April Fools’ follow-up

My favorite comment on the homeopathic cocktail post comes from Iqbal, who writes, “What do you know about medical science? Good idea to stick to your bartending business.” I can’t tell if he’s an angry homeopath or if he just didn’t get the joke, but to be clear, it was an April Fools’ Day post!

My representation of homeopathy was accurate to the best of my knowledge, with one exception: I left out the “law of similars,” or principle of “let like be cured by like” that guides homeopathic remedies. For example, if you’re alert and trying to go to sleep, a homeopathic remedy would be an extreme dilution of something that causes alertness, such as caffeine. As for whether or not this is actually effective, well here’s Dr. Paul Willis massively overdosing on a homeopathic sleep spray to see what happens:

In fairness then, I never should have expected my Homeopathic Negroni to get me drunk. By the law of similars it should in fact have been a hangover cure. Ironically this would actually work, water and time being the only sure cures for a hangover. However you can save yourself the trouble of serially diluting a perfectly good cocktail; regular tap water is equally effective.

The post was inspired by a few recent items I’d come across online, including this New York Times profile of self-aggrandizing charlatan Alex Ott. Ott is said to toy “with homeopathic blends that he believes can alter a person’s mood” and even the esteemed Gary Regan chimes in to say that “Homeopathic remedies make all the sense in the world to me.” I can’t tell if Ott is using actual homeopathic dilutions or if the writer is just using the word “homeopathic” in a vague sense, but regardless, the drinks community shouldn’t be conferring legitimacy on medicinal homeopathy. (For a righteous smackdown of Ott, see Darcy O’Neil.)

Biodynamic wine is another area in which the drinks the world unfortunately legitimizes the idea that weak dilutions can have powerful effects. This comes up in Preparation 500, an act required of certified biodynamic growers. I swear I am not making this up:

A Biodynamic practitioner obtains a cow horn, stuffs it full of cow manure and buries it on or around the autumnal equinox. On or around the spring equinox, it is dug up and the “horn manure” is made into a highly diluted (homeopathic) spray that when applied to your fields enlivens it with cosmic forces.

That’s from the Biodynamics is a Hoax blog, which goes on to provide some priceless quotes from Rudolf Steiner. Here’s another description of the preparation from folks who actually believe it:

During the cooler months life breathes into the soil and the soil has the tendency to be full of growth energies, which energies are absorbed into the dung through the receptive nature of the horn. […]

It is sprayed up to four times a year. The best times are in October and November and then again in February and March. It is important to apply in the late afternoon.

It is used in small quanitities [sic] at the rate of 25 grams in 13 litres of water per acre.

It is stirred for one hour making a vortex or crater in one direction and then reversing the direction and making a vortex in the other direction.

It’s hard to imagine that there are professional farmers in the 21st century going in for this sort of thing, but there you have it. Every time you drink biodynamic wine you’re supporting the ritualistic burial of poop-filled cow horns. I don’t doubt that there are some delicious biodynamic wines on the market, but whenever someone describes their wine to me as “biodynamic” I cringe a little bit.

Of course, the real dangers of homeopathy have nothing to do with wine or cocktails, but rather with medicine. The remedies themselves are usually harmless, since by definition they have no active ingredients. But they divert resources patients could use instead on effective medicine and may be chosen as a substitute for it altogether, putting lives at risk. The 10:23 Campaign (with the brilliant slogan “Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It”) has been calling attention to this. From an essay on their site by Simon Singh:

Perhaps the greatest danger occurs when homeopathy replaces a conventional treatment. I first encountered this problem in 2006 when I tried to find out what homeopaths would offer to a young traveller seeking protection against malaria. Working with Alice Tuff and the charity Sense About Science, we developed a storyline in which Tuff would be making a ten week overland trip through West Africa, where there is a high prevalence of the most dangerous strain of malaria, which can result in death within three days. Tuff, a young graduate, would explain to homeopaths that she had previously suffered side-effects from conventional malaria tablets and wondered if there was a homeopathic alternative. […]

Next Tuff found a variety of homeopaths by searching on the internet, just as any young student might do. She then visited or phoned ten of them, mainly based in and around London. In each case, Tuff secretly recorded the conversations in order to document the consultation. The results were shocking. Seven out of the ten homeopaths failed to ask about the patient’s medical background and also failed to offer any general advice about bite prevention. Worse still, ten out of ten homeopaths were willing to advise homeopathic protection against malaria instead of conventional treatment, which would have put our pretend traveller’s life at risk.

The web comic XKCD has done a fantastic job satirizing homeopathic principles. Here’s one my favorites from that site:

And here’s another.

Though companies aren’t making millions of dollars reducing the cost of healthcare via homeopathy, they do profit by selling to those who believe it works. From a 1997 U.S. News and World Report article comes the story of the $20 million duck:

Somewhere near Lyon, France, sometime this year, officials from the French pharmaceutical firm Boiron will slaughter a solitary duck and extract its heart and liver–not to appease the gods but to fight the flu. The organs will be used to make an over-the-counter flu medicine, called Oscillococcinum, that will be sold around the world. In a monetary sense, this single French duck may be the most valuable animal on the planet, as an extract of its heart and liver form the sole “active ingredient” in a flu remedy that is expected to generate sales of $20 million or more. (For duck parts, that easily beats out foie gras in terms of return on investment.)

How can Boiron claim that one duck will benefit so many sick people? Because Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy, meaning that its active ingredients are so diluted that they are virtually nonexistent in the final preparation. In every gram of the medication, according to the list of ingredients on the package, there are 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For those without a chemistry degree, that means that Oscillococcinum is 100 percent sugar.

Finally, via Reddit, it turns out that British comedians Mitchell and Webb were a bit ahead of me on this one:


Homeopathic cocktails: Blessing or curse?


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
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.


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.


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.


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.


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.