Homeopathic cocktails: Blessing or curse?

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Over the past few years, this blog has experimented with a variety of techniques for creating new cocktails borrowed from molecular gastronomy and culinary science. These experiments have been illuminating, but they are also limiting. Science is, after all, but one way of knowing. Lately my interest has been drawn to the methods of alternative medicine, especially to homeopathy. While normally used for the healing arts, homeopathic principles also have profound — even dangerous! — implications for mixology, such that I hesitate to share them here. Yet if I don’t, the chance is all the greater that some unscrupulous bartender will unleash them on an unknowing public. So I write about homeopathic cocktails, but I must urge readers to take the utmost caution if they choose to follow the procedure described below. They do so at their own risk!

The principles of homeopathy were elucidated in the late 1700s by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann. One of his great discoveries was potentization. By this process, remedies become more effective the further they are diluted. This idea runs counter to the dose-response relationship claimed by Big Pharma, which alleges that greater doses of a substance lead to greater responses in the body. The brilliance of homeopathy is that it manufactures cures from an infinitesimal fraction of the active ingredients used in conventional medicine.

The potency of homeopathic remedies is measured on Hahnemann’s centesimal, or C, scale. This is a logarithmic scale, meaning that each advance indicates dilution by a factor of 100. Thus a solution diluted with water to 1 part in 100 would be a 1C dilution. If one takes a fraction of that solution and reduces it again to 1 part in 100, that would be a 2C dilution, equivalent to 1 part in 10,000 for the original substance. By this method of serial dilution a homeopathic remedy can be nearly infinitely diluted, such that even poisons such as arsenic can be transformed into salable potions. Remedies are commonly sold in dilutions of 6C or 30C, the latter of which leaves the original substance at a mere 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1% of the solution.

I say “nearly infinitely diluted” because Hahnemann did work under one limitation. At the time of his practice, knowledge of atoms and the laws of chemistry was still in its infancy. Today we know that at 12C there may not be a single atom or molecule of the active ingredient left in the solution, sohomeopathic remedies must function by some other means. A leading theory promoted by homeopathy advocates is “water memory,” a mysterious process by which water possesses a memory of the substances that were once diluted into it and retains their healing qualities.

Another of Hahnemann’s important discoveries is succussion. At each stage of dilution, the solution must be struck hard ten times. This activates the vital energy of the substance and may be vital to implanting water memory. However one must be careful not to shake remedies too much; Hahnemann warned that doctors transporting their homeopathic remedies on a bumpy road risked making them too powerful.

Yes, but what does any of this have to do with mixology? Can homeopathy get you drunk? This is the question I set out to answer by creating a homeopathic version of one of my favorite cocktails, the Negroni. I have included instructions for those curious to follow along, but I caution against doing so. Here are the materials needed, also photographed above:

1 bottle gin
1 bottle Campari
1 bottle sweet vermouth
mixing glass
cocktail glass
bar spoon
jigger
1-gallon container
distilled water, 30 gallons
ice (not pictured)

The first step is to make a Negroni, as per the classic recipe:

1 oz gin
1 oz Campari
1 oz sweet vermouth

Stir with ice in the mixing glass and strain into the cocktail glass. As seen in the photo below, the drink has a rich red hue from the Campari and vermouth.

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The next step is to begin serial dilution of the drink. Pour the Negroni into the 1-gallon container and then dilute with distilled water until full. Since there are about 5 oz of Negroni and 128 oz of water in a gallon, this is not quite a 1C dilution. However it is close enough for our purposes, and subsequent dilutions will be greater.

Next one must succuss the solution by striking it hard against a surface ten times. A lid is recommended, but since most of the solution will be discarded it is not strictly necessary. The Negroni is noticeably more dilute now, but traces of its color remain.

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For the second round of dilution, retain an ounce of the Negroni solution and discard the rest. Add the ounce of solution back to the container and once again fill with distilled water. This is dilution to 2C. By this time all visual evidence of the Negroni has vanished, even to the trained eye of a professional mixologist.

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Repeat the process of succussing and diluting the substance to reach the desired level of homeopathic strength. In hindsight I should have been satisfied with 6C, but I foolishly pushed on to an extremely dilute, and thus extremely powerful, 30C.
Finally, once the serial dilution is complete, it is time to make the Homeopathic Negroni. The recipe is refreshingly simple in this age of rococo cocktails with myriad ingredients:

3 oz Negroni solution

Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. In a conventional Negroni dilution from the ice would make the cocktail weaker, but in a Homeopathic Negroni it is in fact making the cocktail stronger. Bartenders attempting to make homeopathic cocktails should be sure not to stir too long or to accidentally succuss the mixing glass, lest the power of the drink go beyond their intentions. (It is for this reason that I chose a stirred drink for this experiment. A shaken drink would have been too dangerous, and a muddled and shaken drink such as a Mojito quite possibly lethal!)

Having completed this process, the moment of truth arrived. It was time for me to try my Homeopathic Negroni.

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Dear reader, had I but known the power of the drink in my hand, I never would have set down this treacherous path! Though likely no atom of my original Negroni remained in my glass and to all sensory perception it was mere ice water, with the very first sip the room began to sway. I soldiered through, determined to finish and record the experience, but the rest of that dreadful night is lost to my memory. I know only that I awoke late the next afternoon passed out on my kitchen floor, a shattered cocktail glass by my side and a splitting headache in my skull.

I vowed then and there to never again touch homeopathy. However I worry that the temptations to save money by creating homeopathic cocktails will be too great for other bartenders to resist. A conventional Negroni costs a few dollars to make, whereas the serial dilution of a Homeopathic Negroni drives its cost to practically zero. At 30C, a bar would need a cocktail glass larger than the Earth itself to expect a single molecule of the original spirits to make it into a customer’s drink. It is hard to imagine many bar owners abstaining from such enormous profits, endangering the public with their greed. Surely it would only be a matter of time before a careless bartender shakes a drink he should have stirred and puts some unlucky person in the hospital. I urge anyone reading this not to try homeopathy at home or, even more foolishly, to pay someone else to sell them a homeopathic cocktail.
As for myself, I now stick to straight whiskey, and hesitate to add a single rock or drop of water to it. Imbiber beware!

Update 4/3/11:
Follow-up post here.

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