Monday, November 2, 2015

The bitter truth

A few weekends ago, I signed up for my first medicinal herb class. Well, sort of. I mean, it did involve quite a lot of information about medicinal tinctures, but it also involved cocktails. One of my favorite people -- my yoga teacher, Tricia, who turns out to be an amazing herbalist -- was offering a class on making bitters at a nearby urban farm. It would be a chance to learn about the basic components, philosophy, and healing properties of bitters. Best of all, participants would have a chance to make our own batch of bitters to take home and age for a couple of weeks.

I learned, for example, that the whole point of bitters, medicinally speaking, is to aid with digestion. Not that I ever need an appetite stimulant -- for heaven's sake, a grumbling tummy is what gets me out of bed in the morning -- but if I did ever feel blase about food, I learned I'd just need to put a drop or two of bitters on my tongue and I'd be ready to eat. Or of course, I could mix it up in an aperetif, or a digestif. (And here I thought the French were just looking for ways to booze it up before and after dîner.)

I learned that there are three main categories of bitters: pure bitters (that are particularly good for digestive help, and are considered to have "cooling" properties), aromatic bitters (more gentle bitters associated with "warming"), and caminatives (the mildest category of the three, and the one that modern cocktail aficionados seem to gravitate towards). I love learning.

We learned about teas (boiling water + bittering agents) vs. tinctures (alcohol + bittering agents), and their approximate concentrations. We also got a primer on the most bitter of the bitters, made from something called gentian root -- which I thought sounded vaguely south Asian, but actually this root that takes around 7 years of growth before harvesting comes from the highlands of central Europe. We had a chance to taste sips of each different type of bitters, from dandelion root and orange peel teas to orange peel, gentian, and calamus tinctures. Wooh! I am disinclined to touch straight gentian tincture to my tongue again, though it would be good for April Fool's Day pranks or a double dog dare some day. Finally, we made our gentian tincture, which I later found out is the main ingredient in angostura bitters...which is conveniently a key ingredient in a rather famous cocktail. Maybe you've heard of an Old Fashioned?

After our discussion and tincture-making session at Common Good City Farm, it was time to walk to nearby El Camino, where Mick let us get up close and personal with many of the locally made bitters he uses in his expertly crafted cocktails. We sniffed lavender bitters, orange bitters, cardamom bitters, and more. Needless to say, 3 cocktails later, I was hooked. (I was also ready for a nap. I'm getting too old for day drinking....)

Though I am hardly an accomplished mixologist, I do like to add my own twist to things. In this case, it was actually my mom who suggested the modification to the classic Old Fashioned as I mixed up a set of trial cocktails for her and dad and I when they came over for dinner last night. Here, I offer you one of my new favorite cocktails:

The New Fashioned


  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3-4 drops homemade gentian root tincture*
  • 1 tsp water
  • ice cubes
  • 1 shot bourbon
  • 2 shots chilled tonic water
  • 1 maraschino cherry, plus a splash of its juice -- optional


Put a sugar cube in a sturdy tumbler, then squirt a few drops of your fancy homemade gentian root tincture onto it.

Sprinkle water over the cube, then use a spoon or pestle to muddle the cube at the bottom of the glass.

Toss in a handful of ice cubes, then add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Enjoy!

*To make your own gentian tincture: Combine 1 part dried gentian root to 4 parts Everclear, age it for at least 2 weeks, then strain it. Kept sealed in a cool, dark place, your tincture will last for years. And trust me, you don't need to make much. I think the 25g gentian root + 100mL grain alcohol will last me a long, long time. Even with regular consumption of New Fashioneds.

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