Three researchers have prepared a delightful concoction: equal parts plant science, cultural history and recipe book. The result is Botany at the Bar, an introduction to the fascinating world of bitters, complete with recipes for all manner of cocktails and elixers, prepared with the help of a mixologist. The three authors— Selena Ahmed, an associate professor of sustainable food systems at Montana State University; Rachel Meyer, an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz; and Ashley DuVal, a plant breeder who works on tropical tree crops—formed a company in 2011 called Shoots and Roots Bitters. They answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, and were gracious enough to share a specialty cocktail for Thanksgiving.
How did you get the idea of combining botany with craft cocktails?
AHMED: Our integration of botany and cocktails started when we were all graduate students through the New York Botanical Garden with fellowships and grants that emphasized broader impacts of science for society. As ethnobotanists who have carried out fieldwork in diverse communities around the world, we have encountered plants with fascinating attributes and cultural histories whose aromas and tastes captivate us.
I had just gotten back from Yunnan province of China where I had been studying biodiversity associated with tea production and consumption systems along ancient trade routes. Rachel had also been studying the origin and domestication of eggplants in this region. Ashley was examining diversity and management around acai in the Amazon. We were geeking out about some of the plants we had tasted such as nuo mi xiang cha. This plant is found around home gardens in Xishuangbanna prefecture of Yunnan and extracted and consumed as a tonic. It has a unique aroma reminiscent of sticky rice. We decided to collaborate on sharing samples of nuo mi xiang cha and others from our fieldwork as part of a research talk. This is when we tapped into our phytochemical lab protocols with the botanical infusion practices that we had seen in the field to make bitters that optimally bring out flavor and other plant compounds.
DUVAL: Presenting botanical research through drinks also created a forum for conversation. We learned even more about the plants from anecdotes that others shared with us. I remember a cocktail we made of goji berries and tartary buckwheat was found to be pleasant and reminiscent of home to a Nepalese couple; they described in detail the mouth feel and throat tickle from the goji berry infusion as an indicator of quality.
What do you mean by “bitters”?
DUVAL: Broadly defined, botanical bitters are infusions or extracts of plants that pull out their medicinal and flavor properties into a liquid. Most often, bitters are prepared by infusing botanical material in a fermented alcohol base including grain alcohol, fruit wine, or beer. This process serves to extract, concentrate and preserve the desired plant properties. Bitters can also be prepared by infusing plant material in nonalcoholic liquids such as water, as in the case of tea and tisanes as well as vinegar and fat.
People have been preparing bitters for thousands of years using plants from their surroundings for multiple purposes, and the infusions of plants in alcohol follows shortly after the innovation of fermentation arising in different parts of the world. Historically, bitters primarily had a medicinal function and evolved into key ingredients of cocktails. Although it has been used for over a thousand years, the term “bitters” is considered to have become popularized in its current meaning almost 300 years ago in England during the reign of King George II to market medicinal alcoholic products in response to government liquor taxes. Apparently, bitter herbs were added to liquor and sold as medicine as a way to escape taxation.
MEYER: Bitters serve a multifunctional role. Orally, they are taken for medicinal purposes including to aid in digestion, boost immunity, strengthen the body, for energy and for prevention of disease. Bitters also have an important social function in many cultures including for celebrating marriages and other life transitions. Bitters continue to play an important ritual function in many traditional communities. Traveling between villages in Togo, it was customary to stop and share bitters made from local herbs, along with local water, as a way to get acquainted with the area and culture, while they also provided a dose of restorative phytochemicals and hydration after the journey.
Can you tell me a bit about the bitters tradition in the United States?
DUVAL: In the U.S., everyone is most familiar with Angostura as a key ingredient for their Manhattan or Pink Gin. What people often don’t realize is that Angostura, the oldest bitters brand in the United States, is also rooted in traditional knowledge, ethnobotany and herbal medicine. A German doctor, Johann Siegert from
Simón Bolívar’s army, was stationed in Venezuela in the 1820s, and developed a blend of local herbs he called “amargo aromatico” to improve appetite, digestion and other ailments the sailors and soldiers were afflicted with. The rest is history, but the contribution of local healers familiar with the medicinal plants of the region was not acknowledged in the development of the remedy. Of course this oversight was not uncommon for that time—but today we recognize the obligation we share to value traditional knowledge, and that this associated knowledge is important and vulnerable just like the plants.
Many of the bitter liquors that we are familiar with today—absinthe, Chartreuse, Campari and Jägermeister—started out as patented medicines. Stoughton’s elixir, created in 1712, were among the first medicines in England to receive a British royal patent and eventually became a successful British export to the American colonies. After the American Independence, local distillers in Boston and other cities began producing local versions of bitters and elixirs previously imported from Europe. Lash's Bitters Company was one of the successful bitters companies in the United States during the 20th and early 21st century that show the evolving use of bitters from a medicine to an alcoholic beverage. Early ads in 1901 show a little boy needing to use the chamber pot, promoting its use for digestion and constipation, but an ad in the 1920s suggests its use as a night cap.
AHMED: I live in Bozeman, Mont. The whole landscape is rife with medicinal and bitter plants with unique flavors such as bitter root, camas, chokecherries, service berries, huckleberries, wild rose, ponderosa pine and Rocky Mountain juniper. Native American communities have been making infusions of many of these plants for centuries both as a well-being practice and for purifying the spirit. The bitters tradition in the United States is a juxtaposition of this long use of botanicals by Native American communities along with the assimilation of people from around the world who have made this their home.
When you look at someone sipping on a drink today, what parallels do you see to someone, say, 1,000 years ago, sipping on a bitters concoction?
DUVAL: Sometimes it is more than a parallel; often we are actually enjoying the same beverages. Many of the world’s earliest bitters and botanical infusions are still widely consumed today or enjoying a revival. Mead, a spiced beverage from fermented honey and water, and the mulled apple cider we enjoy around the holidays connect us to the very first documented uses of wine, which were spiced with herbs as medicine or preservatives. There is also an enormous revival of interest in tonics for health, and options for beverage bars such as kava bars that don’t serve alcohol but still offer the social ritual experience.
AHMED: Many of the plants are the same as well as their functionality. For example, Chinese materia medicas from 1,500–2,000 years ago include hundreds of plants in which dozens are used in drinks today such as great yellow gentian, ginseng and cinnamon bark. There are hundreds of gentian species, with the root of Gentiana lutea being a key ingredient of apéritifs, bitters, liqueurs and tonics to this day. Gentians have long been used for treating and preventing digestive issues. We see these overlaps of plants used past and present in regions around the world. For example, hops, American ginseng and wild black cherry were common plants used by several Native American groups and are found as ingredients of bitters today.
Would you be so kind as to suggest a cocktail for a Thanksgiving Day?
MEYER: Thanksgiving may first bring to mind turkey. As enthusiasts of domestication history, we love that many places where early turkey domestication took place displayed concurrent agave domestication. This spans Veracruz and Jalisco to Arizona. But to many who have to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, they might first think of the stress of handling cooking, family politics and everyone’s entertainment, so let’s make a boozy drink with lots of Agavaceae species that also provides those gracious overworked hosts with some nutrition and a dose of antianxiety, endurance-boosting adaptogens that will kick in immediately.
This cocktail, which we developed with the mixologist Christian Schaal, features chestnuts as part of a chestnut pepita orgeat. In the U.S., only those of us living in the Pacific Northwest might be able to access the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), a towering tree that used to be widespread but was wiped out by a disease. Now, after decades of work spearheaded by William Powell at State University of New York, the American chestnut has just become the first GMO tree to be approved for release, just this year, and it’s expected to replenish our forests and orchards. We find this is one of the most beautiful examples of genetic engineering to de-extinct species and restore ecosystems.
Cocktail name: The good gene
Preparation time: 1 hour
Drinks: infusions are enough for >10 drinks and can be saved, refrigerated, for up to two weeks
Ingredients for infusing
350 mg of powdered Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)—this plant is stress-fighting adaptogen becoming popular in the natural products industry and as a new crop in arctic areas facing climate change. It’s rosavin and salidroside contribute to the functionality of the drink. This arctic species is common to find as a ground root powder that can be consumed as a tisane or in capsules. For this drink, we just broke open two gel capsules.
1/8 tsp cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) an Indonesian tree brought to Mexico by the Spanish
1/2 cup, or about 10 chestnuts (Castanea spp—there are six species to choose from, and soon maybe you’ll have the American chestnut available to make this drink!)
½ cup pepitas (Styrian pumpkin seeds, Cucurbita pepo) —green seeds that have no hull, descended from a pumpkin with a special mutation that was discovered in Austria. Pumpkins of this species originated in mesoamerica (along with turkeys and agaves).
Pinch of salt
1 pint of sugar
1 pint of water
3 oz tequila (Agave tequilana) —a bright, likely familiar, nectar-like spirit from Jalisco
Equipment: blender, fine mesh strainer, cup, spoon
For the rest of the drink
1 oz mezcal per drink (Agave spp)—an oft smoky, complex spirit made from one to several of over 30 agave species
0.5 oz sotol per drink (Dasylirion spp)—a grassy, earthy spirit made from species in a genus related to Agave
0.5 oz lime juice, lime peel for garnish
Equipment: Shaker, fine mesh strainer, coup glass
Prepare the infused tequila: Mix tequila, cinnamon, and rhodiola in a cup, let sit for 45 minutes, strain to retain liquid. During that infusing time, you can prepare the orgeat.
Prepare the orgeat: Make a simple syrup by boiling 1 pint of water and 1 pint of sugar. Refrigerate to cool. With a paring knife, score an X on the round side of the chestnuts, soak chestnuts in water for 1 minute, lay scored side up on a baking tray, and bake at 400 degrees F for 20 minutes or until cooked through. Peel the chestnuts immediately. Don’t worry about the papery layer between the seed and the shell. Toast the pepitas on the stove or in the oven until fragrant. Put the chestnuts, pepitas, simple syrup, and a pinch of salt in the blender and blend until fully homogenized. Let rest 15 minutes, strain to retain the liquid.
To prepare one cocktail: Add 0.75 oz orgeat, 0.5 oz lime juice, 0.25 oz infused tequila, 1 oz mezcal, and 0.5 oz sotol to a shaker with ice, shake, and pour over the fine mesh strainer into a coup glass. Garnish with a lime peel on the glass rim.