People in China have been using alcoholic cures for centuries. Here’s what’s in them, and why they’re enjoying a revival among young people in China.
Is drinking alcohol bad for you? Traditional Chinese medicine experts don’t think so, at least not in small quantities. They use a type of alcohol termed medicinal wine to treat various ailments such as insomnia, or just to help people improve their overall health.
What is medicinal wine?
Chinese people have been making and drinking medicinal wine for a long time. The 16th century Chinese medical encyclopedia, Compendium of Materia Medica (本草纲目) written by Ming dynasty physician Li Shizhen, has an entire section dedicated to describing different types of medicinal wines.
Medicinal wine refers to a prescription made by processing Chinese medicine, herbs and wine together. The most common wine used is either baijiu or yellow wine that has an alcohol content of at least 75 percent.
The health benefits of medicinal wine comes from the herbs and medicine that are soaked in the wine.
“There is a reason why Chinese medicine practitioners like to use wine. It is good at bringing out the medicinal effect [that can be absorbed by] different parts of the body. Wine is a very good solvent to bring out the health effects from the Chinese herbs,” says Cinci Leung, a registered Chinese Medicine Practitioner from Hong Kong, adding that the wine itself helps with blood circulation.
In China, medicinal wine therapy is widely used as a treatment for a range of health issues, from internal medicine and gynecology needs, to ear, nose, and throat-related diseases.
Different regions and cultures within China have their own medicinal wine. For example, wujiapi (Acanthopanacis Root Bark) wine is popular in Southern China, while tiger bone wine and wolfberry wine are often drunk in northeastern China and north-central China respectively.
Snake wine is another popular medicinal wine across China, usually found at markets and restaurants that specialize in snake dishes. Brewers make it by placing a fresh, clean snake inside a bottle of wine that has been distilled three times, before adding herbs into it.
Yunnan’s specialty: Five-flavor berry medicinal wine
Sangdian Dolma is a homebrewer that specializes in making medicinal wine.
The 49-year-old brews her own highland barley wine — she buys local highland barley — at home to make five-flavor berry medicinal wine. It is unique to Luotong, a remote village in southwestern China with a population of 200 people.
“All of the men and women here, whether old or young, know how to make medicinal wine,” says Dolma. She said many of the older generation villagers passed the skill down to her and her peers.
Five-flavor berry (schisandra chinensis) is a vine plant native to forests in Northern China, Eastern Russia and Korea, although it also grows in places with high altitudes like Yunnan’s mountains.
How five-flavor berry medicinal wine is made
“We have to go to a mountain with an altitude of more than 3,000 meters and climb trees to forage for it,” Dolma explains.
Then, after picking the five-flavor berries, she carefully washes them and dries them in the shade.
Next, she places the berries inside a wine vessel, pours in her highland barley wine, and seals the vessel.
After letting the berries soak for a few weeks, the five-flavor berry medicinal wine is ready.
Health benefits of five-flavor berry medicinal wine
“Highland barley wine can lower blood pressure, treat chronic cough caused by lung problems, spleen and kidney diseases, insomnia, gynecology issues and so on,” says Dolma.
Unlike other types of alcohol in China, medicinal wine is not a drink for social occasions. It is used purely as a health remedy and only drunk in small sips.
“In the past, we only drank it on special occasions. Nowadays, because living standards are rising, we drink it not only during Chinese New Year or at weddings, but some nights we take a few sips before going to bed as it improves our quality of sleep,” says Dolma.
Becoming trendy again among Chinese youths
Medicinal wine fell out of popularity for a while, because people saw it as a dated way of treating illnesses. But young people in China today are starting to drink it, according to Leung.
“The taste of medicinal wine is comparatively more tasty and better than the typical bitter Chinese medicine.Yet, it still has a health effect, which makes it popular among youngsters,” she explains.
Beverages that pair a drink with a healthy ingredient are becoming more trendy in China today. Some of these brews that can be found are goji berry-infused coffee and citrus peel-flavored beer.
Even though medicinal wine does boost one’s health, Leung recommends taking it in moderation.
“You shouldn't chug it in a whole cup. I think a small dosage is really less than an espresso cup,” she says. “Of course you can [get drunk on medicinal wine]! It has 75 percent alcohol content!”