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 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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