat well, therefore I am good.
I haven’t gotten around to the Kalejito yet, but I did drag myself out among the young Manhattanites, with their loud music and chipper grins, for the best-publicized of the many new kale cocktails—the Wayland’s Garden Variety Margarita, which gets a certain something from its half-ounce dose of ginger-kale juice. What that something is is a matter of dispute. I appreciate that tequila, with its vegetal character, presents temptations to the juicetailing mixologist, but I appreciated this drink only modestly. It was to me a slightly above-average margarita, but murky green, with a lingering leafiness on the finish. My tasting companion—a longtime vegetarian—was even less impressed: “Its dominant flavor was a vile, cloying, palate-coating sweetish-tartness, like a cross between balsamic vinegar and produce gone slimy in the crisper. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I disliked it more than any other cocktail I have ever drunk.” We later agreed that these kale margaritas included too little kale actually to taste but enough to leave an aftertaste so tenacious as to outlast any hangover the drinks might cause.
And then we started scheming to get in on this moment of Snake Oiltinis—placebos for ecologically correct, nutritiously responsible, vegetably virtuous persons aching to enjoy guilt-free cocktail-hour hedonism. I promised to get around to writing some original recipes in pursuit of that plan but haven’t managed to do so yet. Why not? Well, although I’m certain there are worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than to test Jack Rose variations made with pomegranate drinking vinegar, I cannot overcome a certain skepticism about the cultural shelf life of the most blatantly faddish parts of this whole deal. (While the buying public remains cuckoo for coconut water and fair-trade-certified quinoa vodka appears to having staying power, it also seems that the yogic mixologist in New Orleans has shifted her career focus from crafting cocktails to administering Ayurvedic spa treatments.) So, for now, I’ve only got one classic healthy drink recipe to offer:
1 half-gallon carton organic milk*
Open carton. Pour 6 to 10 ounces into a tall glass and serve, or chug from the carton while standing there with the fridge door open wasting electricity, according to taste.
*Though I found whole-fat milk to provide the most roundly satisfying experience, I will allow that 2 percent is less filling, tastes great.