Spiritus frumenti

Spiritus frumenti

The history of whisky as medicine

Mythbusters | 10 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Chris Middleton

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By the 1930s, governments and medical institutions were turning against whisky and ethyl alcohol. No longer could whisky be classified as therapeutic goods but as a legal class of drugs akin to purine alkaloids in tobacco. Reasons cited were that alcohol causes dependency, harms health and well-being, and even unsettles societal norms.


At the advent of distilled spirits at Italy’s Schola Medica Salernitana, circa 1150AD, the first distilled wine was known as beneficial waters. Ironically, if not prophetically, at the dawn of European spirits, the magister and distiller at this renowned Benedictine monastery was convicted of alcohol poisoning by his patient, Roberto Bellisino, in 1167, thus entrenching alcohol’s duality of life-giving and life-taking. The history of spirits adoption and consumption over the next 400 years followed medical vectors, commonly distilled and dispensed by hospital monasteries, apothecaries, druggists, and surgeons. In 1280 Florentine professor of medicine Taddeo Alderotti wrote of aqua vita being “of inestimable glory, the mother and mistress of all medicine”.


Few substances had the remedial properties of alcohol and the synergistic mode for delivering herbal nostrums and compounded elixirs. In 1650 Britain began registering alcoholic tonics and treatments as patent medicines, giving these proprietary formulas the prophylactic imprimatur at a reduced tax rate. When grain distillates became common in Europe by the 1700s, medical authorities classified such medicinal elixirs as Spiritus frumenti, the spirit of the grain. Until the 20th century, physicians described spirit – Spiritus vini gallici (hospital brandy) and Spiritus frumenti (whisky) – as ‘heroic medicines’ useful for sterilisation, sedation, preservation, and restoration due to their antiseptic, antibacterial, and anaesthetic benefits.


Whisky first entered England’s codex Pharmacopoeia Londinensis when the Royal College of Physicians published their 1653 edition: “Usfqubach, sine aqua vitae, Hibernois popularis” (whisky, distilled spirit, popular in Ireland). Until the 18th century, whisky was a compounded spirit, flavoured with spices, roots, herbs, and sweeteners to promote its medicinal qualities and make its often fiery acrid taste palatable. In 1842, Elements of Materia Medica, under the auspices of the Royal College of Physicians, classified Scotch whisky as Spiritus frumenti compositus and designated its phenolic peat flavouring in the same category as juniper in gin and other botanically compounded liquors. The United States Pharmacopeia became the first medical publication to define a manufacturing standard for whisky 12 years later: “Spiritus frumenti, whisky is spirit obtained from fermented grain by distillation and containing forty-eight to fifty-six per cent of absolute alcohol. Whisky for medicinal use should be free from disagreeable odour and not less than two years old.” They took their product standards from the US Navy’s trailblazing specifications for rye whisky from 1830, which included a mash bill of wholly grain, copper distilled, and aged one year in seasoned white oak barrels. In the early 20th century, the first governmental regulatory standards for whisky’s product identity were legislated: 1906 in Australia, 1911 Canada, 1933 UK, US 1935, and 1950 Republic of Ireland.


The first polemic to initiate debate on whisky’s adverse effects came from Dr Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia in 1720, in his Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors on the Human Body and Mind. Over the next two centuries, distilled spirits’ systematic concerns with social, economic, and health problems inspired the formation of the temperance movement to mobilise political action to restrict access to and, in extreme cases, ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol. The British Pharmacopoeia debated the value of alcohol in 1907, and in 1916, the United States Pharmacopeia removed whisky as medication. Still, it did not stop 15,000 doctors from dispensing 145 million whisky prescriptions during US Prohibition. Today, alcohol remains a legally accessible psychotropic drug controlled by laws from taxation and liquor licensing to intoxication. 

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