Casaubon's Book

Purely Medicinal

We’ve all been down with colds this weekend, nothing really serious, just uncomfortable. Or rather, nothing really serious in my estimation. My husband, on the other hand, is always pretty sure he might be dying whenever any minor virus hits him. So far, though, he’s still alive and seems to be more or less ok.

What Eric does inevitably get when he gets sick is the lingering cough. This is no fun, of course – but it does have its compensations. One of them is the homemade cough syrup. Most studies show that over-the-counter cough medicines are fairly ineffective – one found that a glass of water worked as well to sooth children’s coughs. Another that the fairly hefty alcohol content was the main factor in aiding people with bad coughs to get to sleep. This last one freed us up a bit. Now cough syrups are disgusting – most of them taste like fermented koolaid. But not all alcoholic things are icky…

For the kids, we use honey as a cough medcine (not appropriate for children under 1 year because of the botulism risk) – dilute with a bit of lemon juice and give them a spoonful. They consider it a huge treat and it inevitably soothes things and calms them down, not to mention being a pleasant distraction. This works really well for adults who don’t like or can’t use alcohol as well. But those of us who can are free, then, to experiment with the mixing of alcohol and other tasty treats.

Now technically a pitcher of margaritas would probably do just fine – high in vitamin C, alcoholic – and had someone proffered some I would not have demurred (yeah, yeah, I know it is Eric who has the cough, but I was sick too ;-)). But margaritas are not a winter drink (ok, they can be, but not when you are sick) and what one wants in a cough suppressant is soothing qualities. So purely in the interest of medicinal knowledge, Eric and I set to experiment as to the best of all homemade cough treatments.

I fear, however, that we may be accused in the paper we will, of course, inevitably write, of bias and methodological limitations. It was late and we had no particular desire to drive the 14 miles to the nearest liquor store (yes, this is the tragic part of living out in the country). I had read that bourbon was the best of all cough suppressant liquors, but we don’t own any bourbon. What we had was gin, applejack, homemade black currant vodka, homemade raspberry vodka. We obviously needed to compare and contrast, and well, we only had three evenings to do it (and since we’re middle aged parents, not 20 year old college students, our goal was to get mildly relaxed, not drunk, so we weren’t going to try more than one a night) so we took the gin out of contention (gin and tonic not having that “toddy” quality to it).

We compared hot cider with a shot of applejack and spices, straight raspberry vodka and black currant vodka mixed with homegrown currant juice with 2 tablespoons of honey and half a lemon added. All three did an excellent job of soothing Eric’s cough, relaxing both of us enough to be able to sleep and easing my annoyance at the sheer volume of his cold related snoring ;-). Taste-wise, both of us liked the cider best, but for pure cough reduction, the currant mixture with the honey lemon won hands down.

There you have it folks – even when offline and under the weather, your tireless blogiste is working for the betterment of human knowledge and the improvement of the common good. Selfless humanitarian that I am, I do swear that the next time we get sick, we’ll explore other tasty remedies tirelessly as well, particularly since we’re now out of raspberry vodka.

How do I make raspberry and currant vodka, you ask? You too can learn the mysterious power of turning cheap-ass vodka into something much better, for purely medicinal purposes, of course. Basically, I take cheap vodka (you can use cheap other alcohol, but it will have more of a taste), 2 liters to every quart of fruit (you can do it with less fruit, but I like the stronger flavor). Chop or mash the fruit depending on its nature. Add herbs or spices that appeal to you, and 1/2 cup (you can add more if you like) sugar. Pour vodka over fruit, herb and sugar mixture until everything is covered, cap and ignore for 3-6 months, stirring once or twice in the first few weeks.

This makes a somewhat sweet (but not cloyingly so) and utterly wonderful fruit flavored liqueur – far better than most of the ones you can buy in the store. My apprentice group can testify that the raspberry-lemon-lemon verbena was pretty awesome. I’ve also enjoyed raspberry cinnamon, quince-cinnamon, red currant-lime and plenty of others. I’ve never actually had a bad batch of this stuff, although some were definitely better than others. I’ve had people try and steal the bottles from me, which I consider a compliment.



  1. #1 simba
    January 25, 2010

    If you can find a sloe bush, sloe vodka is the best mix of this kind, in my opinion. Cheap vodka, free berries from a wild weed (which are otherwise inedible) : why do people still buy wine?

  2. #2 Mike
    January 25, 2010

    My great-grandmother swore by a lovely (non-alcoholic, but feel free to add) “tea” made by boiling an apple (quartered and cored but not peeled) and a lemon (cut in half) and then letting it steep, mashing the fruit with a potato masher and straining it. Serve hot with a generous spoonful of honey and drink all day when sick. It’s really, really delicious. Anytime someone is sick, my grandmother makes a batch and sends it over to their house.

    I had a cold over the holidays while visiting and it was a very soothing, effective therapy. I brought lemons from my grandmother’s tree home on the plane and made up a big batch as soon as I got in the door.

    Going a step farther, I ph tested it and discovered that it is less acidic than apple juice but more acidic than tomato juice, so I canned a bunch of pint jars of it following the pressure canning instructions for tomato juice. (obviously, the honey goes in after reheating, not before canning — just in case anyone is going to follow this recipe, I don’t want canning mishaps on my conscience).

    I know you’ve got plenty of apples, so if you were looking for an excuse to splurge on lemons, here it is!

  3. #3 Lisa Z
    January 25, 2010

    You can do the same fruit/vodka recipe with elderberries which are very medicinal and also soothe the cough very well.

    When I get enough currants on my lone currant bush, I’ll try that too.

  4. #4 Jules
    January 25, 2010

    And if you pour your cheap ass vodka through a Britta filter before you add the fruit you can start with a much better tasting vodka (or maybe I mean a pretty much tasteless alcohol;-)

  5. #5 Mike
    January 25, 2010

    You missed the best combination for adults. Mix 1 tablespoon of honey (I like buckwheat) with 1 shot of whiskey. Works pretty well for us.

  6. #6 Dacks
    January 25, 2010

    Single-malt whiskey got me through a terrific bout of gummed up sinus works years ago in Italy. (I think the cough was exacerbated by the high levels of particulates in Italian cities at that time.) It has become a family joke that I will never live down!

  7. #7 jen
    January 25, 2010

    My tried and true cough suppressant is onion syrup.
    One large yellow or white onion sliced sandwich style and put into a glass container. Layer with sugar. Let it sit for 6-8 hours and start spooning it up. Works EVERY time.

    And for the adults: Irish coffee with decaf of course.

  8. #8 Rob
    January 25, 2010

    A Joke:

    Irish coffee is the perfect food. It contains all four food groups: fat, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol.

    Another nice recipe is Lynchburg Lemonade, made by mixing a concentrated lemonade from lemon juice and organic sugar, adding ice and enough Jack Daniels to taste. It needs to be sweet, and is high in vitamin C.

  9. #9 Claire
    January 25, 2010

    If you want to get something better (and more expensive) than cheap-ass vodka, I can highly recommend fruit cordials made with Everclear or another brand of 180 proof grain alcohol. We made cherry cordial using Nanking cherries from our bushes, the grain alcohol, and sugar. We shook the canning jar in which we kept the contents whenever we thought to do it. The stuff even tastes like commercial cherry cough syrup – at first – then you realize how way much better the homemade stuff really is. It’s the best way to use Nanking cherries we’ve found so far; the cherries are quite small and the pit is large, so they are tedious to eat out of hand or pit for another purpose. You use the whole cherries to make the cordial. Neither of us has had a cough this winter so we couldn’t test it for that purpose, but it seems likely it would work well.

  10. #10 Jessica
    January 25, 2010

    Like Jen, we rely on onion syrup – layering chopped onions with honey and waiting a few hours til the juices come out. The kids love it, it works well and the doctor approves.

  11. #11 Myrto Ashe
    January 25, 2010

    I my 20 year practice of medicine (and experience with my own symptoms!) I have found “lingering cough” to be frequently a symptom of mild asthma. Also, cough with phlegm is best treated with an asthma inhaler.

    It turns out alcohol can help asthma (relaxes airways for some people) or bring on an asthma attack in others (sulfites, drying out the body, worsening reflux, there’s a bunch of theories out there).

    Since it’s called “science blogs”, I thought you might like to know.

  12. #12 NM
    January 25, 2010

    Hmm. I’ve had a really annoying lingering cough for a month, and have been too lazy to make another batch of my homemade cough syrup (involves pinot noir and a whole bunch of herbs). Doesn’t taste bad, but your versions sound better. Maybe I’d better do some experimenting — for science, of course. ; }
    I made garlic honey last fall, but haven’t gotten around to trying it. It doesn’t sound good …
    The apple tea sounds better. I’m sure a shot of apple brandy wouldn’t hurt it at all.
    I made elderberry liqueur a year ago, that started out delicious and then somehow turned into fermented prune juice. Bleagh. Can anyone tell me what went wrong? (Vodka, native blue elderberries, sugar syrup).
    It’s the same way I make most of my homemade liqueurs, but some turn out rather medicinally flavored, for some reason. Especially red ones — cherry, raspberry, strawberry.
    The quince is always wonderful (put vanilla beans in with it), the pear is always good, the spiced blackberry is wonderful, the peach and apricot are usually good. But the red ones vary wildly, from fantastic to cough syrup. I do not understand.

  13. #13 Art
    January 25, 2010

    For making your own the only logical choice is to either use a good quality vodka. something which has a pleasant taste to start, or to simply use an appropriate amount of grain alcohol. The later having essentially no flavor other than alcohol. Just be sure to use a bit less of the grain. At 190 proof it is about twice as powerful as most vodkas.

    Grain alcohol is handy stuff so keep a supply of. It is a good solvent and much less hazardous to skin and materials than acetone. It is also a powerful drying agent. A splash added to the gas tank will soak up a good part of the standing water. It is good camp stove fuel. It makes a good rub and disinfectant. And, of course, you can add it to any drink to get the calming and soothing effects. All that and it stores virtually forever so it doesn’t go to waste.

  14. #14 Edward Bryant
    January 25, 2010

    I agree with Mike. My mom always gave me honey, lemon and Jack Daniel’s when I was a kid. Stopped the cough, shut me up and made me sleep. ‘Bout the only thing Jack Daniel’s is good for in my book – nasty stuff.

    NM, I’d take the seeds of the elderberries out. If you let them steep they get weird…I think there are some unpleasant alkaloids or glucosoids/glucosides in the seeds. My best bet is to run the raw berries through a food mill and just use the pulp/juice minus the seeds. Just a thought. A similar thing happens when you cook autumn olive berries…starts out great, gets nasty fast; food mill is the solution for that as well.

  15. #15 NM
    January 25, 2010

    Huh. That’s fascinating. I’ll try it; thanks.

  16. #16 ghfarm
    January 25, 2010

    Yes the raspberry-lemon-lemon verbena was fabulous. Almost makes me want to have a cough so I can mix some honey into my raspberry vodka 🙂
    Although the hot cider and applejack sounds better for winter.


  17. #17 vickey
    January 25, 2010

    @ Mike @ #2:
    Fresh apple juice has anti-viral properties, as does honey. So your Grandmother’s recipe was more than just soothing. The anti-viral properties are diminished in the juice once it’s cooked, but some remain.

  18. #18 Katkinkate
    January 26, 2010

    Re: grain alcohol. I assume you mean ethanol? It’s a pity it’s illegal here in Australia unless you’re a registered laboratory. I suppose you could have a go at making your own.

  19. #19 tim-10-ber
    January 26, 2010

    I remember as a child when we lived with my grandparents…my grandmother made the cough syrup with honey, lemon and a little Jack Black whiskey. It burned yes but I thought it was so cool to be able to get a tiny sip of whiskey as a kid…everyone in my family has had a lingering cough this year…thanks for the memories. I might have to try this again…

  20. #20 Don
    January 26, 2010

    Mulled wine is great for relieving coughs and cold symptoms. Any dry red wine will do for the base–2 Buck Chuck is great. You add sugar, cinnamon, cloves and heat to boiling. Yum!

  21. #21 Sharon Astyk
    January 26, 2010

    Myrto, thanks for your comment. I actually have thought for some time (and said to beloved) that his coughs sounded and seemed asthmatic (mildly), and reminded him that he used to get the same cough as an allergic reaction to something in his Mom’s heating system in her old house. Up until know, his response has been something on the order of “well, I don’t have asthma” which translates to “I don’t want to have asthma.” Thank you for writing that, because this time he took me somewhat seriously and is grudgingly willing consider a doctor ;-).

    I really appreciate it!


  22. #22 Deb
    January 26, 2010

    My father’s cough syrup was a large spoonful of sugar with brandy poured over it. I used to give it to my kids when they were small, reducing the sugar somewhat and increasing the brandy. Worked like a charm tho all the ladies in my knitting group were horrified that I gave alcohol to a child.

    There is a tea I get at the co-op called Organic Coat Throat that when brewed very strong and sipped, keeps a little tickle at bay. It’s handy to have in a travel mug when you have to go to class or work and dont want to kill your taste buds with cough drops or cant be drinking alcoholic beverages. And it works whether its hot or cold.

    For cramps, mother always gave me a glass of blackberry brandy. She kept a special, beautiful glass for it and combined with a heating pad, it helped.

    BTW, my son always got The Cough with every cold and we discovered he had very mild asthma and was allergic to our dog….

  23. #23 Rebekka
    January 27, 2010

    If you want to make it faster than 3-6 months, you can stick the bottle in the freezer – I used to do berry vodka like that, was ready in about a month to six weeks.

  24. #24 NM
    January 30, 2010

    Went to a naturopath who prescribed some horrible tasting cough syrup that doesn’t work, made from English Ivy. bleagh. So I tried making Mike’s great-grandmother’s apple-lemon drink. He’s right; it does work! And it is delicious!
    It’s also nice to add a chunk of ginger root and a bit of cinnamon stick to the pot while it’s simmering. A big spoonful of apple brandy stirred into your mug of apple tea is quite tasty.
    ; }
    But the basic version is lovely, too. Thanks Mike!

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