Alcohol has been used medicinally in China for more than 5,000 years and its use and infusions - from snakes for virility to roses for complexion - were recorded in prescriptions 2,000 years ago in the first text of traditional Chinese medicine.
In fact, the Chinese word for wine, jiu (酒) is comprised of two characters, one for water and one for medicine. Many TCM practitioners recommend a daily dose of 30 to 60 grams of yellow wine, huang jiu (黄酒), for healthy adults.
Using rice, millet and other grains, as well as fruits, flowers, plants, herbs and animals, ancient Chinese people distilled and infused the bounty of nature into healing, translucent drops of wine.
Alcohol, which has antiseptic properties, was first used as a treatment for external injuries and is still used today. Herbal wine infusions are also made into compresses and placed on affected areas.
Alcohol is an effective solvent or menstruum for herbs; it penetrates the skin and also improves blood circulation. Many herbs dissolve better in wine than water and since it's a preservative, infusions can be stored longer than herbal soups made with water.
In TCM, wine is considered a "guiding" drug, which enhances and reinforces other drugs.
Hundreds of medicinal plants and herbs, such as chrysanthemum, gouqi (wolfberry 枸杞), hawthorn and ginseng are used in wine infusions, and some wines contain a number of herbs.
Animals and animal parts are also used. These include snakes, frogs, bats, bears' paws, tiger bone (illegal, but underground trade persists), the penis of various animals such as tiger, deer, bull, as well as deer antlers and rhinoceros horn, among many others. Trade in endangered species is banned in China and many countries, but demand is enormous for the curative powers of these wine elixirs, especially for sexual potency.
TCM holds that you are what you eat (bone is good for bone, heart for heart, penis for penis, and so on).
Animals and parts that look like a particular organ, such as antlers, snakes and rhinoceros horn, are said to have the characteristics of that organ and are used in treatments, especially sex tonics.
Even a walnut, with its wrinkled kernel, is said to look like the brain and benefit brain function.
The alcohol is usually yellow rice wine (30-50 percent alcohol), or colorless spirit (baijiu 白酒), which is 50-60 percent alcohol. Distilled alcohol is used more frequently because it has stronger kick, antiseptic properties and is a better solvent for some ingredients. Warm rice wine is especially suitable for infusions including ginger, brown sugar and honey.
Liquor, according to TCM, is "warm" in nature, containing yang ("hot") energy that dispels cold, alleviates fatigue, warms the digestive system and clears blood vessels that carry the medicine throughout the body.
"Safe, effective, easy to make at home and store, medicinal wine is a brilliant invention that combines the elements of a fermented beverage and medical functions," says Qian Hai, a professor with the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
Wine made with animals and animal parts tend to have a more powerful effect than herbal wine.
Among the most famous is tiger bone wine, which was recorded 2,000 years ago by Li Shizhen, the author of the TCM bible "Ben Cao Gang Mu" (本草纲目) or "Compendium of Materia Medica."
One glass a day is said to improve kidney function (in TCM, kidneys are the source of sexual energy), to treat arthritis, rheumatism, strengthen bones, improve circulation and many other conditions.
Tiger bone wine can include some of 200 herbs, such as dang gui (angelica root or "female ginseng" 当归), huang qi' (astragalas root 黄芪), as well as parts of endangered animals.
In 1993, China banned the use of tiger bone in medicine; trade in tigers and tiger parts is banned too. Illegal trade persists and when badly cared tigers die in zoos, their bones and parts are often sold illegally for medicinal purposes.
Snake wine tonic, loaded with yang energy, is a legendary sex tonic for men and though Western medicine does not endorse it by any means, millions of Chinese men do. Women can sip a little to treat rheumatism.
Ancient and modern Chinese and people throughout Southeast Asia soak snakes in spirit, especially venomous snakes. The alcohol denatures the venom and breaks down the proteins in the poison, but the invigorating "essence" of the venom remains.
Jars of snake wine are displayed and sold in many Chinese pharmacies. Since snakes are not endangered species, trade is not banned and sales of wine are legal.
Snake wine, some made with different kinds of snakes, bats and herbs, is said to nourish the kidneys, generate blood, dispel cold and damp (excessive yin energy), treat rheumatism, alleviate coughs and treat bronchitis, among other uses.
Snake's blood, bone, bile, venom and skin are all valued as medicine, especially the venom.
To make snake wine, live snakes are first kept for a month without food or water, so its intestines are emptied. It is then washed and placed live into a strong container of alcohol (50 percent or higher), which is then sealed for at least two months.
The standard proportion is 1:5, or 500 grams of live snake in 5,000ml alcohol. It's drinkable after two months, but wine that is six months to a year old is considered extremely potent in treatment of rheumatism.
"Liquor can amplify the medicinal effects of many medical herbs," says professor Qian.
The ethanol in alcohol can dissolve alkaloids, tannins, volatile oil, resins, chlorophyll and other elements that cannot be dissolved in water. Many proteins can best be preserved in wine.
"While most of us don't have access to rare and expensive ingredients, we can easily make effective medicinal wines at home," Qian says.
The professor himself tends a TCM herb garden and brews wine tonics all year round. He gives wine as popular gifts to friends.
He uses red bayberry wine to treat diarrhea, rose wine to give women a bright, pink complexion, dried tangerine peel to stimulate appetite, caterpillar fungus (chong cao 虫草, cordyceps militaris) to nourish the lung and kidney.
The doctor recommends wine made with gouqi to lower blood sugar and cholesterol, he shou wu (tuber fleece flower root何首乌) to prevent hardening of the arteries, dang gui to generate blood, di huang (rehmannia or Chinese foxglove root 地黄) to lower blood pressure and huang qi to improve blood circulation and boost immunity.
After seeing a doctor, women with irregular menstrual periods can try dang gui to promote blood circulation and qi (energy flow).
"These herbs are very easy to get and handle for wine making," Qian says. "If we drink them properly, we can definitely benefit from them."
How to make your own medicinal wines
Here are simple DIY recipes you can concoct at home. Since wine amplifies the effects of herbs, check with a TCM practitioner before making your own medicinal wine.
Use fresh roses or dried roses - not commercially grown roses because they contain pesticides and chemicals. Use only glass or ceramic container.
In 1.5 liter distilled spirit (35 percent), soak 250g dried rose petals. Or in 1.5 liter spirit (50 percent), add 350g fresh rose petals.
Add 250g rock sugar.
Seal, shake every day or two. Store for a month.
Dosage: Drink 20ml, once a day.
Benefits: Improves complexion, reduces pigmentation caused by age or pregnancy.
In a large jar containing 50ml distilled spirit (at least 50 percent), add 1.5kg mashed hawthorn (seeds removed). Leave around 30 percent space in container for hawthorn to ferment.
Add 400g sugar. Mix thoroughly. Seal container.
Store for one or two months, stirring. If made in autumn, spring or summer, it can be stored at room temperature. If made in winter, it should be put in a warm place.