I love this spooky time of year. Halloween, for me, starts sometime in late September and ends right before Thanksgiving. It’s a great time to get together with friends—or watch bad horror movies alone.
However, my days of making suspicious punch bowls with black and red dye, candy skulls and gummy worms are over. On a somewhat related note, I did take a little jaunt to Salem, Mass., recently.
Some of the shops are a little hokey and sell many of the same witch tchotchkes, but if you have an eye for “magic” ingredients, there are some places that are veritable medieval apothecaries. As a bar nerd, I, of course, recognized many of these herbs as being some of the very same plants that give my favorite spirits their flavor and character.
Sitting on my shelf is a book called The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart, which I dove back into after my trip so I could touch up on some ingredients both familiar and obscure. So … let’s “double double, toil and trouble” ourselves with some booze alchemy.
Angelica is a member of the same family as carrots, but also hemlock—so what better place to start? Its earthy-sweet flavor adds a bottom note to many gins, and also provides major flavor to medicinal-tasting bartender favorites such as fernet and chartreuse. It is long believed to have digestive properties—but don’t go hunting for it yourself in the woods, or you might end up with more than a tummy ache. Stewart suspects that the liqueur Strega (“witch” in Italian), known for its saffron content, has a good deal of angelica in it, and I would certainly agree.
Speaking of saffron, it has many strange properties. Likely a mutant that was never meant to thrive, it is sterile and cannot reproduce by seed … spooky! It can only reproduce with human help, but we have given it that help, because it has been valued by us for millennia for its flavor and color. It has three sets of eight chromosomes, unlike us—and almost everything else living on Earth, adding to the strangeness of this magical spice. It’s a key flavor in such things as Old Raj gin; there is a little hiding in Benedictine and many other monkish delights. It is a member of the iris family.
Myrrh, valued for centuries and referenced in such works as the Bible and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, is an ancient incense resin often used in certain church fumigations, as well as fernet and other intense liqueurs. It has been added to wine since Roman times, and there is a good chance it is also in your favorite bitters. Stewart says myrrh wine was offered by the Romans to people being crucified. Gee, thanks!
Also referenced in The Life of Brian, now that I think of it, but consumed much more often than myrrh these days, is juniper. This member of the cypress family has been used since ancient days for stomach, liver and kidney ailments. It contains many terpenes and other aromatic molecules, such as a-pinene and myrcene. Some of you may be familiar with the latter in the flavor of your favorite beers and cannabis products. It’s the most important, and only absolutely necessary, flavoring in gin. Oh, also it may have been referred to as “eye of newt” in classic potions. So sorry to all the blind newts out there, I guess; it was a misunderstanding.
Speaking of bitters, the bottle on your home bar with the paper label gets most of its intensity from the alpine plant gentian, and not from the angostura bark; in fact, angostura may not even be an ingredient. Want a straight shot of gentian’s floral and earthy punch? Try the French favorite Suze, either on the rocks or with soda, and perhaps a slice of lemon. It’s also worth a try in a white negroni (although a traditional negroni has plenty of gentian in it, too):
1 1/4 ounces of your favorite gin
1 ounce of white vermouth (not dry vermouth, but its slightly sweeter sibling)
3/4 of an ounce of gentian liqueur, such as Suze
Stir; serve up with a twist of lemon.
As for all of you who hate the flavor of licorice: I don’t fault you for that, but what you really don’t like is a substance called anethole. This isn’t just found in licorice, but also in ancient holy herbs such as fennel and hyssop. The maenads, the fierce wild-women followers of Dionysus, carried a staff called a thyrsus, made of a giant stalk of fennel, as they reveled in the wild places. Feel free to make one for your next bacchanalia … or just enjoy a nice pastis on a sunny desert afternoon, and taste the complex flavors. Mix your absinthe or pastis with some cold water and a little sugar to create the cloudy louche, of course.
Speaking of absinthe, I think it’s only fair to end this tiny discussion of the botanical world with the notorious wormwood. Humans have been using this intense species of artemisia since the ancient Egyptians for its antimicrobial properties; it purportedly kills parasites, too. The Chinese were adding it to wine just as long ago—an early precursor to modern vermouth! By the way, that’s where we get the name for vermouth, another name for wormwood … it all comes full circle, no? It’s good for such spookily named cocktails as the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and Death in the Afternoon. As for Death in the Afternoon, I leave this one to your discretion:
1 ounce of absinthe
4 ounces of sparkling wine
Start with the absinthe in a cocktail glass; slowly add the wine; consume; pray. I can say from personal experience: This one is a bit like a deal with the devil …
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at CrypticCocktails@gmail.com.