There’s a folk saying in Chinese that I’ve known for a long time that says if after eating a meal you take 100 steps (i.e., go for a walk), you’ll live to 99 years of age. In Chinese it rhymes so it’s more fun to say – fàn hòu bǎi bù zǒu, huó dào jiǔ shí jiǔ (飯後百步走，活到九十九). Well, there’s another phrase that I hadn’t read until just recently that’s similar in the rhyme structure, and it is appropriate to the season right now – hán dōng hē bǔ jiǔ, néng huó jiǔ shí jiǔ (寒冬喝補酒，能活九十九). This one means, if in the deep cold of winter you drink a little supplementing wine, you’ll be able to live to 99. Hey, that rhymes in English a little too!
The second phrase relates to a method of ingesting herbal medicines that has traditionally been popular in China, and especially popular in the colder weather – medicated wines, or medicated liquors. The simplest method of making medicated wines is to soak herbs in distilled liquor, like vodka or brandy. I typically recommend using a liquor of at least 80-proof (i.e., 40% alcohol by volume). Anything much lower in strength, like beer or wine, will simply not be a good preservative as it will go bad in a short time, and hence the name ‘medicated wine’ is a bit misleading (酒 in Chinese simply means any sort of alcohol, including wine or liquor). Higher proof liquor can remain for long periods of time at room temperature without spoiling. Traditionally some medicated liquor recipes used lower proof rice wine, but then included adding large amounts of dates, or even white sugar to the mixture. This in effect increased fermentation and the resulting alcohol per volume. Today we have easy access to inexpensive distilled liquor, so when coming across recipes with added fruit or sugar, simply omit those and use a good quality, high-proof liquor instead.
Why are medicated liquors popular in winter? First, as already mentioned, alcohol is a preservative. Today we have access to just about any herb any time of year due to modern agriculture and shipping methods. In ancient times this was not the case, and some herbs would need to be preserved and stretched out between growing and harvesting seasons. Also, hard to get or wild-harvested herbs might not be commonly available, so making them last a long time was important. Using a medicated liquor allows us access to important herbs during the time when there isn’t any harvest going on (i.e., in winter). Another important reason is the general nature of liquor. Alcohol is warm, acrid and sweet, meaning that is has the ability to warm the interior, move Qi and Blood (warm and acrid natures), and gently supplement the body (warm and sweet natures). This combination is particularly appropriate to cold winter weather. That said, in excess, alcohol consumption can create damp heat, and it is certainly contraindicated in patients for other reasons and while on certain pharmaceuticals.
Here are some typical medicated liquor recipes…
Huang Jing Liquor (黃精酒)
Take about 20g of Huang Jing to every cup of alcohol and place in a glass container. Soak for about 2 weeks before using (longer soaking is better if possible). Take 1 shot per day in the evening as a dose. This formula supplements the Spleen, moistens the Lungs, and nourishes the Kidneys. It can be used to treat weakness of the Spleen and Stomach, general weakness of the body, Lung yin vacuity or dry cough, Kidney jing insufficiency, and pain of the back or lower extremities.
Assist the Yang and Benefit Longevity Liquor (助陽益壽酒)
Ingredients: Dang Shen 20g, Shu Di Huang 30g, Gou Qi Zi 20g, Sha Yuan Zi 15g, Yin Yang Huo 15g, Ding Xiang 9g, Yuan Zhi 10g, Chen Xiang 6g, 10 pieces of dried lychee or 10 red dates (optional if using vodka)
Add the above ingredients to 6-8 cups of vodka, let soak for 3 days. Then, place open the container and place all the ingredients in a pot and simmer on a very low flame (just to warm, not to boil) for 30 minutes. Then, after letting the mixture cool, reseal in the original bottle and let sit for 3 weeks. Then consume 1-2 shots per day. This formula supplements the Kidney, invigorates the Yang, benefits the Liver, nourishes essence, strengthens the Spleen and Stomach and increases overall longevity.
There are many, many different medicated liquor recipes out there and these are just some examples. For the average person these are appropriate recipes, but for people with certain disease patterns, clearly the formulas should match the appropriate presentation.
Stay warm, have some medicated liquor, and Happy New Year this coming weekend!