Herbal extractions with that old-timey feel
by Heidi Sistare
The 19th century peddler lives on in infamy as a “snake oil salesman,” a forerunner of big talk and false claims in advertising. Hollering “step right up” and offering small bottles guaranteed to cure all, the traveling salesman combined showmanship with medicine and lent a bad name to the medicine of non-mainstream cultures. While some of the bottles he offered were filled with only castor oil or mineral water, others contained the same tinctures then sold in apothecaries and used in home remedies and still produced today by herbalists.
A Bitter History
In the Smithsonian’s “Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection,” the bitters category includes dozens of different products that were manufactured in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The bottles were labeled with now-yellowed paper crowded with words and hosting fantastical-sounding names: Dr. Flint’s Quaker Bitters, Newton’s Jaundice Bitters, and Burdock Blood Bitters.
In 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act, an early version of today’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped into a regulatory role.
The law put a stop to the interstate commerce of goods that made unverified claims or had restricted ingredients. The fashion, leaving us with only a few nationally marketed cocktail bitters behind the bar.
Bitter Is Better
“Many herbs contain what’s called the ‘bitter principle’ that tastes bitter on the tongue,” said Holly Bellebuono, Island herbalist and owner of Vineyard Herbs Teas and Apothecary. “The bitter taste stimulates the salivary glands, the gall bladder, and the liver—priming the pump, so to speak, for digesting an upcoming meal.”
Bitter tinctures and what we know as “bitters” for cocktails usually contain the extracts of bittering agents, combined with aromatic additions in a base of alcohol. The bittering agent can be dandelion, burdock root, hops or any number of herbs, barks or roots.
A particular flavor profile or medicinal value will guide the addition of aromatic ingredients like orange peel, cardamom, lemongrass, mint, vanilla or whatever the imagination dictates.
Yarrow, another bitter option, is one of Holly’s favorite herbs.
She said that the plant, which has tiny white flowers clustered at the top of a green stem and leaves that look and feel just like feathers, “can be grown in the garden or harvested in the many meadows that dot the Island.”
For a simple bitter tincture using yarrow, Holly recommends adding chopped yarrow leaves to a base of either vodka or apple cider vinegar. She says you could also “include fennel, angelica, hops, chamomile, ginger, orange peel, rue, motherwort or mint.”
It’s early July on Martha’s Vineyard, and at The GOOD Farm, which is only a few steps away from State Road, Zephir Plume’s kitchen feels like the calmest and most welcoming place on the Island. Zephir, who runs The GOOD Farm with her partner Jefferson Munroe, is interested in bitters both for their medicinal uses and their role in tasty libations.
In Zephir’s family, Manhattans are the standard drink, a preference that her grandmother explained by saying, “It’s the Scottish in us. We do well with whisky.” Zephir’s grandmother and mother still make and drink Manhattans from their respective homes in Michigan and Colorado. Watching the women in her family mix drinks, she learned the important role that bitters play in the creation of a cocktail.
Zephir was always interested in food and nutrition and in 2011 graduated from the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. Through her work with herbs
and her own interest in supporting digestion, Zephir began experimenting with bitters. Zephir knew the flavor profile that she was looking for, and when she combined extracts of dandelion, bitter orange, rose, basil, cardamom, coriander and fennel, Zephir and her taste-testersall knew: this was the recipe.
In Zephir’s kitchen, I tried this same combination of herbs from what is now bottled and labeled as Dandy Bitters. The dark brown bottles are a nod to history, and the bright label is a welcoming invitation to make the old new.
She served me a few drops of bitters in a short glass of sparkling water. The smell from the bitters floated upward on escaped bubbles. It was delicious. Right now Zephir gets her ingredients from Mountain Rose Herbs, an organic herb and spice supplier.
This season she has planted seed fennel, coriander, and basil in her garden, all of which she plans to use in the future, along with foraged or farmed dandelion. Each herb goes through an extraction process called percolation.
Percolation is an “old method used by herbal pharmacists,” explained Zephir. Basically, it’s like making drip coffee with the over-the-cup filter method. It takes a
few hours for the alcohol to run through the herb, and the process is more complex than the common method of letting herbs sit in alcohol for a number of weeks. She finds that percolation results in a stronger and more flavorful extraction.
Zephir calls dandelion a soft bitter, “a more appealing, flavorful and naturally sweet, mild liver stimulant.”
The orange peel is also a bitter and a liver stimulant, as are the rose petals, which have the added benefit of supporting the emotional heart.
Basil is added for flavor and its mild calming effect as well as its ability to help with gas and digestion. Each of the seeds: cardamom, coriander and fennel, are digestive aids and beautifully indulgent flavors.
Since it was summertime when Zephir first concocted this combination of ingredients, she got to try it out in summer cocktails during dinners with friends at The GOOD Farm. The recipe on the back of her bottle, the Dandy Fitzgerald, is a light and refreshing gin cocktail, perfect for nursing a sunburn, forgetting the humidity, or unwinding from a day on the farm. Zephir’s Dandy Bitters are available for sale at The Scottish Bakehouseand Madame Falgoux’s in one ounce, 200 milliliter, and 400 milliliter sized bottles. The bitters are sold under the brand Edible Wellness and cost between $7 and $30 a bottle.
Holly and Zephir, along with a widespread community of bartenders, mixologists, herbalists and foodies, are bringing a diversity of small-batch bitters back into fashion—for health and celebration.