While some alcoholic beverages, like minty mojitos, have included herbs for generations, a more unique collection of herbal cocktails has been growing in popularity recently. The addition of traditional Chinese medicinal herbs to alcoholic cocktails was recently implemented at the Keefer Hotel in the Chinatown of Vancouver (British Columbia, Canada) by Keefer Bar Manager Danielle Tatarin.1
After noticing that herbs used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) were often incorporated into teas, Tatarin began experimenting with making these teas into syrups, which she now adds to her Chinese Medicine cocktails (e-mail, April 14, 2010). Previously Tatarin was with the DB Bistro Moderne in Vancouver, where she also incorporated herbs into syrups for cocktails.
“I became interested in mixology and cocktail history while traveling throughout South East Asia and Australia,” said Tatarin. “I loved a lot of things I was seeing for the first time and always wondered ‘how would this taste if I mixed it into a cocktail?’ Since then I’ve been incorporating herbs into cocktails through teas, syrups, powders, oils, tinctures, and bitters. All of the applications I have researched on my own and tested recipes through trial and error.”
Tatarin also uses common herbs not exclusive to Chinese medicine, such as lavender (Lavandula spp., Lamiaceae) and sage (Salvia officinalis, Lamiaceae), in her cocktails. Though Tatarin is not an herbalist, she was introduced to herbs like lavender, peppermint (Mentha x piperita, Lamiaceae), and ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae) at an early age through her stepmother, a nurse who also studied Eastern medicine.
Tatarin’s most in-demand drink is the Opium Sour (recipe provided by Tatarin, in sidebar), which is high in vitamins C and B as it contains both grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi, Rutaceae) and tamarind (Tamarindus indica, Fabaceae). Its poppyseed (Papaver rhoeas, Papaveraceae) tincture also helps with relaxation (although it does not actually contain opium, derived from the opium poppy, P. somniferum), and overall, she says the drink aids digestion. Another of her most famous cocktails—the Tigers Tail—consists of astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus, Fabaceae), used in TCM to boost the immune system and qi (energy), as well as the Asian beverage shochu (most commonly distilled from barley, sweet potatoes, or rice) and Campari®.
“I recommend the Tigers Tail for people with allergies or to boost the immune system, but we can mix the astragalus tea syrup into any cocktail,” said Tatarin.
Tatarin also keeps an eye out for interactions with alcohol. “I haven’t come across any problems with the ones I’m using now,” she said. “I’m always careful to find out what the uses for each herb are before mixing it into the drink.”
The idea of promoting herbal cocktails may also be taking root in the United States. The Trudy’s restaurant chain and South Congress Café in Austin, Texas introduced a line of cocktails to their menus that they call “herbal remedies” in April 2010. However, according to Chance Robertson, an operations manager at Trudy’s who designed some of the chain’s drinks, the recipes for these cocktails were concocted more for taste than for any actual medicinal or healing value (e-mail, May 8, 2010).
“Aside from the ‘I’ve been at work all day and need to relax’ ailment, I’m not sure what these drinks may cure,” said Robertson. “They are really good for that and the ‘It’s a beautiful day and I want to relax on a patio and kick back’ sickness.”
According to Robertson, the herbal remedies idea came to him while tending his herb garden. “My wife and I decided to throw some basil into a cocktail with bourbon and lemonade,” he said. “It was delicious, and it kind of spawned us to look more closely at basil as an ingredient in our cocktails at Trudy’s. Our bartenders also brought a lot of these ideas to us based on what they drink or have tried at other bars and restaurants around town and beyond.”
The Trudy’s “herbal remedy” drinks include the Brasilia (VeeV açaí liquor TM, Grand Marnier®, Leblon® Cachaça, mint, lime juice, and simple syrup), the Whiskey Basil Lemonade (Jack Daniel’s Whiskey®, basil [Ocimum spp., Lamiaceae], and fresh lemonade), the Paraty (Leblon Cachaça, Cointreau®, basil, lime juice, simple syrup, fresh strawberries, and soda), the Agave Fresca (Corzo® silver tequila, agave nectar [Agave spp., Agavaceae], orange, lime, and soda), the Caipirinha (Leblon Cachaca, brown sugar simple syrup, and fresh lime juice), and the Mojito (Bacardi® rum, fresh mint, lime juice, simple syrup, and soda).
In addition to the basil and the mint drinks, Austin’s South Congress Café’s herbal drinks feature ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae) and rhubarb (Rheum palmatum, Polygonaceae) stems, according to Robertson.
Of course, the addition of medicinal herbs to alcoholic beverages is an ancient practice made new; the history of the liqueur industry is based on the blending of numerous medicinal plants and plant extracts to make brandies, cordials, medicinal wines, etc.—many of which were initially intended for medicinal purposes and which survive today primarily as flavorful beverages used as aperitifs, digestives, and flavoring agents mixed into cocktails, etc.
—Kelly E. Lindner
1. Sasvari J. In good spirits: cocktails that incorporate Chinese Medicine. The Vancouver Sun. March 19, 2010. Available at: www.vancouversun.com/life/Good +Spirits+Cocktails+that+incorporate+Chinese+medicine/2704042/story.html. Accessed March 23, 2010.
*To make astragalus root tea, steep dried roots in hot water for 20 minutes, then strain. Add equal part sugar to tea and mix well. Cool, then store in a clean glass jar.
†To make spiced sugar, chop up a bird’s eye chili pepper (Capsicum frutescens, Solanaceae), also known as a Thai pepper, very finely and mix to taste with about 2 cups raw cane sugar and, possibly, a few crushed candied rose petals.
“Opium Sour” Recipe:
2 oz bourbon1/2 oz Tamarind Syrup*3/4 oz Fresh Grapefruit Juice1/4 oz Fresh Lemon Juice2 dashes Poppyseed Tincture
Shake first 4 ingredients vigorously on ice for 10–15 seconds. Strain over fresh ice into a highball glass. Finish with poppyseed tincture.
*To make tamarind syrup, steep fresh or dried tamarind pulp in hot water for 20 minutes and fine strain through a cheesecloth. Add equal part sugar to tamarind water.
“Tigers Tail” Recipe:
2 oz Shochu (Tatarin uses the shochu variety that is distilled from barley)1/2 oz Campari1/2 oz Astragalus Root Tea Syrup*4 Pineapple Chunks, dipped in spiced sugar†
Mix first 3 ingredients together and shake on ice vigorously for 20 seconds. Double strain into a whisky glass. Served neat. Garnish with a skewer of pineapple chunks dipped in spiced sugar.