Monday, November 19, 2007

Medicinal Herbs and Spirits...A Happy Mix

Le Mixeur Deux will mark the beginning of a venture in mixing Naturopathic understanding of the medicinal properties of herbs with Mixologist understanding of the flavor and character of those same herbs.

A few months ago it occurred to me that many of the herbs Lela was learning about at Bastyr were present in liqueurs and liquors, and that many of the techniques used in creating tinctures were similar to those used to make spirits. The point was especially made when, a night after having been served newly legalized real Absinthe at the Zig Zag Cafe, Lela told me about the lecture she had attended that day on the myths and misconceptions about wormwood and Absinthe. I asked her to stop speaking so loudly, as my head was throbbing from my Absinthe experience, and then got to thinking.

I proposed that Lela and I start collaborating to find herbs she has experience with that would work well in drinkmaking, whether it be as a garnish, an infusion, or as an entirely new liquor or liqueur (gasp!). Lela seemed a little reluctant to go along with this, as she also has sat through several lectures at Bastyr on how devastating alcohol is to your health, and that it's actually nothing short of a miracle that anyone ever has an alcoholic beverage without immediately dying in a puddle of their own filth. Could she in good conscience use her knowledge of medicinal herbs to contribute to the imbibing of a tonic she (mistakenly) believes is bad for you?

I think we came to some sort of rationale in which it was accepted that people are going to drink regardless, so we might as well put something in the drink that will make a (futile) effort to combat the damage being done by the alcohol (this rationale operates on the same basic principles as the argument that we should all feel good about buying products from sweat shops because the 5o cents/day the workers are being paid is 50 cents more than they'd be getting without Nike or Old Navy there to provide for them - in other words, drink one of the drinks we invent and a multinational corporation will give your liver 50 cents...I sense a promotional idea brewing!).

But at any rate, we have proceeded in developing some ideas for exciting Mixes of these two worlds. These will not, due to gestation periods of our brains and of most liqueurs, be ready in time for Le Mixeur Deux. However, I have prepared some research on the herbs already present in some of my favorite spirits, and some of my favorite culinary herbs in rosemary and ginger. From this list I am developing a drink menu for Le Mixeur Deux that will revolve around the list of featured liqueurs. The Mixer guest will then be fully informed of the medicinal properties of each drink, and choose according to his or her needs. Here, without further adieu, is a synopsis of the liqueurs and herbs that will be served at Le Mixeur Deux.


Benedictine is a cognac based liqueur made with 27 plants and spices. The total recipe is a secret, but some of the known ingredients are:

  • Angelica was smoked by Missouri tribes for colds and respiratory ailments. Angelica is a good remedy for colds, coughs, pleurisy, wind, colic, rheumatism and diseases of the urinary organs.
  • Hyssop is an expectorant, diaphoretic, stimulant, pectoral, and carminative.
  • Myrrh is used in Chinese medicine for rheumatic, arthritic andcirculatory problems. It increases circulation, heart rate and power, and is good for many chronic diseases, including obesity and diabetes. Myrrh is used more frequently in Ayurveda, Unani medicine and Western herbalism, which ascribe to it tonic and rejuvenative properties.
  • Saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing; modern medicine has also discovered saffron as having anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties.
  • Aloe has been taken internally as a remedy for coughs, wounds, ulcers, gastritis, diabetes, cancer, headaches, arthritis, immune-system deficiencies, and many other conditions.
  • Arnica is used as a treatment for acne, boils, bruises, rashes, sprains, pains, and other wounds. It has also been used for heart and circulation problems, to reduce cholesterol, and to stimulate the CNS.
  • Cinnamon has been used to treat diarrhea and other problems of the digestive system. It is high in antioxidant activity, and the essential oil of cinnamon also has antimicrobial properties, which aid in the preservation of certain foods.


Campari contains quinine, rhubarb, pomegranate, ginseng, bergamot oil, orange peel, and bark from Cascarilla trees that grow in the Bahamas. There are over 60 ingredients, most of which remain secret.


In 1605 a marshal of artillery to French king Henri IV, François Hannibal d'Estrées, presented the Carthusian monks at Vauvert, near Paris, with an alchemical manuscript that contained a recipe for an "elixir of long life". The recipe eventually reached the religious order's headquarters at the Grande Chartreuse monastery, in Voiron, near Grenoble. It has since then been used to produce the "Elixir Végétal de la Grande Chartreuse". The formula is said to call for 130 herbs, flowers, and secret ingredients combined in a wine alcohol base. The monks intended their liqueur to be used as medicine.

Dubonnet and Lillet

Dubonnet and Lillet are apertifs of the quinquina variety. Quinquina is also known as chinchona, Peruvian Bark, or Jesuit's bark. Jesuit's Bark is the historical name of the most celebrated specific remedy for all forms of malaria. It contains both quinine and quinidine, both of which have antimalarial and fever-reducing activity. The main use of quinidine, however, involves its activity as a myocardial depressant—that is, it depresses the excitability and conduction velocity of nerve impulses and the contractility of the heart muscle. It also tends to lower blood pressure.


Gin was developed in the 17th century in the Netherlands. It was first intended as a medication; it's primary flavor is derived from juniper berries, which are a diuretic and were also thought to be an appetite stimulant and a remedy for rheumatism and arthritis.

Ginger and Rosemary

The medical form of ginger historically was called "Jamaica ginger"; it was classified as a stimulant and carminative, and used frequently for dyspepsia and colic. It was also frequently employed to disguise the taste of medicines. Ginger may also decrease joint pain from arthritis, and may have blood thinning and cholesterol lowering properties that may make it useful for treating heart disease.The characteristic odor and flavor of ginger root is caused by a mixture of zingerone, shoagoles and gingerols, volatile oils that compose about one to three percent of the weight of fresh ginger. In laboratory animals, the gingerols increase the motility of the gastrointestinal tract and have analgesic, sedative, antipyretic and antibacterial properties.

Rosemary Wine acts as a quieting cordial to a weak heart subject to palpitation, and relieves accompanying dropsy by stimulating the kidneys. Carnosic acid, found in rosemary, shields the brain from free radicals, lowering the risk of strokes and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's. Rosemary has long been known for improving memory.


When absinthe was banned in France in 1915, the major absinthe producers reformulated their drink without the banned wormwood component, a heavier focus on the aniseed flavor using more star anise, sugar and a lower alcohol content, creating pastis, which remains popular in France today. Anise leaves are used to treat digestive problems, to relieve toothache, and its essential oil is used to treat lice and scabies. The volatile oil, mixed with spirits of wine forms the liqueur Anisette, which has a beneficial action on the bronchial tubes,and for bronchitis and spasmodic asthma.

St. Germain

St. Germain is an elderflower liqueur. Elderflower may be used as a remedy for colds and fever. A few clinical studies have shown effectiveness of Sambucol, a formulation based on an extract of elderberry, in the treatment of both adults and children with either type A or B influenza. Sambucol reduced both the severity and duration of flu symptoms in otherwise healthy subjects.


Some common herbs and spices used in vermouth are cloves, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, citrus peel, coriander, sage, basil, thyme, chamomile, quinine, juniper berries, and hops. Other herbs like gentian, mugwort and wormwood have been used in vermouth to provide some bitterness. Flower petals, wild roots or some combination of eastern medicinal herbs are also used.

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