Today is September 3 and for that we’re mixing the Penicillin cocktail. You see, it’s the anniversary of the day in 1928 that a chance event paved the way to a massive change in medicine through the development of penicillin. Fortunately, there is also a Penicillin cocktail that doesn’t require an infection to enjoy. Here’s the story and instructions on how to make the Penicillin.
Penicillin the Lifesaver
Alexander Fleming was a bacteriologist at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He had just returned from a vacation and noticed an agar plate he had accidentally left uncovered. A fungus had created bacteria-free zones around colonies growing in the dish. So he isolated the mold, identified it as belonging to the Penicillium genus, and grew more of it.
From that mold culture he created an extract and found it had an antibacterial effect. Fleming named its active agent penicillin and published his findings. But actually isolating the active agent from all the swarf was beyond his ability. He sent his mold to anyone who asked, hoping they might isolate penicillin, but the idea languished for about 10 years.
Around 1939 a team at Oxford found Fleming’s article, cultured the mold and were able to purify penicillin from it. They did animal studies and called the results “a miracle.” Early tests in humans were similarly positive, but supply of the active agent was a problem. They just couldn’t make enough.
Pharmaceutical companies in Great Britain couldn’t produce penicillin in quantity due to war commitments. So the Oxford guys traveled to the U.S. and met with Charles Thom, the top mycologist at the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Thom corrected their identification and the best strain for mass production, which happened to come from a moldy cantaloupe. So sometimes there’s use for a lousy piece of produce.
The Oxford guys approached the U.S. government and drug companies, and when the U.S. entered World War II the government took over production. New techniques were developed. In 1941 the U.S. had no penicillin, but by September of 1943 the supply was sufficient to satisfy all of the Allied Forces. And the rest is history.
All this makes the Penicillin cocktail the obvious choice for Drink of the Day. So let’s get to it.
The Penicillin Cocktail
In 2005 the bartender Sam Ross was working at Milk & Honey in New York, a bar we recently discussed for the Gold Rush cocktail. In true Mr. Potato Head fashion, Ross took the elements of the Gold Rush and made some changes: substitute scotch for the bourbon and add ginger to the equation. The Gold Rush is a variation on a Whiskey Sour, and the Penicillin is pretty much a scotch-based Whiskey Sour with ginger added to stand up to the strong flavors of the scotch.
The Penicillin is seriously delicious, qualifies as a modern classic through its emergence in bars all over the world, and has spawned its own knockoffs. It didn’t get its name in honor of Alexander Fleming, but instead as a tongue in cheek reference to its cure-all properties. And it is a cure all, much more effective than adding lemon and honey to a cup of tea.
- 2 oz Scotch Whisky (Use a relatively inexpensive blended Scotch. We like Famous Grouse.)
- ¾ oz Fresh lemon juice
- ¾ oz Honey-ginger syrup (Or 3/4 oz honey syrup and 4 slices ginger.)
- ¼ oz Islay scotch (We like Laphroig 10, but any heavily peated scotch will work.)
- To make honey-ginger syrup, combine one cup of honey with one cup of water and a six inch piece of peeled and sliced ginger. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Refrigerate overnight, strain to discard solids, and bottle.
- To assemble the drink:
- If using honey syrup and ginger slices, muddle slices with syrup in your mixing glass.
- Add all ingredients except the Islay Scotch to your mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into ice filled Old Fashioned glass.
- Float Islay Scotch on top of drink.
- Drink and be cured.