As American settlers pushed West, Warren Bobrow relates, “there would always be a snake-oil salesman to make a quick buck on a healing potion.” Snake oil had nothing to do with snakes or oil, he notes. “It was just a common term for something that had a purpose, but not necessarily a method.”
Bobrow, 52, uses the term fondly. “My own experience with snake oil,” he says, “goes back to Geritol.” The alcohol-based iron-and-vitamin tonic “made my grandfather, Matthew Rosenhaus, a very wealthy man. He owned the company that made it, J.B. Williams. When I was a boy, my parents gave me three tablespoons of Geritol Jr.—which also had alcohol—every morning before school. I was all set to study.”
In high school, Bobrow, who grew up in Morris Township, where he still lives, worked in the J.B. Williams lab in Cranford, “testing products for purity, which is kind of funny, because the ingredients were of great quality, but they did nothing at all.” Claims to the contrary got J.B. Williams in trouble with the Federal Trade Commission, and in 1973 the company paid an $812,000 fine (the largest at that time) for making false claims about Geritol’s efficacy.
Bobrow says those morning spoonfuls (and surreptitious dips as a teen into his parents’ well-stocked wine cellar) spurred his several interests: in healing tonics and the itinerant “apothecarians” who created them as far back as the Middle Ages; in the pleasures of food and wine; in cocktail culture. It all bloomed into what he calls “my passion for great living.”
The happy result is his first book, Apothecary Cocktails: Restorative Drinks From Yesterday and Today (Fair Winds, $21.99). Published October 1, it rose by Halloween to number 5 on Amazon’s list of best-selling books on cocktails and mixed drinks.
Before creating the Cocktail Whisperer blog in 2010, Bobrow attended culinary school for a bit, cooked in restaurants and moonlighted in wine shops, but mostly made his living as a high-level personal assistant to bank executives. “I hated my job,” he says. “I hated my life.”
His wife, baker Julie Jacobson, encouraged him to follow his muse. He did, unleashing a freewheeling, opinionated style. In Apothecary Cocktails, he presents 75 recipes: classics and updates, but mostly his own creations. Chapters range from digestives to pick-me-ups to soporifics. As befits a snake-oil maven, he says the tone is “tongue in cheek.” He delves into the reputed properties of herbs and spices. (“Cinnamon is thought to be good for your heart. Rosemary and chamomile have anti-inflammatory properties.”) He displays a chef’s feel for flavors in originals like his Mexican Sleep Cure (smoky mezcal and brown sugar stirred into cayenne-infused Mexican hot chocolate).
Bobrow’s top tip for preempting a hangover is “drink enough water.” Failing that, take Fernet-Branca. Or his Milk Thistle Spritz (Aperol, white rum, milk thistle powder, seltzer). “Alcohol on top of alcohol makes you feel better.” Doesn’t it just delay the inevitable? “Yes,” he says, “but it makes the inevitable easier to take.”
Click here to see Bobrow’s New Orleans Milk Punch recipe.