Saturday, November 21, 2009

An Herbalist Walks Into A Bar…

Part of last night’s birthday celebration took place at a restaurant bar in downtown Tucson. Reservations for 7:30 were canceled on the drive and we opted for drinks at the bar instead. Years ago they’d served something called A Real Woman’s Margarita made with a Mexican Damiana (Turnera diffusa) liqueur. Considered an aphrodisiac, the herb has tonic properties with an affinity to the bladder. The liqueur bottle is shaped similar to a Willendorf woman and seemed a fitting ingredient for an herbalist’s birthday cocktail.

As we scanned the menu, the real woman was no where to be found. In her place was a list of pre- and post-prohibition style drinks with ingredients such as walnut-infused whiskey, house made aromatic bitters, wormwood tincture, demerara (a type of raw cane sugar) syrup, herbal-infused liqueurs, and muddled sage and basil. Intrigued, I ordered something called a Vesper: gin, vodka, elderflower liqueur, twist of lemon, and tincture of quinine.

“Where do you get the tincture of quinine?” I was given a basic run down on their tincturing process and refrained both from asking where they procured the Cinchona bark (Cinchona officinalis) and from arching my eyebrows at the short maceration time of 2 hours.* “Can I see the bottle?” Slightly confused, but amenable, the bartender brought over the familiar amber dropper bottle. “Can I open it?” Now my husband explained away the bartender’s furrowed brow, “My wife is an herbalist, she makes many similar tinctures herself.” Ah, with that I’m allowed to taste – quite bitter! The drink itself was heavenly. Served in a traditional 5 oz stemmed cocktail glass, it was finished with one lemon twist squeezed and discarded while a second twist was rubbed along the rim before being floated into the drink. ¡Salud!

My husband ordered something called a Sazerac, a pre-prohibition drink that included the customary absinthe rinse. He loved it! As we sipped our herbal cocktails, a barback offered details. Ciaran Wiese was the mixologist here at Barrio Food & Drink and the force behind the herbal ingredients. He was recently named number one on the Beverage Network’s list of “Top 10 Mixologists to Watch”. Impressive. An herbalist walks into a bar -- and finds a wonderful birthday surprise: tinctures in her cocktail.

*I’ve often wondered if the customary 2 week maceration time is necessary for all tinctures. My biology curriculum included a lab where students dropped various concentrations of alcohol onto Elodea leaves (Elodea canadensis) while observing through a microscope. Within seconds of adding the undiluted alcohol the cell walls would burst and chloroplasts could be seen moving out into the solution. How much can continue to spill out over hours, days, and weeks? Especially with fresh plant tinctures, perhaps a few days of maceration suffice.

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