Podcast 114: Formulating Cocktail Bitters for Flavor & Action

This week we took a trip to New York City, because we were invited to teach a workshop on formulating cocktail bitters for our friends at Kindred, a restaurant in the East Village. Our social media posts about it were popular, with lots of commenters saying that they would love to learn how to make their own bitters. Well, you can!

The process of making herbal cocktail bitters isn’t too complicated: make a tincture, decoct the marc, mix the liquids and add a little sweetener. Today we want to get past the basics and talk a little bit about the way we formulate cocktail bitters. In some ways, it’s not too much different from other kinds of herbal formulation (and we have a whole online training course about herbal formulation for those who need it), but there are some special considerations for cocktail bitters.

First of all, it ought to taste good! Building your formula around flavors is the standard way bitters blends are invented today, in the hip bars and restaurants that are reinvigorating cocktail culture. But we’re herbalists, and that means we’re also thinking about the medicinal actions of the herbs in our formulas. Our medicines are foodlike, and our foods are medicinal – so when we say “that’s herbalism, too” about our bitter blends, we really mean it!

Listen in for some guidelines to follow, and some examples of our own successful (delicious and effective) cocktail bitter formulas.

Herbs discussed include: chamomile, blue vervain, wood betony, mugwort, tulsi, gentian, artichoke, centaury, angelica, elecampane, calamus, citrus, ginger, hawthorn, motherwort, anise, cardamom, fennel, pine, & lemon[balm|grass|verbena|thyme].

Want all the details on how to make your own cocktail bitters? You’ll find a complete instructional video in our Herbal Medicine-Making course. In this online course there are more than 45 close-up, step-by-step videos showing how to make all the kinds of herbal preparations – plus recipes, printable instruction cards, and more. You can ask us questions on anything you’re wondering about, both in the discussion threads or in our twice-weekly live Q&A web conferences. Progress at your own pace, learn on your own schedule, and get direct access to Katja & Ryn! You’ll be crafting your own signature cocktails (and mocktails!) in no time.

As always, please subscribe, rate, & review our podcast wherever you listen, so others can find it more easily. Thank you!!

Our theme music is “Wings” by Nicolai Heidlas.


Episode Transcript

Katja (00:01):
Hi, I’m Katja.

Ryn (00:15):
And I’m Ryn.

Katja (00:15):
And we’re here at the Commonwealth Center for Holistic Herbalism in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ryn (00:21):
And on the internet everywhere thanks to the power of podcasts and YouTube and all that other good stuff.

Katja (00:27):
Well, this week I am so excited to talk about formulating cocktail bitters.

Ryn (00:37):
Yeah. This is going to be some good stuff.

Katja (00:39):
Yeah. So this week we took a trip to New York city where we were invited to teach a workshop on formulating cocktail bitters for our friends at the Kindred Restaurant in the East Village. And we posted about that on social media and everybody was like, ah, I wish I could go to that. And so we wanted to talk about it on the pod today.

Ryn (01:04):
That’s right. So we’re going to do it, but first, just in case you need a little reminder, here’s our weekly reclaimer. We are not doctors. We are herbalists and holistic health educators.

Katja (01:14):
The ideas discussed in this podcast do not constitute medical advice. No state or federal authority licenses herbalists in the United States. So, these discussions are for educational purposes only. Everybody’s body is different. So the things that we’re talking about may or may not apply directly to you, but we hope that they’ll give you some good information to think about and research further.

Ryn (01:35):
And we just want to remind you that good health is your own personal responsibility. The final decision when you’re considering any course of therapy, whether it’s discussed on the internet or prescribed by your physician, is always yours.

Katja (01:46):

Ryn (01:47):
You have choices.

Katja (01:48):

Ryn (01:48):
Today your choices are let’s make some fancy cocktails that are herbal powered.

Katja (01:54):
Hey, you can also make fancy mock tails. So just to demonstrate, I have here a giant glass, well it’s actually a Mason jar because I’m an herbalist. And I don’t know, who needs glasses. We’ve got Mason jars. A Mason jar of watermelon, kombucha, fizzy water, and this amazing bitters blend from our friend Rebecca Altman that has Devil’s Club, Rose, Hawthorne, White Fir, and Vanilla. And it’s super good and it goes super good with watermelon. So,you can put, just because they’re called cocktail bitters, you can actually put them in anything. Sometimes you even just put them straight in water.

Ryn (02:35):
I do. Yeah. Especially like if I had some fizzy water, then I will take lots of herbal stuff and squirt it right in there. And that’s pretty tasty. I like it.

Katja (02:44):
Yeah. All right, well, so we’re going to talk about cocktail bitters and specifically about how to formulate them. So, if you’ve never made cocktail bitters before, there are step-by-step instructions and also up-close videos in the Herbal Medicine Making course in our online program. And you can find that at commonwealthherbs.com. And that will go through all of the steps. And just in case you haven’t done it before, it’s good to know, as we start out here, that cocktail bitters typically have three parts. So they’re going to have a tincture, part, a decoction part, and a sweetener part.

Ryn (03:31):
Yeah. The process itself is actually really simple. So you’re basically just going to make a tincture with your ingredients. And well first you’ve got to choose your ingredients, but that’s what this episode is all about. But so once you’ve got that, then you put them in a jar, you make a tincture, you pour on some alcohol, let it steep for a while. And then you’re going to like, once that’s done, you’re going to strain that out. And you’re going to take what we call the marc, or the leftover herb material. And we’re going to take that, separate it. And we’re going to put some water together with it and then cook it up for a little while in a little pot on the stove. And then we’re going to take that liquid, combine it with that tincture we made in the first round. And then we just add a little bit of a sweetener. Super condensed version of the bitters making process.

Katja (04:15):
Yes. Although the sweetener is optional.

Ryn (04:16):
It is actually.

Katja (04:17):
Like you don’t, you might taste the blend that you come up with and be like, this doesn’t even need a sweetener. But traditionally there would be some sweetened part that goes along with it.

Ryn (04:27):
For sure.

Katja (04:28):
So we also have in that online program, a whole course about formulation. But formulating bitters has a little bit of a special set of considerations for it. And so,we wanted to talk about that specifically.

Why Bitters?

Ryn (04:46):
Yeah. Well, so, you know, here’s a thing to start with is like why are people even bothering to put bitter, herbal stuff into their cocktails? Well, it’s unique. It’s a little bit different.

Katja (04:58):
They’re delicious.

Ryn (04:59):
You can use the whole tongue. I dunno. Okay. First of all, it’s not actually true that you have different areas on your tongue for tasting different flavors. All of your taste buds are multitaskers or multitalented.

Katja (05:13):

Ryn (05:13):
Yeah, there you go. But when you taste something that’s complex, it comes in layers, right? You’re like, Oh, sweet, Oh, sour. Oh, there’s a bitter under there. What’s going on? And that can be, you know, interesting. And with a cocktail culture, a lot of it is like, how can we take surprising flavors and put them together? Or how can we take something that’s new or that you haven’t experienced before? You know, that’s a lot of the draw.

Katja (05:39):
Yeah, and like make an interesting experience out of it. You know, it’s not just like the same old thing every day.

Ryn (05:45):
Yeah. But we could even go back before cocktail culture arose, and then was squashed by prohibition, and then arose again from the ashes. And we could note that people have been working with bitter plants before there were humans. Before there were modern homosapiens around.

Katja (06:03):
You know, and then in between, before there were humans and cocktail culture and prohibition, there was also…

Ryn (06:11):
A few things occurred.

Katja (06:11):
Right. There was also like an era of bitter beverages, bitter alcoholic beverages that served a similar function. They often were before a meal or immediately after a meal. I’m thinking of like Amaro and all kinds of different… Like Absinthe falls into this category. And Absinthe is not one thing. It’s a whole range of things. And then there’s like a range of things to which Jagermeister belongs.

Ryn (06:42):
Yeah. You know, digestive or digestif you know, these kind of things.

Katja (06:47):
Yeah, or aperitif.

Ryn (06:47):
Take it before or after the meal. It’s usually bitter. Oftentimes some pungency or some aromaticity, or whatever other flavors going on. But with that intention that this is to help you digest.

Katja (06:57):
Yeah. To digest and also because so many of the traditional ones also had aromatic herbs in them as well. Whether or not it was intended in the formula to be this way, that does also have a respiratory supportive action as well. And in many cases, a circulatory health supportive action as well. Even if they were intentionally formulating to stimulate digestive function, it’s not like those other herbs are saying like, Oh, well you only want me for my digestive goodness. So I’m just not going to do any of that other stuff that I know how to do. You know?

Ryn (07:35):
Yeah. So bitter things are good for humans and this is a great way to enjoy them. So, yeah.

Which Herbs to Work With: Actions vs. Flavors

Katja (07:45):
Well, so I guess the first thing to decide is formulating for bitters is sort of a chicken and the egg kind of process. So I was going to say a cyclic process and that’s true. But it’s like first you have to decide what herbs you want to work with and then you have to decide what herbs you want to work with, right? Like there’s sort of round thing there.

Ryn (08:07):
Yeah. There’s some like parallel processing that happens occasionally. If you realize that this herb is fitting all of the needs you have.

Katja (08:14):
Yeah. Alright. So the first set of choices that you have are, are you going to blend purely based on flavor or are you going to blend with a specific medicinal action in mind? Now, whichever one of those you choose, you’re still doing the other one, right? If you’re blending only on flavor, it’s still going to ultimately end up with a medicinal action. And if you’re blending only with the medicinal action in mind, this is not a medicinal tincture and you don’t care how it tastes. This is a cocktail bitter. It’s meant to be delightful. So ultimately you’re still going to care how it tastes. You’re still going to be blending for flavor.

Ryn (08:52):
Yeah. So they’re like intertwined.

Katja (08:54):
Yeah. But you can kind of choose one of those as your starting point.

Ryn (09:00):
Okay. Well, so maybe you start with thinking about the medicinal action, right? And maybe you say, all right, I want something that’s going to help this person relax and put the day behind them after work. And if that’s true, then you’re going to probably choose a few herbs that can help you to do that. They might be better and bonus if they are. But as far as we are at right now, they don’t necessarily have to be.

Katja (09:23):
Yeah. I’m thinking about one example, and this was a blend that we did with the Kindred folks. It was based on Chamomile and Blue Vervain. So Chamomile is relaxing both to the nervous system, but also to like tense muscles.

Ryn (09:41):
Or tense guts.

Katja (09:41):
Yes. And tense guts too. Which, you know, have you ever been at work and had like one of those days and like all of your guts are just “grrrr.” Yeah, nobody can eat that way. I mean you can put the food in your mouth.

Ryn (09:55):
Yeah, but you’re not digesting it very well under that circumstance anyway. Yeah. And then Blue Vervain is really fantastic for this kind of thing in particular. It helps you to let go of things that you’re like holding on really tightly and just trying to control it so I can feel comfortable.

Katja (10:13):
Which does not make you comfortable.

Ryn (10:13):
Right. So yeah. So Blue Vervain helps you to let that go, step back a little bit.

Katja (10:22):
So, another option we could go with, and these will be nice because they will diverge in how we handle them. Another option we could consider would be like Wood Betony and Skullcap, where Wood Betony is helping you to get centered in your body and is really helpful if you have been in the computer all day long. Like just doing a lot of really abstract thinky work all day long. And now you’re done with that, but you’re really still stuck up there. Wood Betony can just help resolve those issues. And then Skullcap is lovely to help you get rid of the hamster wheel. You know, like, it’s funny that like people would make that symbol of the spinning by their head. It used to mean that you’re crazy. But it’s also just like a hamster wheel and it’s like, Oh, when the hamster wheel is spinning too much, maybe you are a little crazy.

Ryn (11:19):
Yeah. You’re feeling not entirely the way you’d like to be. Yeah. So Skullcap, it does help you to step off of the hamster wheel, right? To put down the circular thoughts. All right. Just to let them go. Yeah. And then it also does help release some tension in your neck and your shoulders. You know, that’s a thing Skullcap can do. Yeah. So you know, whether it’s Chamomile and Vervain or Betony and Skullcap, we’re starting here from the idea of what is the action we’re looking for, right. What are the virtues of these plants medicinally?

Katja (11:57):
Right. And at this point, we haven’t even thought about what they taste like. We’re just thinking about these are the actions that I want and the specific herbs that I would like to work with to get those actions. So now we’re going to need to come up with some flavors to go around that. But we’re going to do that in just a minute. Because I want to think about the other option. Because sometimes you start off just with a flavor, like I love Mugwort. And you know, I’m like, I just want Mugwort everything. And so today I want to make a Mugwort cocktail bitter and maybe you don’t have any motivation other than that. You just love the flavor of Mugwort and you think that the coolest thing on the planet would be a Mugwort based cocktail bitter. Presto. That is an awesome reason to make a bitter.

Ryn (12:48):
Absolutely. Yeah. Or you know, I made a bitters blend on based on Tulsi awhile back, because it’s Tulsi, right. And that’s pretty fantastic. Sothat was the idea was to make it based around that flavor. And also to make sure that as we went through the formulation process, we didn’t obscure the individuality of the Tulsi.

Katja (13:09):
Yeah. And that’s the real goal. And formulating cocktail bitters can be a lifetime of artistic experience, right. Because that is ultimately the goal is how do I craft a symphony of flavors, where every flavor is contributing to the whole, but also every flavor has a solo moment. There’s like a little moment where you can hear each one of them or taste each one of them, but also you taste them or experience them as their whole togetherness.

A Thought Experiment: Cooling & Warming Bitters

Ryn (13:52):
Yeah. So, whichever way you start, the next thing to think about is going to be how can I achieve that? Right? How can I blend other flavors in there that are going to work together and just get you something really interesting. So to get you started on that process, we want to have a little thought experiment.

Katja (14:15):
Yes. And this can also be an actual experiment as well. So think about a bitter flavor of something that is like Gentian or Artichoke Leaf or Blue Vervain or Ryn’s favorite Centaury.

Ryn (14:33):
Centaury, yeah.

Katja (14:33):
Now if you have these at home, this doesn’t have to be a thought experiment for you. You can just taste them. But if you have ever had any of theseand you can’t just stop everything and go taste some tinctures right now or some tea, that’s okay. Just call that flavor to mind. These are very cooling bitters. In fact, actually these are all cold bitters. They’re like strongly cooling bitters. And what I mean by that is well I actually do mean cooling specifically. But the way that that kind of cashes out is that the bitter flavor is very simple. It is straight just bitter. There’s not really anything else going on. There’s not like other flavors happening. It is just the bitter and that kind of bitter flavor is often hard for people. Like when they taste it, they’re like, Whoa, this is really bitter. You know, because it’s just bitter. And that amount of bitter can, for some people, even feel a little bit overwhelming. Because there’s no other flavors to like compete with just the straight bitterness. So it’s like all bitter all the time. All over your tongue.

Ryn (15:55):
Yeah. So imagine that or experience that. And then contrast it with the flavor of something like Angelica root or Elecampane or Calamus where these are all what we’d consider to be warming bitters. So they have that fundamental bitterness to them. And if that was the only flavor they had, then the experience would be one that’s like cooling in nature. But they have other constituents present. And so they bring in some pungency and some heat and some blood movement and activation. And so those together in the same plant here are giving the taste of it much more complexity and some depth. And this is even before you start to blend it with other things.

Katja (16:34):
Yeah. Now, if those are herbs that you’re not familiar with, and it’s sort of hard for you to imagine, then another way that you could think of it is imagine if you had a bitter flavor that was just straight up bitter, and then you added ginger to it or you added hot peppers like cayenne to it. Now you would have hot plus bitter and it is a different experience. Yes.

Ryn (17:01):
Yeah. Or another example I guess could be, you know, if you take, say you can do with this with Rosemary. If you take Rosemary and you steep it for a really long time, then the bitter becomes more obvious.

Katja (17:14):
Sage will do that too.

Ryn (17:15):
Yeah, it was always there, but it’s just that if you do a short steep, not as much of the bitterness is going to come out into your tea or whatever. You can actually detect this with a tincture as well. So like if you take a short hot infusion of Sage or Rosemary and compare that to a tincture of the same plant, the tincture, it’s got those aromatics, they’re like rising up, but there is something that stays and remains there and it has that bitter note to it.

Ryn (17:40):
So yeah, a lot of plants will have some of that complexity. But the way that you prepare them or the way you work with them can really shape what is brought forward. So going back to the examples that we started with. We were talking about a couple of different base blends, right? One starting with Chamomile and Blue Vervain. So let’s walk back to that and think about it a little more.

Chamomile & Blue Vervain

Katja (18:03):
Well so if we start with Chamomile that is a plant that you are likely familiar with. It has a lovely floral flavor, but it also has really quite a bit of bitter to it. So you may not have tasted the bitter in Chamomile because maybe you’ve only ever had Chamomile tea that is just steeped for a couple of minutes and it’s sort of yellow. And you drink it and it just tastes like the flowers and it’s lovely and wonderful. But if you let that seep really strong, so if you’re making it from tea bags, put in more than one teabag. And then let it steep for like 30 minutes until it turns tea color, until it’s like dark brown. And now you taste it. It’s still Chamomile and the flowers are still there. But now there is also a pretty significant bitter factor. And Chamomile is also just a smidge on the warm side. Which also you don’t taste it so much like you would with Ginger, which is really, really on the warm side. But it is enough to kind of add a little complexity. So you have the flowery tastes, but you also have this bitter taste. And then you also have like, not a little heat to go along with it. But just a smidge of warmth to go along with it.

Ryn (19:31):
Yeah. A little movement.

Katja (19:33):
Just a little cuddle.

Ryn (19:35):
There you go.

Katja (19:35):
It’s not like a whole electric blanket. It’s just like a little cuddle.

Ryn (19:39):
Yeah. A mouse that you put in your pocket.

Katja (19:41):
Nice little warm…

Ryn (19:41):
Just next to your heart. Yeah. Blue Vervain on the other hand is one of the simple bitters. It’s really bitter. And that’s worth knowing because that also is going to play into your proportions. Right? You don’t need a lot of Blue Vervain to get that bitterness into your formula.

Katja (20:06):
And you know, it just popped into my head. I think we’re gonna talk about this in a minute also, but it’s important. So I want to say it twice, that a little goes a long way. And you might start to make your bitter. And then you might have accidentally put in too much. And then you might be like, it’s ruined. It’s not ruined. It’s totally not ruined. You just need to add more. Like, add more Chamomile. Add a little more alcohol. Add a little extra water. Add a little whatever. This is a place for a lot of experimentation. And if you get something and you don’t love it, then cut it with something else, or put in some kind of stronger flavor, which we’re going to talk about also. And I guess I’m kind of jumping ahead a little bit, but I really want to get across that experimentation is okay and super, super good. And since already there was kind of a little opening to say that, I figured to just get it right in here right now. Yeah.

Ryn (21:10):
All right. So so far with Chamomile and Blue Vervain together we’ve got the bitter covered, right? We don’t necessarily need to add other bittering agents but we probably do want to get some other flavors in there to make it a little more interesting. A little more layered.

Katja (21:24):
Yeah. In the blend we did with Kindred we used dried orange peel. Now you can use dry orange peel or you can use fresh orange peel, but they are a little bit different. The dried orange peel is going to emphasize a little bit more the bitter flavor that is inherent in the orange peel. And the sour is still going to be there, but it’s not going to be as prominent. The bitter will be slightly more prominent and and some bit of an earthy kind of flavor is also in there that I’ve yet to find a good descriptive word for.

Ryn (22:02):
Yeah. As we’re saying when we’ve made these, we’ve done it with the actual whole orange peel, so not orange zest where you’d use that thing and just scrape off the orange part of the peel. But we are including the cortex or the white part on the inside of the peel as well, for a couple of reasons. Some of them are medicinal action because that’s where a lot of the more high powered antioxidants are actually carried in the orange. But also for flavor reasons, because that cortex is also where some bitter flavor comes out of the orange peel itself. So if you’ve never just bitten directly into an orange straight through, you may not have known that the peel carries that bitterness to it. But it is present there. So yeah.

Katja (22:45):
Now if you put in fresh orange peel instead, which you totally can do, then you’ll get a lot more of the sour aspect and less of the bitter aspect. Even if you’re using the same whole peel, just the freshness, it just carries more of the sour into your finished product than the dry does. And in this particular case, I really wanted to go with the dried because I wanted to just keep rounding out the bitter flavor to bring as much complexity to the bitter part itself. And so we had sort of this floral, bitter part and then this really cold, bitter part. This like very piercing bitter part over here. And then this other bitter part that kind of has like an earthy aspect to it.

Ryn (23:33):
And some aromatics.

Katja (23:34):
Yeah. And so the more complexity we can get in the part of the flavor, that is the bitter, then the more interesting your overall product is. Yeah.

Ryn (23:45):
Citrus of all kinds is kind of your secret weapon when you’re formulating your bitters blends. There’s a reason that citrus based cocktail bitters are among the most popular and the most common. And it’s because the taste of the citrus, the sourness, the aromatic elements of it, its own contribution to the bitter complex, they really do make those pure bitters much more palatable. And this is an old Physiomedic’s technique of getting people to take their medicine, is to put some citrus in there.

Katja (24:21):
Yeah, exactly.

Ryn (24:23):
Yeah. And it can be any kind of citrus. Right. So we’ve worked with orange. I think at the restaurant we were working with a bunch of lemon peels.

Katja (24:30):
One had orange, one had lemon Another one that we did, which was a Mugwort and other things blend. But that one had Hawthorne in it to get that sourness.

Ryn (24:42):
Right. Yeah. So, that’s not a citrus, but it’s a sour herb. So feel free to experiment with other sour herbs too. Right? Think about Hibiscus, Rose Hips.

Katja (24:50):
Okay. Oh Ginger, right. That was the other thing that we added to this blend was some ginger, just to heat it up a little bit. And what we did was we actually made two separate jars. So one jar had sliced up fresh ginger, right in the tincture part, the alcohol part that we were setting up. So the Chamomile, the Blue Vervain, the dried orange peels, and then the sliced fresh ginger went right into it. The other one did not have any fresh ginger in it. And instead we infused a bunch of fresh ginger into honey. And so they’re both going to get some honey added to as their sweet part, and both of them will get the ginger infused honey. But what’s going to happen is that the one that has some fresh ginger in it is going to really have a lot more heat to it because the alcohol is gonna pull out a lot of those heating constituents in the ginger and pull them out very strongly. So that one is going to be a much more fiery, bitter. Whereas the one that does not have the ginger right there in the tincture part, and is only going to get that added through the sweet part, is going to be like, Ooh. And a bit of ginger on the side, you know? And both of those can be good. It really just depends on what you are looking for in a flavor, and what your end result is going to be too. Because sometimes you really want like, Hoo boy! That’s some gingery goodness right there. And sometimes you don’t want that much. Sometimes you just went Ooh, and a hint of ginger.

Ryn (26:42):
That’s right.

Katja (26:42):
Those are the technical measurement.

Experiment to Start

Ryn (26:44):
Yeah. I mean ask anybody. So you should be getting the sense by now that when you’re making your own formulas here, you’re going to need to experiment. We had written to ourselves, you’re going to need to experiment a little, but actually you’re getting to experiment a lot. Yeah. So how to experiment. First of all, start with small batches, right? Do not make yourself a gallon of your first ever cocktail bitters blend.

Katja (27:06):
No. Like use the little jam jars, the little tiny short ones.

Ryn (27:13):
They’re like four ounces.

Katja (27:13):
Yeah. Because cocktail bitters go a long way anyway. And so if you are experimenting with just like a tiny little jar, then you’re not using up all of your resources to make large batches of something that actually in the end didn’t turn out the way that you wanted it to. So that’s better. And of course, if you do have a batch that doesn’t come out the way that you want it to, I mean, it’s not wasted. Anything that’s bitter is still going to be appropriate as a digestive aid. So maybe in the end you don’t end up putting it into a fancy cocktail. Maybe you just take it as a digestive bitter right before a meal, just as if it’s a regular tincture. That’s fine. So nothing is going to get wasted. But until you’re really solid on, Oh yes, this is a bitter formula that I have come up with and I love it, don’t make a big jar of it.

Ryn (28:08):
Yeah. Right. And you know how do you know if you love it? Well you’;ve got to taste it on its own. But you’re also gonna want to taste it in its natural context, right?

Katja (28:18):
It’s natural habitat?

Ryn (28:18):
Yeah. So maybe you make up a nice little Manhattan or an old fashioned or any other kind of cocktail that you like and that you want to add some of your own homemade bitters to. And put them in there and see how it comes out. You know, it may be that it tastes really great on its own, but when you put it into that cocktail you’re like, ah, it’s missing something. Let’s go back and add a little bit. Right. So definitely try it out that way. But Hey, we have another great idea for you and your experiment phase. Long before you get to that point, before you’ve even made the actual batch of the cocktail bitter itself, take your ingredients in the proportions that you have in mind and make a tea. And see how that comes out.

Katja (28:55):
Yeah. Because water is way cheaper than alcohol. And also even before you start formulating, the way that you’re going to get really good at this is that you have to know the flavors. If you’re cooking, let’s see, you’re making chili and you’re tasting it and you’re like, Hmm, no, it needs more Cumin. Or you’re tasting it and you’re like, we need more Cayenne in this. Like it’s just not hot enough yet that, that sort of gut knowledge, or I guess it’s tongue knowledge, but that knowledge comes from a deep familiarity with the flavors that you’re working with and what the result is that you’re trying to get. And in order to build that kind of a familiarity with the herbal flavors, it’s super important to taste them all by themselves. So the cheapest way to do that is to get a little bit of the herb you’re thinking about working with, and make some tea with it, and drink it, and don’t sweeten it. Don’t put anything else in it. And I was even talking to the staff at Kindred and saying like, you guys should get a notebook and just keep it at the bar, because the whole team is working on this together. And so every time that you get together and you taste different herbs, keep some notes about it. And that’s a way that everybody can share the information too.

Ryn (30:22):
Yeah. In part because things are going to taste differently to different people. And I don’t just mean good or bad, but so start with an extreme example. Cilantro. Cilantro to some people tastes great and they just want to have that in all their tacos. And other people are like, please don’t ever put that near me. I don’t want to smell it. I don’t want to think about it.

Katja (30:46):
It tastes like soap, they say, or whatever.

Ryn (30:48):
Yeah. And so with that one, you know like people have studied it a bunch and identified some genetic variants that give you the soapy Cilantro flavor and whatever. But like we said, that’s an extreme example. And this is true for lots and lots of things, that an herb or a combination of herbs is going to taste differently to one person than another. And so you want to offer your concoction to several different humans and see how they like it.

Katja (31:14):
Um hmm. You guys might remember, I don’t love Nettles and most herbalists are like, what are you talking about? You don’t like Nettles? No, I don’t. So yeah, everybody’s different.

Ryn (31:27):
Yeah, for sure.

Katja (31:29):
Every body is different.

Ryn (31:30):
That’s the one, yeah. You got to get that emphasis on the right syllable.

Katja (31:34):
Yes. All right. So anyway, making a tea wit the herbs that you want to work with. It’s just a really like cost effective way to do a little bit of experimentation before you start like investing in some alcohol and stuff like that.

Betony & Skullcap

Ryn (31:55):
Okay. So let’s come back to that other idea we had based on the Betony and the Skullcap. So you know, both of these, like, yes, all right, they have some bitterness to them. But it’s pretty mild.

Katja (32:05):
Especially the Betony. Betony is super mild. It’s like practically not bitter at all.

Ryn (32:11):
Right. And Skullcap. It has a little more bitterness than that, and it’s on the cool side and all of that. But it’s not like this is my bittering agent, you know. It’s not going to do that job.

Katja (32:20):
It’s much more grassy than… like green flavored than bitter. I mean, the bitter is there, but the grass is bigger, I think, in the flavor.

Ryn (32:31):
So, you know, for this, for this to work, we’re going to need to find a bittering agent and put that in there. And we have lots of options. You know, like you were saying, the kind of classic ones are going to involve things like Gentian or Centaury is in that same family. A lot of people will work with Cinchona bark. There, there are a number of, you know, or Quassia.

Katja (32:53):
Yeah. Actually for this one I was thinking about was Centaury, which might surprise you.

Ryn (32:59):
No, it delights me.

Katja (32:59):
Because I’m not usually a huge fan of Centaury. Just because all by itself it’s really intense. It’s one of those super cold bitters and one of those really intense bitters. But I do think it could be lovely here. And honestly, even though we had Blue Vervain in the previous example, I think just a smidge of Blue Vervain wouldn’t be bad in this either.

Ryn (33:24):
You’re thinking about the the medicinal activity of it all pointing in the same direction.

Katja (33:29):
I am. Yeah, I’m just thinking like the flavor profile between Centaury and Vervain. They’re not the same, but they’re similar. And and so you’ll get like a little bit of a broader spectrum of the bitter flavor if you include both of them. But I think that just a smidge of Vervain could be lovely since with this one we were really trying to go with that kind of an action.

Ryn (33:56):
Yeah. Okay.

Katja (33:58):
And I have a sour idea too.

Ryn (34:00):
Yeah. What’s that?

Katja (34:01):
Yeah. Can you guess?

Ryn (34:05):
No, tell me what it is.

Katja (34:06):
I was going to go with Hawthorn actually. Because you know, thinking about this. And we’re thinking about somebody who’s had a hard day at work or who’s feeling a lot of stress. And a lot of times that’s something that’s maybe heavy on the heart. Plus if you are feeling stressed out, or you’ve been sitting at your desk for a long time, neither one of those things is great for your circulatory system. So we do get a little bonus cardiovascular aspect. It’s going to be little, but whatever, it’s still good. And it can contribute that sour action with a little bit of a nudge in that direction of like, Oh, and I’ll just hold your heart here for you too, you know?

Ryn (34:56):
Yeah, that’s pretty lovely. I’m wondering if we should get something aromatic into the mixture as well.

Katja (35:03):
I think so because so far we’ve got like some bland grass flavor. And we’ve got some really cold, bitter flavor, and like a little sour. So this is not delicious yet.

Ryn (35:21):
Yeah. Well I’ve been wondering if, nope I’m gonna save that for the next one. You know what actually would work here would be Tulsi.

Katja (35:31):
Oh. Oh my goodness. You’re so right.

Ryn (35:34):
We can get some lovely Tulsi into there.

Katja (35:34):
I love this idea. See this one we didn’t write out ahead of time. I was like, Ooh, let’s brainstorm it together so that I can be excited with the fun things you come up with. And I love Tulsi here. Let’s put a big part of Tulsi, so that we really get a lot of that aromatic action. But it’s perfect because now we also have the work of Tulsi, which is to like, now that we’ve relaxed you out of your head, we want to then lift you up. But lift you up in your happy good emotions side as opposed to like… Oh, it’s like one of those sound mixing boards where you bring some levels down and bring some levels up to make it sound just right. It’s like that. It’s like we’re bringing some levels down, those stress levels. But we’re bringing some other levels up. Those happy like feeling good mood boosting levels to get everything just right. I love this idea.

Ryn (36:31):
Yeah. I think that’ll work. Cool. Okay. So now we’ve got an ingredients list and remember, we’re going to experiment, but some guidelines, you know, start with for this blend, we’re probably gonna want equal sized parts of the Betony, the Skullcap. Lesser sized parts of the Centaury and Vervain.

Katja (36:51):
Like maybe a half part of Centaury and a half part of Vervain maybe.

Ryn (36:56):
Yeah. That should be enough to really get the bitter end, but not too much so that it’s overwhelming. And then probably double sized parts of the Hawthorn and Tulsi.

Katja (37:04):
I think so too. Oh, I’m excited. I wanna make that like right as soon as we’re done.

Ryn (37:10):
Yeah, we should try it.

Mugwort & Motherwort

Katja (37:10):

Ryn (37:12):
All right, cool. Well, let’s also try one more example extemporaneously based around Mugwort. And I think that both of us have been reevaluating our relationship to Mugwort since we grew a whole bunch and harvested it fresh and dried it ourselves really carefully to preserve as much of the aromatic elements as possible.

Katja (37:31):
Yeah. I had really gotten on board the Mugwort train. And then we grew a bunch and I was like, I need to be a lifelong member of the Mugwort train. Like premier gold, whatever. I can’t even tell you. I love Mugwort.

Ryn (37:51):
So let’s see. So Mugwort, all right, it’s going to have those aromatic elements. It has a strong bitterness to it. It’s not that intense.

Katja (38:00):
No, because really, it is in itself balanced nicely by its aromatics. Like the aromatics really stand up to the bitter already. So like you could actually just have Mugwort and nothing else and you would already have a complex. But every herb is its own formula already. Herbs are so complex. But we want to do something even more interesting.

Ryn (38:26):
Yeah. So I think that we can deepen that bitterness with some Motherwort.

Katja (38:32):
I like that idea.

Ryn (38:33):
And Mugwort and Motherwort often come together in my mind, not just because they’re worty. But because this combination, we’ve actually found really effective in medicinal contexts pretty frequently, especially around sleep and difficulty sleeping through the night. Difficulty settling down and passing into sleep.

Katja (38:56):
I’m reminded of that first time you gave me a bottle of Mugwort and Motherwort and you were like, let’s try this. It was when I was really having a lot of trouble sleeping through the night and waking up a lot. And it was so effective and I was like, Oh my God, where’s this been all my life? I just never myself had put those two together and whatever. It’s hard to formulate for yourself sometimes because you’re kind of so overwhelmed with how you’re feeling and how that’s uncomfortable, that it’s not always easy to think. Whereas when you’re formulating for someone else, you’re not feeling their discomfort. So it’s a lot easier for you to feel creativity. And whatever it was, it was the perfect blend at the perfect time. It was what I needed. I like those two together here.

Ryn (39:44):
So my next thought is maybe we should warm it up a little bit too.

Katja (39:48):
Yes. Well it would have been fine on the warm side until we added the Motherwort and that’s now going to push it cold. The aromatics can stand up to the bitter of the Mugwort, but it can’t stand up to the bitter of both of them.

Ryn (40:03):
So we could put Ginger in there. We could go with Cinnamon. There are other options. I’m kinda hooked, I’ve got a little hook in my brain about, about Anise or Star Anise right now, but I know that it’s not one of your favorites.

Katja (40:15):
It’s not, but you know what, you put a bunch of Star Anise in one of the blends we did at Kindred this week. And when I tasted that, I did really like it. I was really surprised. I was like, I’m not going to like this one. This was one of the ones that we had made ahead of time to take to show them. And I was like, Oh, I’m not going to like that one. But I really did actually like it. So I think that’s worth trying. And you know, what else? Why don’t we put some Cardamom in with it? Because Cardamom will, like, if you’re a person who you’re not entirely certain about the Anise flavor, Cardamom together with Anise does really like push it into the nice part of Anise.

Ryn (41:06):
Yeah. Even more so if you get a little Fennel in there too, I think.

Katja (41:10):
I’d be willing to try Fennel in this blend. Mugwort, Motherwort, Anise, Cardamom, Fennel. And like those three are not going to be as big.

Ryn (41:20):
Right? Yeah. And oftentimes when you’re making a bitter mix, your spices are going to be in there but not a lot. You know, you’ll see recipes where you’re going to make like three cups of finished bitter blend. And it’s going to have like half a teaspoon of black peppercorns or fennel seed or Anise seed or whatever else in there. So it is often pretty small amounts, right. So again, start small.

Katja (41:47):
Okay. So I was thinking, well boy, maybe this needs some orange peel. And then I was thinking, Oh, how about not citrus. And when I’m looking for something in that citrus place, but I am like, no, I’m not putting citrus in another thing, which I have to do on principle sometimes because I really like citrus. Sometimes I think about Pine actually, because like if you’ve ever let White Pine steep for a long time, this isn’t true of Cedar, it’s really Pine that does this. If you let White Pine steep for a long time, like just leave it in there until tomorrow and drink it tomorrow. Like let it steep for like 24 hours.

Ryn (42:35):

Katja (42:35):
Yes. Covered. But or in other words, just make a batch, keep it covered, but don’t drink the whole thing in the first day. And then tomorrow you’re like, Oh, I better drink that leftover tea. Okay. That’s what we’re doing here. When you do that, at least for me, it has a lemony aspect to it. Sure. It is not 100% lemon, but there is a similarity to citrus in it that really does come through. So I think it would be really interesting to put Pine in this.

Ryn (43:20):
Yeah. And you know, we could, if we wanted to, we could drive in that lemony direction a little bit with any of our lemon prefixed herbs like Lemon Balm, Lemon Grass, Lemon Verbena. I know I’m missing some.

Katja (43:36):
There is a Lemon Thyme, but that might be weird or it might be awesome.

Ryn (43:41):
We could make that work.

Katja (43:43):
Maybe without the Anise and the Cardamom if we were going to put Lemon Thyme in there. Yeah.

Ryn (43:46):
Yeah, I think that would be the way to go. But yeah, I mean, and all of these,herbs, they’re, named in that way because people smelled them and said, that smells like Lemon. And you know, on that photochemical level, what’s going on is that they all figured out how to make limonene. And they were like, Hey, this is handy. This is useful for me. I’m going to make a bunch of it. And then we came along and said, Oh, I smell you. I Know what you’re up to. Yeah.

Katja (44:10):
You know, and that’s a thing. Plants make things just like we make things. Like we make hair, you know, like humans make hair. We’re like, Hey, that would be a handy thing to have on my head so that I don’t get cold.

Ryn (44:26):
We make, we make hemoglobin to carry iron, iron around and well, oxygen.

Katja (44:31):
Yeah. We make antibodies, because we’re like, Oh, that would be a handy thing to fight off whatever. So like when we talk about the constituents in plants, it’s important to recognize that it’s like hair and fingernails and appendices and like all these other things. They’re making it because it serves a purpose that they need for a job that they need to do. And always to remember that really helps. I was talking about this with one of our students who had a question about quorum sensing inhibitor herbs and why they’re more effective than pharmaceutical quorum sensing inhibitors because they’re more broad spectrum and whatever. And anyway, that would be a total tangent, not to go down at this moment. And we were talking about how the reason is because those agents, those chemicals, the phytochemicals that are doing that job, that quorum sensing inhibitor job, or that biofilm busting job, are something that the plant makes in order to protect itself from pathogens. Just like we make antibodies to protect ourselves from pathogens and they’re like custom created. They’re not there by accident. You know, like hair is not on our head by accident. It serves a need, which is my head gets cold.

Bitters Formulation Summary

Ryn (45:54):
Right. Cool. All right, well, so to sum up here, what we’re seeing is that we need to have some kind of bitter that’s strong enough to make an impression, even though we’re going to add just a tiny amount to an actual cocktail. You know, when you work with cocktail bitters, you are often you know, putting them into the cocktail itself by the dash, or the squirt if you’re using a dropper top,

Katja (46:17):
Right. So it has to be enough bitter that one squirt of it in a cocktail will still give you enough of the flavor that you can taste it. Yeah.

Ryn (46:29):
And so to that then we’re going to add something interesting that might be something warm or spicy or aromatic or sour or you know, whatever. Whatever seems like it goes.

Katja (46:40):
And then last we are going to think about balancing out the flavors so that they all play nice. And they don’t compete with each other so that they don’t cover over the flavors of the other herbs. So if you’re going to add Ginger to your mix, that’s fantastic, but you don’t want so much ginger that you can’t taste the other plants who are in there anymore. You want to finagle the proportions so that you have a really nice balance, but also you can really taste everyone in the mix.

Ryn (47:17):
Yeah. That’s how you do it.

Katja (47:19):
And you really only get there by experimenting. Like there’s no way to say ahead of time, I know exactly what proportions I’m going to use and it’s going to be right the first time. Okay, well ahead of time you might be able to say, I better not put in too much Ginger because that would overwhelm it, but you won’t necessarily know if not too much was actually enough or oops, not too much wasn’t, not too much enough. You know, so that’s where the experimentation comes in. And by the way, that’s why the whole thing around cocktail bitters are such a big deal. Because not everybody gets it. Right. Like you have to put in the work of experimenting. And that’s why you go and you buy them and they’re fancy and they’re also not exactly cheap because it’s a whole process.

Ryn (48:09):
Yeah, but you can absolutely do this on your own. Just try, experiment a little bit and be willing to fail. Be willing to turn your failures into successes by, like you were saying, adding this, taking away that. You can absolutely do this.

Katja (48:21):
Yeah. It’s not that, it’s not that the process is complicated. It’s that you have to put in the time and the interest and not everybody does that, or that’s just not everybody’s thing.

Ryn (48:34):
They’re doing other things of interest.

Katja (48:36):
Right. It’s not that it’s so complicated that you can’t do it. It’s just that it’s like, okay, it’s just going to take me a minute of experimentation and that has to seem delightful. I wanted to say one other thing here, which I maybe should have said right from the start, is that if you don’t work with alcohol, you can make a shrub instead of a cocktail bitter. And a shrub is all of the same formulation ideas, but in apple cider vinegar instead. And this was super popular during prohibition in the United States. That instead of cocktails, they would make what was called shrubs, and it was like fizzy water and the, and herb-infused vinegars, and maybe some kind of juice or something. And so, all of the stuff that we just said could totally be done in vinegar, totally nonalcoholic, and still be really fun and delicious.

Ryn (49:32):
Yeah, for sure. Cool. All right, well let’s wrap it up with some shout outs. So this week well we’ve got to lead off with a shout out to Charlotte, Amy and the whole crew over at Kindred. If you live in New York City or going to visit, then you definitely want to visit them.

Katja (49:47):
Yes, they’re in the East village. It’s not hard to find. I did it. So I can tell you it’s not hard to find.

Ryn (49:57):
And we have a shout out to hemptoit who apparently discovered Tulsi thanks to our pod. I feel like we have done some good in the world. If we can introduce one person to Tulsi that’s something. And we know this because hemptoit left us a review on Apple podcasts about it. Thank you so much. That does help people find us. I know that literally every podcast you listen to says this at some point. Please like and rate and review because it helps other people find it. It’s cause it’s true. It’s just true. If you do that then thank you. We really appreciate it.

Katja (50:28):
Also to susanjmack on Instagram who found the pod and then wrote to us to say she loves it and we’re so excited

Ryn (50:35):
And that made us feel good. So thank you for writing. And we have another Instagram shout out to cyclicbeings who made the Cacao, Cinnamon and Cayenne infused wine from a couple episodes back. I hope it was delightful for you.

Katja (50:51):
And also a shout out to Vanessa who is also a harp player, and noticed that I was posting on social media about starting to learn to play Irish harp. And said that she got really inspired to go ahead and take the plunge and start taking some lessons as well. And I was so excited because we’re herby harpies together, harpy herbies together. That’s probably a very small niche, but if there are any other herby harpists out there then let me know because maybe we have a whole new special kind of club we could start.

Ryn (51:34):
There you go. Sounds good. All right, well that’s it for us this week. We’ll be back next time with a little more Holistic Herbalism podcast for you. In the meantime, take care of yourselves. Take care of each other, drink some tea.

Katja (51:43):
Or have an herbal cocktail, bitter-infused beverage.

Ryn (51:48):
There you go. And that’s it. Bye.


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