In 1945 the Nobel prize for medicine and physiology was awarded to Alexander Fleming, Ernst Chain and Howard Florey for their discovery of penicillin. The miracle drug has saved countless lives in the less than 100 years that it’s been around. But did you know that corn liquor had a role to play in its production?
Emory university’s school of medicine’s Dr Robert Gaynes wrote a fascinating article chronicling the development of penicillin. It reads almost like novel because part of the article detailed how scientists were determined to ensure that this miracle drug research didn’t fall into Nazi German hands!
Gaynes, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases, wrote how Fleming isolated penicillin in 1928, when he returned from holiday to find that something had stopped an invading fungus growing on an agar plate that he’d left unattended for a few weeks. This mold – which he identified as penicillin – “had an antibacterial effect on staphylococci and other gram-positive pathogens”, Gaynes wrote.
Despite his best efforts, for a decade Fleming was unable to advance his findings. And that’s where the Oxford scientists Ernst Chain and Howard Florey succeeded in building on his research, publishing their findings “on the production, purification and experimental use of penicillin” in The Lancet in 1940.
This was during World War II – and with the powers that be realising the massive potential benefit of this antibiotic to the war effort, the scientists struggled to create sufficient amounts of it. Which is why the Americans were called upon to assist in 1941.
The medium the Oxford team used to grow the penicillin strain in became unavailable because of wartime shortages, so the American team based in Peoria, Illinois, turned to a left-field alternative: corn steep liquor, a by-product of the cornstarch production process which was plentiful.
Gaynes wrote “With corn steep liquor, the investigators produced exponentially greater amounts of penicillin in the filtrate of the mold than the Oxford team had ever produced.”
With this medium as well as a fermentation process, they ramped up production. In 1941, Gaynes stated, the US didn’t have enough penicillin for a single patient… but by 1942 there was enough for 100 and by September 1943, there was sufficient stock “to satisfy the demands of the Allied Armed Forces”.
But how does that relate to a cocktail called Penicillin? The Wikipedia answer is as follows: “Its name derives from the drug penicillin, hinting to the medicinal properties of some of its ingredients, with suggested effects similar to that of a hot toddy which is said to relieve the symptoms of cold and flu.”
It’s a modern cocktail, first served at Milk & Honey, a renowned New York cocktail bar. It was developed by Australian bartender Sam Ross in 2005, according to Liquor.com, and quickly became popular.
It started out as his take on the Gold Rush, a cocktail featuring bourbon, lemon juice and honey. Ross swopped out the bourbon, opting instead to use a blended Scotch whisky with lemon and a honey-ginger syrup that he made himself.
It added sweetness to the final drink as well as a hit of heat and punchy bite from the ginger. But what really added the “medicinal” touch was the final touch, a float of Islay malt on top of the drink providing the smoky, peaty note. Epicurious.com quotes Ross in its story about the cocktail: “We got one of the earliest shipments of the Compass Box line in New York,” he said.
“Might as well play around with the smoky whisky – the Peat Monster. I poured a float on top. That smoke stayed on the top. I preferred to never serve it with a straw. I wanted that smoke in the nose and that spicy sweet cocktail underneath.”
60 ml blended scotch
22 ml lemon juice, freshly squeezed
22 ml honey-ginger syrup*
7 ml Islay single malt scotch
Garnish: candied ginger
Add the blended scotch, lemon juice and syrup into a shaker with ice, and shake until well-chilled.
Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
Top with the Islay single malt scotch.
Garnish with a piece of candied ginger.
To make the honey-ginger syrup: Combine a single cup of honey, one 15 cm piece of peeled and thinly sliced ginger and one cup of water in a saucepan over high heat, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for five minutes. Place in the refrigerator to steep overnight. Strain with a cheesecloth.
And the secrecy of this miracle drug during the war? “The British government went to great lengths to prevent the means for producing penicillin from falling into enemy hands,” Gaynes wrote. “However, news about penicillin leaked out.” Fleming had innocently sent strains of his original penicillin cultures to many other academics years before war broke out. The Pasteur Institute in France continued their research, as did the Dutch at the Centraalbureau voor Schimmelcultures (CBS) near Utrecht – both countries under Nazi occupation by 1940 when the biggest academic developments were happening! Over the next four years, the Dutch and French scientists used every trick in the book to prevent their independent attempts to manufacture penicillin be taken over by the Germans.
Gaynes wrote that large-scale production “would be difficult to keep secret from the Germans, especially with a German guard on site”. But the scientists used an obvious ploy to keep the German guard, who knew nothing about microbiology, at bay: they fed him lots of gin …