Mixologists Are the New Herbalists

More cocktail designers are working with herbs, not necessarily for any psychoactive attributes, but rather for their distinct flavors and beauty as garnishes.


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Sister’s Pacific Coast Highway uses hyssop blossom.

Photo by Kristan Lawson

Until quite recently in human history, if you got sick, you went to an herbalist. Prior to the rise of modern science, herbs were the only medicines available, and those who knew which herbs possessed which physiological effects were revered as healers.

As our ancestors learned to extract the active ingredients from plants — so that now we swallow aspirin tablets rather than chew on willow bark — the profession formerly known as “herbalist” evolved into disparate new identities: botanist, pharmacist, chef.

Now we can add “mixologist” to this list of the herbalists’ descendants, as more and more cocktail designers are working with herbs, not necessarily for any psychoactive attributes, but rather for their distinct flavors and beauty as garnishes.

“I buy the herbs for our cocktails at the Grand Lake Farmers Market, just half a block from here,” said Alex Phillips, bar manager at Sister. “I also have a fun back-and-forth with our executive chef, Martin Salata. We discuss which herbs he has ordered for the food menu, and I try to see if I can incorporate any of them into the drinks as well.”

Sister’s cocktail menu changes frequently, but at the time of this writing, one standout was the Pacific Coast Highway, which combined pisco made from Moscato grapes grown high in the Peruvian Andes along with fresh lime juice, honey, ginger, and — most unusually — a glorious stalk of purple hyssop blossoms.

Hyssop? Now nearly forgotten, this close cousin to the mint family was for millennia an important and much-hailed herb, used not just in cooking and medicine but also in religious rites. Combining a minty zing with sweet intoxicating fruitiness, the scent form the hyssop’s tiny blooms wafts up to your nose with each sip; the garnish is almost more interesting than the drink itself.

Hyssop is the secret ingredient in the oldest recipes for za’atar, the traditional Middle Eastern spice mix. Under its ancient name, ezov, it’s also mentioned repeatedly in the Old Testament, and figures prominently in several key Biblical stories and rituals. Hyssop is also one of the primary flavors in Chartreuse liqueur — which coincidentally was also featured in another Sister cocktail, the Kotton Krown.

Because herbs are seasonal and the East Bay’s cutting-edge bars often rotate and update their drinks menus, it’s impossible to confidently predict which herbs will be incorporated into local cocktails by the time you read this. Currently, Sidebar features thyme syrup as the primary flavor of its Quivering Uvula; Plum Bar puts basil sprigs in its Amber Waves; the “Runaround Sue” at Berkeley’s Tigerlily sports fragrant fresh lavender; and Berkeley’s ZINO restaurant uses fresh dill and mint in its appropriately named Herbs de Fresca cocktail.

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