There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, Essay 26 of #52essays2017, With Recipes!

Ophelia, 1894.Ophelia, as her wits unwind, uses the language of flowers to express what her modesty as a young maid won’t let her say directly. She says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember,” to her brother Laertes, perhaps as a stand-in for the lost Hamlet.

Rosemary has long been renowned for its stimulating effects on the brain, and modern science seems to be catching on. I remember well a roommate in Santa Cruz who burned rosemary sprigs to keep her awake. I did not like that roommate much–she was too cocky by halves–but she was the first to try to teach me the language of flowers, a lesson I’m now happy to learn.

Speaking of The Language of Flowers, a gritty and lovely novel by Vanessa Diffenbaugh with that title features a bouquet of flowers that includes rosemary–one of the hero’s first personalized creations:

“She watched me work, arranging the white lilac around the roses until the red was no longer visible. I wound sprigs of rosemary—which I had learned at the library could mean commitment as well as remembrance—around the stems like a ribbon. The rosemary was young and supple, and did not break when I tied it in a knot. I added a white ribbon for support and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper.”

“‘First emotions of love, true love, and commitment,'” says Victoria to her customer, who will indeed find that elusive state of being.


Rosemary’s name comes from the Latin “dew of the sea” because it thrives in the salty air of the Mediterranean. “I will never forget the first time I saw it growing wild in the Calanques of Marseille,” writes Cathy Skipper in her Hydrosols Certificate Course, “right next to the sea. It was so majestic, strong and wild, being blown by the salty wind, its hard, gnarled roots holding on to the sand and rocks, and this is when I really understood its name.”

In case you’ve only seen rosemary in a grocery store, here’s a description of the plant from Wanda Sellar’s The Directory of Essential Oils: “The woody stem grows to about three feet and supports dark green linear leaves and bees go wild for the bluish/ lilac flowers.” Rosmarinus officinalis has long been regarded as a healing and holy herb. Sellar writes, “Traces of Rosemary have been found in Egyptian tombs, and indeed the Greeks and Romans saw it as a symbol of regeneration as well. They held it to be a sacred plant, giving comfort to the living and peace to the dead.”

In fact, the practice of burning Rosemary in French hospital wards persisted through the 19th century, “ironically being abandoned at about the same time that modern research proved its antiseptic properties,” writes Patricia Davis in her Aromatherapy A-Z. She continues, “Because of its strong antiseptic action, rosemary can delay or prevent putrefaction in meat, but we shall never know whether it was first used in cooking for the flavor or to preserve meat in distant times, when there was no refrigeration or other means of keeping cooked meat fresh in a hot climate.” In other words, look no further for an explanation of the ubiquitous rosemary chicken. As with all the traditional culinary herbs, rosemary’s use-value extends beyond flavoring.

I recently purchased a rosemary hydrosol from Aromatics International and a splash tastes delicious with my vodka, but that is always the test with me isn’t it? Indeed, flavoring my vodka, and water, with natural substances is a bit of an obsession, and it really helps to reprogram the taste buds from decades of fake flavors. It worries me sometimes that the same artificial flavors used to make “watermelon” and “green apple” Jolly Ranchers also flavor vodka–it should be illegal–gone the way of candy cigarettes!

Many essential oils, such as orange, lemon, peppermint, and cinnamon, are precisely what flavored common food products such as candy before chemistry discovered it was cheaper and easier to make them in a lab. Using chemical constituents plucked out of natural substances or created whole-cloth using chemical formulas, are the “natural and artificial flavors” you find on so many labels.

Rosemary sprig cocktail.But it’s easy enough to pack your food and drink with real flavor punches. A lot
of cocktail enthusiasts will use an herb like rosemary infused into a simple syrup. As I mentioned in my idiosyncratic review of The Botanist Gin, the Bible around our place (our virtual place I should say because we are at present vagabonds) is The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart. In it she writes, “Almost any botanical ingredient, from lemon peel to rhubarb to rosemary, can be infused into a simple syrup. This is an easy way to showcase seasonal produce and add a twist to a basic cocktail recipe. Here’s her infused syrup recipe for your convenience:

*Infused Simple Syrup*

2 cups herbs, flowers, fruit, or spices

1 cup water

1 cup sugar

1 ounce vodka (optional)

Combine all the ingredients except the vodka in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture cool, and pour through a fine mesh strainer. If you are using the vodka, you can add it now to act as a preservative, and keep refrigerated. It will be good for two to three weeks in the fridge, longer in the freezer.


I personally like to keep my sweets as sweets and my booze relatively uncluttered with added sugar, since alcohol is basically sugar anyway, so I forgo simple syrup in favor of essential oils and hydrosols. That said, I do do bitters even though they often contain some sugar or honey, because the flavor punch in a drop or two minimizes the sweetness. On the other hand, this recipe from Brad Thomas Parsons book Bitters makes my mouth water, and might make me change my mind about froofy cocktails.

*Do You Believe In Miracles*

Makes 1 drink

1 1/2 ounces vodka, preferably P3 Placid or 46 Peaks

3/4 ounce Clear Creek Douglas fir eau de vie

1/4 ounce Honey Syrup

¼ ounce Rosemary Syrup

2 dashes Scrappy’s lavender bitters

2 drops or 4 spritzes Rosemary Tincture

Garnish: rosemary sprig

Combine the vodka, Douglas fir eau de vie, honey and rosemary syrups, and bitters in a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake until chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and, using an eyedropper or atomizer, place 2 drops or 4 spritzes of the rosemary tincture on the surface of the drink. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.


Though modern capitalism dictates that we buy a different product for every small need, it is the premise of Distill My Heart that botanicals inspire various disciplines. Tinctures are a perfect example. They have their roots and applications in medicine and booze, beauty and perfume. You can buy them in a health food store or make them yourself with minimal effort and expense. All you need is a little patience. Here’s a typical recipe, again from Bitters:


Makes 1 cup

1/4 cup fresh rosemary needles

1 cup high-proof (80 to 100 proof) vodka or Everclear

Using a mortar and pestle, crush the rosemary needles. Place them in a glass jar and cover the needles with the vodka. Cover the jar and shake gently. Store in a cool, dark place. The alcohol will turn green as it leaches the oils from the rosemary. Shake and taste the infusion daily. When the tincture reaches your desired intensity, anywhere from a few days to two weeks, strain the solution through cheesecloth and, using a funnel, pour into small eyedropper bottles or an atomizer.


Yes Organic Face and Body Remedy Oil.Rosemary is known as the aesthetician’s friend, as it penetrates to the middle layers of the skin, and is a strong antioxidant. You may have seen this term once or twice in recent years, and wondered as I did the meaning of antioxidant. We all know we want them, but what the heck are they? Something about free radicals, right? And in this case, free radicals are not good, which is too bad, because I like to think of myself as a free radical. Anyhoo, here’s the best I can do with my limited scientific leanings:

Antioxidants are molecules that can prevent the oxidation of other molecules, and oxidation, according to Wikipedia is a chain reaction that can produce free radicals that can damage cells.

My best friend Indigo, a licensed aesthetician and owner of Yes Organic Boutique, uses Spanish Rosemary in her amazing Face & Body Remedy Oil.

The precedent for rosemary in beauty products is a long one. Perhaps its most famous expression is in the famous Hungary Water used as a face wash by the 14th-century aging Queen of Hungary to restore her youthful appearance. Other ingredients were supposedly Lemon, Rose, Neroli, Melissa and Peppermint. My rosemary hydrosol also goes into a simple facewash with aloe vera gel.

Rosemary was an ingredient in the original Eau de Cologne developed by the Italian perfumer Farina, who took up residence in Germany and subsequently developed the fresh and light scent that took 18th-century Europe by storm. As a demonstration how closely linked are perfume and booze, I leave you with this recipe inspired by cologne and created by the artist turned scientist bartender, Tony Conigliaro, which can be found in his book The Cocktail Lab. It is named for the town’s German spelling:

*Köln Aromatics*

Yield: 20 g (3/4 ounce)

INGREDIENTS 20 g (3/4 oz.) pure alcohol

21 microliters of bitter orange oil

2 microliters of neroli oil

6 microliters of petit grain oil

3 microliters of rosemary essence

63 microliters of rose water

2 microliters of sandalwood oil

20 microliters of lemon

Cologne bottle (Rosoli Flacon), 1811.For this perfume-inspired recipe, you will need pipettes–you can buy disposable
ones on Amazon or pretty much anywhere you can buy essential oils, which makes it easy to switch out between essential oils. In dealing with such small measurements of strong aromatics, every bit counts, so you don’t want to muddle the aromas in the pipette, or worse, in your essential oil containers. The recipe is simple but like the above tincture recipe, takes some time to mature. After you put the alcohol into a small glass jar or eyedropper bottle, add the oils and essences. I personally would add the rosewater last, maybe even after a shake, to make sure the oils are incorporated into the alcohol, as water and oil do not mix. Besides being a magical beverage, alcohol has the amazing property of mixing with oil-based liquids as well as water-based ones, which is the reason it works so well in perfumery. When all the ingredients are in the vessel, seal it and shake gently. Leave in a cool dark place for 3 weeks. Open and sniff, but not too much, as you do not want all the beautiful volatile aromatics to escape up your nose! Drop into martinis, especially made with a London dry type gin. Conigliaro says to garnish with a cleaned lemon leaf, which sounds lovely, if you happen to have a lemon tree handy. Otherwise, perhaps an orange or lemon zest will do.

*This is #26 of #52essays2017. Read #25, about my odd relationship to Machiavelli and listen to the gutter & spine song inspired by one of his more twisted passages HERE*

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Melissa officinalis (or Lemon Balm): Booze & Botany & Monasteries oh my! Essay 11 of #52essays2017

Melissa officinalis derives its name from the Greek word honeybee because the tiny white flowers are so attractive to bees. According to The Drunken Botanist: “The upper leaves and flowers are steamed distilled to extract this potent flavor, which goes into absinthe, vermouth, and herbal liqueurs. It is suspected to be one of the secret ingredients in both Chartreuse and Benedictine.”

Boyer's Carmelite Water factory with monks, drawing, probably an advertisement.

As discussed in this article on St-Germain, Medieval monks and nuns used booze to preserve the healing powers of herbs. The famous Carmelite Water consists of Melissa officinalis macerated in rectified spirits with angelica, nutmeg, and other medicinal plants in a closely guarded formula that can still be purchased in German pharmacies for stomach upset.

Officinalis is a term from Medieval Latin that refers to the place where the medicines and other necessities of the monastery were kept. It denoted a plant (or sometimes animal) as having established use value as a medicine. It was Carl Linnaeus, the famous Swedish taxonomist, who first employed the binomial nomenclature that so plagues young botanists and plant enthusiasts today. Melissa officinalis, Rosmarinus officinalis, and many more plants with the epithets officinalis (for masculine and feminine nouns) or officinale (for neuter nouns) tell us that the plant was known and used by at least the middle of the 18th Century, when Linnaeus published his several editions of Systema Naturae.

As Mrs. M. Grieve writes in her 1931 Modern Herbal, Melissa officinalis is also known as sweet balm or lemon balm. “The word Balm is an abbreviation of Balsam, the chief of sweet-smelling oils. It is so called from its honeyed sweetness.” Grieve continues, “It was highly esteemed by Paracelsus, who believed it would completely revivify a man. It was formerly esteemed of great use in all complaints supposed to proceed from a disordered state of the nervous system.”

The essential oil of Melissa officinalis is quite expensive (about $60-70 for a 5ml bottle of good quality oil), so I decided to give the hydrosol a try. I ordered a 4 oz. spray bottle from PhiBee Aromatics, a family-run distiller in Arizona, who specialize in oils of the Southwest.

Melissa is native to the Mediterranean but has been naturalized in many places around the world. I messaged Clare to ask a couple questions about their hydrosols and she got back to me right away, among other things she mentioned that she often has a teaspoon of melissa in warm water before bed. I too put a teaspoon of Melissa hydrosol into a cup of warm water and added a shot of Bushmill’s Honey for an instant hot toddy–delicious!

Melissa officinalis from Botanical Magazine.Melissa officinalis is a member of the mint family (lamiaceae), which includes many of the classic culinary herbs such as basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, and like these others is wonderful in the kitchen. Yet, with so much commodification over the course of the twentieth century, a huge variety of plants used in the kitchen got compressed into a few, and many delicious flavors absconded from the typical American palate. The result is that when I encounter an herb like melissa I am delighted to find recipes that support its culinary use, for instance this one for lemon balm pesto.

Having lost the majority of my vision later in life, I still consider myself to be a highly visual person, but I’m trying very hard to hone my aesthetic appreciation of taste and smell. The hydrosol of Melissa officinalis has a delightfully lemony tang, but not like lemons. As Suzanne Catty puts it in Hydrosols: The Next Aromatherapy, “more the idea of lemon in a flavor.” There is also something floral about it while it retains the herbaceous grounding of its culinary cousins. It’s a flavor that can go both sweet or savory. Catty suggests using it for steaming vegetables or fish.

Catty also tells us, “Melissa is calming to the body more than the mind but without being overly sedative. Use it for stress, anxiety, and childhood hysterics. Combine with rosemary while studying and with neroli to drink during exams.”

John Gerard, frontispiece to his 1636 Herball.Melissa officinalis has long been renowned for its good effects on the nervous
system and to calm anxiety, and there have been a number of scientific studies to back up the anecdotal evidence. For someone who tends to get overexcited/angry, I can appreciate. The herbalist, physician and contemporary of Shakespeare, John Gerard wrote, “It maketh the heart merry and joyful and strengthened the vitall spirits.”

With that in mind, I’ve been spritzing myself day and night with melissa. Travelling around as an artist hobo makes it necessary for me to buy stuff and use it up. As much as I’d like to have palettes of aroma rainbows to choose from at all times, I can’t be toting around dozens of bottles. So I do the very unAmerican thing of using a few items for everything, thereby using up all my stock and replenishing as necessary. Taking a cue from the ladies of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, I like my beauty products to double as potable cordials!


*This is Essay 11 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read Essay 10 “CERKL Gene: My newly Identified Eye Disease Is Not an Eye Disease” here*

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Laurel Wreaths: A Brief Hydrosol Encounter, Essay 9 of #52essays2017

Two glossy green Laurel leavesThis brief and admittedly drunken hydrosol encounter with laurel (Laurus nobilis) was inspired by Cathy Skipper’s Hydrosols class at the School for Aromatic Studies.

Last week I ordered my little arsenal of sensory indulgences from Aromatics International because they were the only (recommended) online aromatherapy shop I could find that was not sold out of this delicious hydrosol. It was my first time ordering from them, but I’ll definitely order from them again.

I must confess that I’m a slut when it comes to buying essential oils and hydrosols. It is my firm belief that not all companies can provide all your needs, they must have specialties, and expertise, and so as with clothes, groceries, booze, and pretty much everything else, I have no interest in shopping one place exclusively. My impression is that in the world of aromatics, it is best to steer clear of those companies that tell you they can fulfill all your needs, i.e. beware the multi-level marketing when it comes to aromatics, and probably everything else too.

Ok, enough PSA for today. Here’s my hydrosol encounter with one of my all-time favorite trees, the laurel.

For people who like the Earth and are sending away for healthy/botanical friendly stuff, there can be some guilt. It’s the opposite of buying local, but in New York City, it’s oddly difficult to get a hold of very many of the rapidly growing assortment of hydrosols that exist, though there is a lovely little aromatherapy shop in the West Village, Enfleurage, that has a marvelous selection of essential oils, less in the way of hydrosols. The point being that I appreciate minimal packaging, and Aromatics International did a great job–no extra crap in the way of brochures and pamphlets, no unnecessary wrapping–just biodegradable popcorn, pet bottles and a bit of packing tape around the tightly screwed tops. Perfect.

I ordered four products: three hydrosols to help me out with a couple recipes for my upcoming HONEYPOT article, and an impulse purchase of a new-to-me oil, Marula (Sclerocarya birrea), which is apparently great for the skin.

I opened the box without my boyfriend Alabaster being home, to find four identical (to the touch) 4-ounce bottles, but was unconcerned, because (blindness be damned) the ears and nose were all that was required in identifying these aromatic liquids.

First I shook the bottles and determined the oil from the waters by the sound. I could tell from the lower and slower sound flow, which was the marula, and smelled to confirm. Marula () is a nut oil, that is a carrier oil with little smell, but it is apparently very good for wrinkles… I’ll let you know…

Pink Pelargonium capitatum flowersThen I smelled the first of the hydrosols. The citrus note told me at once that this was the citrus geranium (Pelargonium capitatum), one of the rose geraniums used in perfumery, but distinctly more lemony than the Pelargonium graveolens, which I also purchased for comparison in martinis and on my face.

Last came the laurel (Laurus nobilis), and my nose did a little dance. How I love this noble leaf!

“Upon smelling,” I wrote in my first impression notes, “the top note is so surprisingly floral or fruity,–a fruit that is almost tropical, a fruit that I can almost name but cannot–that, with the distinctive bay leaf underpinnings, the sensation is almost orgasmic. Upon tasting, the fruity disappears and the whole pungent, spicy leaf smashes intensely on the tongue.”

Anyway, I added a bit of water, and then, without too much ado, some vodka… and then some ice, and well, the taste was pretty amazing. Granted I started out with a whole tablespoon of hydrosol, which is a lot, quite a bit more than a normal person or cocktail will desire. What can I say? This is a debauched hydrosol encounter.

“Ok, just added a touch more vodka to my now iced laurel and find that this is unbelievable; the peppery notes of the laurel sparkle. I want Alabaster to experience this taste with me, but he is cooking and filling the room with other smells. While I wait for him to try, and try not to drink the whole damn thing, I will remind myself of the mythical, poetical laurel…”

Apollo seated with lyre wearing laurel wreath.Apollo, Greek god of music, poetry and light, prophecy and excellence of all kinds, crowned his head, and the heads of winners, with laurel wreaths. To this very day we have poet laureates, and Nobel laureates and may we ourselves be crowned with laurels, but may we never rest on them.

I can, at this very moment, testify to the intoxicating effects of Laurus nobilis, but I will not claim knowledge of the Pythian priestess. Whether she delivered her prophecies in well-wrought verse or unintelligible gibberish I cannot say, but if I, dear reader, were able to deliver words of wisdom beyond the obvious “Know thyself,” I would say, “drink of the noble laurel, and your eyes will be opened.”


*This is a drunken essay 9 of #52essays2017, written with all four senses and remembered sight. Read my previous essay “Mapping & Mixing the Senses at the Mall of America” here*

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The Spirit of St-Germain Elderflower Liqueur

This past spring, there was “sad news in the spirits world” when it was reported by and countless other food and beverage blogs that Robert Cooper, the founder of the wildly popular St-Germain elderflower liqueur, died suddenly at the age of 39.


Cooper was born into the booze business, but struck out on his own when his idea to make an elderflower liqueur (like those he’d encountered in London) was pooh-poohed by his father. The elder Cooper had cause to regret his indifference since, as The New York Times put it, “St-Germain, packaged in a striking Art Deco bottle, landed like a thunderclap in the then-burgeoning cocktail world.”


Cooper’s inventive marketing (which highlighted bartender’s ingenuity) and the distinct flavor of St-Germain (often referred to as “bartender’s ketchup”) helped boost the mixology trend that has proved so interesting in the past decade or so, pushing a creativity in cocktail-making that goes hand in hand with this millennium’s DIY zeitgeist. With craft spirits and handmade bitters, bartenders armed with droppers and spritzers, today’s mixology far surpasses anything seen at the bar since prohibition. Although, as with all trends, there is an annoyance factor, I, for one, am excited by the explicit interrelations of booze and botanicals–that is, after all, what this column is all about!


St. Germain was sold to Bacardi in 2012, but in its press release, they stressed that the artisanal methods would remain unchanged. They present the charming picture of free-lance pickers who for 4-6 weeks in the late spring harvest the delicate flowers and bring them to collecting stations “where harvesters are paid by the kilo for their flowers, often using specially rigged bicycles to carry them.” There they are quickly macerated to preserve the “captivating fresh flavor, reminiscent of tropical fruits, pear and citrus with a hint of honeysuckle.”


To be honest, I was surprised by the tropical fruitiness of St-Germain because my first experience with elderflower was as a hydrosol from Stillpoint aromatics and it was, as I mentioned in my previous article on The Botanist Gin, like chocolate if chocolate was indigo velvet. So completely different from St-Germain’s bright fuchsia nectar. Just goes to show you that different methods can produce different flavors from the same plant.


Also, as I don’t drink liqueur (except when I visit my mom and pour a little Kahlúa in my morning coffee), I’d not prepared myself for the sweetness, which was dumb because, as I learned from a quick Google search, sugar is one of liqueur’s key ingredients.


In his comprehensive book, Homemade Liqueurs and Infused Spirits, Andrew Schloss explains the role sugar plays, “The more sugar syrup added to the alcohol base, the silkier the mouthfeel of the finished liqueur will be. This viscosity slows down the flow of the liqueur across your palate, which allows the liqueur to linger in your mouth longer, thereby giving your taste buds and olfactory receptors more time to pick up flavor, which is why sweeter liquids taste more intense than thinner ones.”


It turns out that liqueurs are composed of three elements: a base spirit, one or more flavoring agents, which have been macerated in that spirit, and sugar. That’s it!


Maceration or infusion–the terms are used interchangeably–refer to two sides of the same process: one macerates a solid in liquid in order to soften it and extract its flavors and aromas, while one infuses the liquid with these aromatic and flavoring compounds. If the process of maceration/infusion sounds familiar to herbal and booze enthusiasts alike, that is because, although one generally buys tinctures at the health food store and bitters with their booze, they share a common origin.


As Brad Thomas Parsons writes in his book Bitters, “Using bitter herbs, barks, and botanicals for medicinal purposes dates back centuries, and versions of some of these potable elixirs are still around today, like the herbal liqueur Chartreuse, which was first made in 1737 by Carthusian monks who based their recipe on an ancient elixir…”


Parsons goes on to explain that while bitters are composed of many flavoring agents–bark, peel, herbs, flowers, etc.–and are also often diluted and mixed with sugar, tinctures are a “single-flavor infusion” and do not contain anything other than the chemical constituents extracted from the plant material and a high-proof spirit. Hence, Chartreuse is sometimes referred to as a bitters-based liqueur, while St Germain can be said to have tincture of elderflower at its heart.


I’ve not been able to find anything about how Cooper came to call his elderflower liqueur St-Germain, but I like to think that it was named after the Parisian neighborhood and Medieval Benedictine abbey Saint-Germain-Des-Prés, as a nod to the spiritual roots of his quintessence of elderflower.


Quintessence is a term taken from Aristotelian natural philosophy and used by alchemist-monks such as the 14th-century John of Rupescissa, to describe spirit of wine, (brandy). In his book The Secrets of Alchemy Lawrence Principe writes, “John considers this “burning water” the “fifth essence” of the wine, its quinta essentia in Latin.”


Since John was interested in the health of the body as well as the soul, he appreciated alcohol’s magical ability to extract and preserve the qualities of medicinal herbs, thus transmuting the putrefying-prone plant material into a quintessence that might last indefinitely.


Principe writes, “the central chymical operation of distillation–the separation of a pure, volatile (that is, “spiritual”) substance from the crasser, baser components of a mixture–appears frequently as a trope in devotional literature.” To illustrate the point, he quotes the bishop Jean-Pierre Camus (1584-1652):


“Let us put all our good and bad thoughts, affections, passions, vices, and virtues all mixed together into the alembic of our understanding. Place it then upon the memory and recollection of the eternal fire as if upon a furnace, and we shall see some marvelous subtle effects. This fiery cogitation will separate the confused elements, the hullabaloo of ambition, the earth of greed and lust, the winds of vanity, the waters of covetousness, the air of presumptions. It will dissipate all these follies, destroy the dregs and lees of a thousand earthly desires, in order to extract beautiful and completely heavenly conceptions from them … it will dissolve all our vices and sins, and extract from our souls a quintessence of piety and devotion…”


It is no coincidence then, that our word for high-proof booze is spirit. Perhaps it also seems less strange, now that we recognize this connection in the Early Modern imagination, that monks were responsible for the first liqueurs. But what about this elderflower?


Though we may imagine them as ancient tree beings, akin to Ents, the etymology of the English word elder derives from its more humble use as kindling. In A Modern Herbal (1931), Mrs. M. Grieve writes: “The word ‘Elder’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word aeld. In Anglo-Saxon days we find the tree called Eldrun, which becomes Hyldor and Hyllantree in the fourteenth century. One of its names in modern German – Hollunder – is clearly derived from the same origin. In Low-Saxon, the name appears as Ellhorn. Aeld meant ‘fire,’ the hollow stems of the young branches having been used for blowing up a fire…”


Elder is often called the Medicine Chest of the common people. Grieve attributes this epithet to Ettmüller (a 17th-century German physician and botanist), and describes the many medicinal uses of the plant, for example: “Elderberry Wine has a curative power of established repute as a remedy, taken hot, at night, for promoting perspiration in the early stages of severe catarrh, accompanied by shivering, sore throat, etc. Like Elderflower Tea, it is one of the best preventives known against the advance of influenza and the ill effects of a chill.”


Grieve also tells how, “In Denmark we come across the old belief that he who stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue.”


And if that’s not enough, Grieve goes on to give a recipe of our great-grandmothers beauty secret: a toner made from a strong tea of elderflowers mixed with “rectified spirits”–a happy addition to every lady’s toilet! “She relied on this to keep her skin fair and white and free from blemishes, and it has not lost its reputation.”


She concludes: “A well-known French doctor has stated that he considers it a fine aid in the bath in cases of irritability of the skin and nerves.”


All this was enough to inspire me to procure some dried elderflowers from the beautiful East Village herb shop Flower Power and, in parting, I share with you my recipe for a magical elderflower moment:

  1. Throw a handful of Elderflowers into a muslin bag, and toss that into a tubful of hot water.
  2. Pour yourself a civilized glass of St-Germain. WAIT, don’t drink!
  3. Put your St-Germain within reach of the tub, light a candle, turn out the lights, sip and soak.
  4. . Give thanks to the spirit of Robert J. Cooper and the magical elderflower.


*First published at Quail Bell Magazine in my column, Distill My Heart, about all things alcoholic and aromatic*

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The Thistles and Fairies of The Botanist Gin, a review

I’ll admit upfront that I loved The Botanist before I ever tasted it. When my boyfriend told me about a gin, which , in addition to nine traditional botanicals, features 22 others that grow wild on the Scottish island of Islay, I was immediately smitten. I asked him to nab the last bottle in the shop where he works and hide it till payday. Meanwhile, I would look into these botanicals…


The Botanist’s website is a rabbit hole for those who like to geek out on plants and booze and legend. Take, for instance, this little tidbit from #3 of the 22 native botanicals, creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense): “The thistle is of course the symbol of Scotland and is believed to derive from the battle of Largs in 1263 when a barefoot soldier of the Norse king Haakon IV inadvertently trod on the thistle while advancing in stealth on the Scottish encampment. His cry of pain was heard by the Scots and the attack repelled.”


And this from number 6, gorse (Ulex europaeus): “In the Scottish region of Argyll, home of The Botanist, gorse is closely associated with the Cailleach (Divine Hag), or the spirit of winter. The Cailleach is credited with forming the landscape of Argyll with her hammer as she strode across it creating mountains as stepping stones, and perhaps leaving a trail of hardy gorse in her wake.”


But if this whole botany & gin romance is new to you, may I refer you to The Drunken Botanist–or The Bible, as we lovingly call it chez nous! In her introduction, Amy Stewart describes how the idea for her book was born. She was hanging with a fun bunch of garden writers, and found that one of her companions, an Agave (Tequila) expert, expressed his disinclination for gin. En route to convincing him with a cocktail, she subjects him to her “rant on the many virtues of gin”:


“How can anyone with even a passing interest in botany not be fascinated by this stuff?” I said. “Look at the ingredients. Juniper! That’s a conifer. Coriander, which is, of course, the fruit of a cilantro plant. All gins have citrus peel in them… Gin is nothing but an alcohol extraction of all these crazy plants from around the world—tree bark and leaves and seeds and flowers and fruit.”


In fact, gin would basically be vodka–a neutral spirit–if not for the botanicals. As The Botanist says on their website, “Botanicals are the very essence of gin; its raison d’etre.”


Strange to say, my love of gin all started with Dry January. Perhaps because I am a masochist, I found that during a month-long abstinence from drinking alcohol, I derived great pleasure from reading books about alcohol. One of my favorites was Craft Distilling by Victoria Redhed Miller, who is, by the way, a badass–not only does she make her own booze, but she built her own still! Anyway, it was during one dark and dry January that I learned about the botanicals in gin.


Of course I’d always heard that juniper was the thing that made gin gin, but I did not know why or how that was, and, due to some unfortunate youthful encounters with cheap gin and tonics, I did not drink the stuff for many years–the very smell made me gag. But when I read in Miller’s book that “Top-quality gins are distilled at least three times” and that “during distillation, the vapors rise through a special basket that holds the botanicals, picking up the flavors and resulting in a subtle and complex gin,” I was intrigued. The process of making gin sounded a lot like the process of making the essential oils and hydrosols I’d been pleasuring my nose with in recent years. So my intellect turned to gin and my palette had no choice but to follow!


It turns out that there is quite a bit of research out there that suggests that our enjoyment of wine and spirits does require a mental grasp on the thing in question to appreciate it. As Adam Rogers writes in Proof‘s chapter on “Smell and Taste, “People who teach wine-tasting classes often tell funny stories about how their students, even with training, prefer box wine in a blind test. And research shows that people say they enjoy a wine more if they know it’s more expensive. Sure, that bottle of red from the little village you found when you and your first love got lost in Tuscany on that rainy night was the best bottle of wine the world has ever made. Just don’t try the same bottle again alone, sitting in front of a Star Trek rerun.” In other words, the intellectual or emotional situation shapes our taste enjoyment.


Rogers quotes Tim Gaiser (one of only about 200 “master sommeliers in the world) as calling wine a “shared hallucination”. This suggests that what we really like about this wine or that does not, in the usual sense, exist, which is cool.


I can relate.


Thanks to a strange phenomenon called Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes affects people who lose their sight later in life, I experience almost constant hallucinations. Basically, having felt rather proud and useful–happily processing stuff sent to it via the retina–and now deprived, my visual cortex gets bored and manufactures visual hallucinations.


On hangover days these hallucinations can be quite manic: parades of lurid faces and multitudes of jugglers and circus horses all surrounded by complimentary pulsating breathing designs. In other words, my hallucinations have generally got the humdrum visible world beat, which is precisely the point of this detour: Latin binomials and Celtic Mythology can provide structure and play to our appreciation, and appreciation of booze (or music or art or food…) can be learned precisely because it is tied not only to the acuteness of our sense organs, but also to our intellects and imaginations.


I should say though that today’s hallucinations are quite pleasant–reminiscent of a kelpie paradise with shimmering fish and gently undulating flora–perhaps because last night I sipped my first bit of Botanist!


If I had not been predisposed to loving The Botanist before getting a hold of the bottle, I would have fallen for it the moment I touched it because, printed in raised letters are the 22 Islay botanicals! I’m not going to say that they are easy to read–raise Latin characters are not so legible as braille, particularly when they are justified, but this blind drinker enjoyed the hell out of first picking out Juniperus communis, juniper, which is of course the only botanical absolutely required to get the label gin slapped on your bottle.


Next, I found Sambucus nigra, elderflower, which is a force to be reckoned with. “Elder is one of the most powerful trees in mythology. Judas is said to have hanged himself from an elder tree … As a consequence elder has traditionally become associated with ill-fortune and bad spirits – to cut down elder is to be plagued by the demons that live in the tree and many woodcutters would refuse to chop the tree.”


In The Big, Bad Book of Botany, Michael Largo puts it like this, “People have long loved the elder for its beauty and host of benefits. Naturally, superstitions grew around the plant; for example, if someone dared to kill one of the stouter varieties to make furniture, the chair or table fashioned from its timber would seek revenge. A chair might fling itself across the room or move about on its own and haunt the home’s residents for abetting the plant’s destruction.”


Hurrah for the magical Elder! I LOVE elderflower! Elderflower tastes like chocolate, if chocolate were indigo velvet.


Here beginneth my (extremely idiosyncratic) tasting notes: I take a sip of The Botanist, and the first thing to fill my mouth is a violet icing of soft flowers spiked with juniper’s pinecone. Then there is a complicated herbal intensity, which gives rise to a lingering tingling, as if my tongue were dusted with iridescent fairy dust.


This last makes sense because number 7 of the 22 Islay botanicals is Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), which marks the entrance to the otherworld and is therefore closely associated with the world of spirits and fairies.


In the entry on ghosts in The Encyclopedia of Spirits, Judika Illes writes, “Hawthorn allegedly repels evil ghosts, while permitting the entry of helpful souls. Maintain a barrier of living hawthorn bushes and trees outside the home or bring branches within.” But she warns, “hawthorn is among the plants most associated with Fairies. Do not break off a branch without first seeking permission from the Fairies, lest ghosts become the least of your problems.”


If I’ve not yet convinced you that you will find spirits–other than alcoholic ones–in a bottle of Botanist, then allow me one more go…


Number 15, Red Clover (Trifolium pratense), is “the species of the legendary four-leaf clover… Many of the Celtic races revered the clover, believing that if one carried a (three-leaf) clover it would give advance warning of evil spirits ahead, and a four-leaf clover would provide active protection. Similarly medieval children were told that a four-leaf clover would allow the bearer to see faeries where they were hidden.”


Apparently the chances of “finding a four-leaf clover are estimated at 10,000-1,” so “there has to be at least one in a bottle of Botanist somewhere…”


*Originally published at Quail Bell Magazine for Distill My Heart, a column about all things alcoholic and aromatic!*

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The Poetry of Alchemy, Distillation, Transmutation and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 33

I do love my booze, but even beyond the literal satisfaction of imbibing spirits, distillation offers a wonderful metaphor. You take a thing that you really really like, put it into an apparatus, subject it to fire, force its volatility, and are rewarded with a high concentration of the thing you liked about the thing you like. In other words, you make the thing you like more like the thing you liked about that thing. Get it? No? Ok, I’ll try again, but first let’s drink to our health…

Ah, that’s better.

It’s like this: writers who are worth their salt know that the writing itself is fine and/or painful, but it’s the edit–the distillation –into high proof prose or poetry that knocks socks off.

Writing–the putting words on paper or device–is like dropping berries in a bucket–fermentation will happen and you will get something mildly alcoholic. You can thank the yeast fairies for that. Likewise, you can thank the human brain for the stories and images that drop into the buckets of our imagination. But it is the work of the writer to distill the fermented mash into a strong-ass spirit.

In Proof, a delightfully geek-inducing book on the science of booze, Adam Rogers writes, “Distillation tells us that having less of something can make it more potent. It is concentration. It is focus.”

While fermentation is natural and will happen with or without us, distillation is a human invention, a technology. As Rogers puts it, “Distillation takes intelligence and will. To distill, literally or metaphorically, requires the hubris to believe you can change the world.”

And who better to turn to for advice about the hubris of changing your world than the very lunatics who, if they did not ever hit upon the philosopher’s stone, did invent and perfect distillation–the alchemists.

Though alcohol was not the first thing to come out of their alembics, we must thank the long and secretive contemplation of transmutation for the eventual revelation of distillation. The alchemists figured out how to turn wine–ironically perhaps?–into water, specifically aqua vitae from which developed such delightful “waters of life” as eau de vie (French), akvavit (Scandinavian) and whisky (from Gaelic uisce beatha).

But before fermentations of grains and fruits went into the still, strange things like Sulphur and antimony went in; the ultimate goal being the philosopher’s stone, a substance that would turn base metals to gold.

For many centuries and many alchemists chrysopoeia was the name of the game. Chrysopoeia means the making of gold–chryso is the gold part and poeia is the making part. And if that poeia part looks familiar, it’s because the Ancient Greek word “to make–poiein” has come down to us as poetry.

At its most basic level writing poetry means to make or create, and to take it one-step further, the transmutation of base metals into gold is not unlike a poet turning the mundane and painful stuff of life into something sublime.

As we turn to Shakespeare’s Sonnet, I think it’s helpful to understand that our modern tendency to want to find in poetry straightforward one to one analogies and symbols was not shared with our Renaissance counterparts. As Lawrence Principe puts it in The Secrets of Alchemy, “premoderns tended to conceive of and visualize the world in multivalent terms, where each individual thing was connected to many others by webs of analogy and metaphor. This view stands in contrast to the modern tendency to compartmentalize and isolate things and ideas into separate disciplines.” So as we turn to the highly distilled Shakespeare sonnet, we ought not to forget that multiple and even contradictory readings are possible. In Sonnet 33, I would argue that Shakespeare indulges in the contradictions inherent in the human heart, and intentionally leaves us unsure.


Full many a glorious morning have I seen

Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,

Kissing with golden face the meadows green,

Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;

Anon permit the basest clouds to ride

With ugly rack on his celestial face,

And from the forlorn world his visage hide

Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace;

Even so my sun one early morn did shine,

With all triumphant splendor on my brow;

But out alack, he was but one hour mine,

The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Yet him for this my love no wit disdaineth;

Suns of the world may stain, if heaven’s sun staineth.


In the first quatrain, we have a lovely picture of morning, more specifically the morning sun, flattering the lowly mountains (a reversal of the usual flattery of the lowly towards his superior), and in the next two lines the sun becomes the artist–both like a painter who kisses with gold light to create a brighter green, and an alchemical artist who would cover the natural world with gold.

Suddenly in the second quatrain everything changes. Anon, meaning shortly, the effect is reversed. Now it’s the base things, associated with the world, that darken and disgrace the face, i.e. the “ugly rack” of clouds are permitted to ride the sun and darken the forlorn world.

The third quatrain superimposes a new and personal element to the poem. Now the poet is involved, so that the first two quatrains are compressed into a single quatrain divided into two couplets, signified by the dividing semicolon. The first couplet refers, for the first time in the poem, explicitly to a sun, specifically “my sun,” indicating possession, albeit brief, by the poet.

If we read this through the lens of the first quatrain, we might see how the poet enjoyed a brightening and gilding not unlike that experienced by the lowly mountains and streams. And, as in the opening octave, very quickly the poet experiences a reversal and the “region cloud”–perhaps another lover? Has come between the poet and his sun, leaving him to see only a masked, or covered-over splendor.

In The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Helen Vendler demonstrates how the brevity of what we might call the personal third quatrain narrative may be filled out with the vocabulary of the seemingly impersonal description of a morning sun being obscured by clouds:


“Even so my sun (glorious, golden, sovereign) one early morn did shine (flattering, kissing, alchemizing) with all-triumphant splendor on my (pale) brow; but out alack, he was but one hour mine, the (basest) region cloud (permitted by him to ride with ugly rack on his celestial face) hath masked him (hiding his visage) from (forlorn) me now (as he steals in disgrace away).”


In the final couplet, a kind of parable enters the poem and offers a rather dull platitude: if the heavenly sun may be so easily stained by ugly dark clouds, then of course the suns (a pun on sons) cannot be blamed (disdained) for taking on a stain, or blemish.

Besides the direct reference to alchemy in the first quatrain, and the transformative powers it infers, the sonnet as a whole displays the transmutation of the prosaic into poetry in a stunning reversal: first we have the metaphor and, until the “even so” that opens the third quatrain and its shift to the literal event (the disgrace or perhaps betrayal of the friend or lover), we do not really know that this description of morning is meant to symbolize anything in particular. A more typical construction would present the loss of lover first and then set about describing how it makes the poet feel. In the case of Sonnet 33, the metaphor, or philosopher’s stone of the poem reverses the project and turns a golden morning into a base and rather relentless couplet of blemishes–the word stain may even strike us as crass and overused.

By the end of the fourteen lines, it is not clear whether or not forgiveness is felt as deeply as had been the joy and the suffering. Knowing that all earthly creatures are susceptible to corruption is not the same as feeling compensated by this knowledge.

Likewise the dwindling away of poetic space–from the octave metaphor, to the quartet narrative, to the couplet platitude–suggests a kind of lessoning of interest or importance. Though the final couplet may assert an unarguable fact of human nature, it cannot compare to the magic of poetry that may transform clouds passing over the sun into the sufferings of a disappointed lover.


To finish an inherently unfinishable investigation, I will clumsily return to our opening metaphor of distillation and remind my dear reader that 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of Shakespeare. Hence we might be wont to spend time with the bard, perhaps even his sonnets which, though they be difficult, beckon us in this auspicious year. If so, I offer this disclaimer, or WARNING label if you will: Do not guzzle! Sip as you would your favorite 180 proof spirit and keep your interpretive lens away from the flames of modernity and the scientific method, for the power of the philosopher’s stone lies in what you discover en route to what you thought you wanted!


*First published at Quail Bell Magazine*

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