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For Whatever Ails You (September 6, 2012)

When I was growing up in London there were two beverage alcohol ads plastered on billboards everywhere. One was for a stout and one for a wine: "Guinness Is Good For You" and "Wincarnis Tonic Wine," which basically made the same claim as Guinness.

I must confess I had my fair share of Guinness as a post-graduate student in Dublin and can attest to its goodness (much better, incidentally, than the stout we get here because of the River Liffey water, say the mavens of Moore Street. Forty years ago they had Guinness company inspectors who went around the pubs to ensure that the pints were served at 65° Fahrenheit. With a well-pulled pint of Guinness you could write your initials in the creamy head and they would last until you had finished).

But I had never tasted Wincarnis until very recently at lunch in one of Toronto's fancy steak houses. I was the guest of Roderick Mackenzie, Director of Ian MacLeod Distillers. Apart from owning Glengoyne Highland Single Malt, Isle of Skye, Lang's Blended Scotch, Hedges & Butler, King Robert II and several other malt whiskies, Ian MacLeod Distillers also own Wincarnis Aperitif Wine. They acquired it when they bought Hedges & Butler in 1998. It was one of the conditions of sale and is now produced by Broadland Wineries in the English county of Norfolk.

As to efficacy of Wincarnis I can't make an assessment, since at the time I was not suffering from "colds, influenza, bronchitis (or) pneumonia" – all of which it purported to cure in a 1915 ad. But it did promise to safeguard me "against most of the ailments which affect humanity." The producers state that their tonic wine is rich in vitamins, especially energy-giving vitamin B complex, and can have beneficial effects on your circulation system and blood pressure.

Wincarnis (a name made up of "wine" and "carnis" – Latin for "of meat") is one of the oldest products on the LCBO product list, first appearing on the shelves in 1958. It's as brown as boot polish with a nose of dates and a sweet sherry-like taste of black cherries, dates, molasses and chocolate with a herbal note. In a word, it smells rather like Christmas pudding in liquid form.

First produced in 1887, Wincarnis was originally called Liebig's Extract of Meat and Malt Wine and it was advertised as "the finest tonic and restorative in the world." The precise recipe is still a closely guarded secret but a little research will tell you that it's a blend of "enriched wine and malt extract with a unique infusion of selected therapeutic herbs and spices including gentian root, mugwort, angelica root, balm mint, fennel seed, coriander seed, peppermint leaves, cardamom seeds and cassia bark." The base wine, originally port, is fortified to 18 percent alcohol and the product is now vegetarian-friendly since the producers have dropped the meat extract.

The brand is very big in the Jamaican community, where most of it is sold. Jamaican cooks use it in a variety of ways – in fruit salads, Christmas cake, barbecue marinades and the preparation of Chinese dishes. They drink it too – mixing it with gin to make a cocktail called "Gin and Win." And they also add it to stout and milk.

I was a little concerned about the ingredient mugwort, which sounds like something out of Harry Potter. Apparently, it goes by a variety of aliases: felon herb, chrysanthemum weed, wild wormwood, Old Uncle Henry, sailor's tobacco, naughty man, old man or St. John's plant – not to be confused with St. John's wort. So if you're making it at home, don't include St. John's wort.




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