When it comes to stimulating beverages, Americans tend to think first of grain, then perhaps grapes. But in much of the rest of the world, herbs play a potent part in alcoholic drinks, particularly in pungent liqueurs and bitters meant to pique the appetite before dinner or aid digestion afterward.
When you enliven your homemade liqueurs with the complex, taste-pleasing flavors of herbs, you'll be in good company. Cafe patrons in France quaff refreshing herbal apéritifs made from wine, such as Lillet and Dubonnet. Throughout Europe, wormwood-infused vermouth is more than just a bottle to wave over a martini glass. And throughout Italy, Germany and Hungary, among other places, piquant herbal tonics frequently provide a satisfying finish to meals.
The most notorious herb-flavored alcoholic drink is absinthe, a bitter green liqueur distilled from wormwood (Artemisia absinthium). Popular particularly among artists in European cafes in the early 1900s, absinthe at that time had high levels of the compound thujone, which caused hallucinogenic effects and brain damage; master painter Van Gogh’s bouts of apparent madness were attributed to his consumption of absinthe. Banned about the time of World War I, absinthe is now making a comeback overseas since the European Union introduced new directives for production and sale of low-thujone absinthe in 1981.
It’s always been legal in Spain; recently the French have begun producing the “green fairy” once again. One French brand, Versinthe, even exports a version to the United States, replacing wormwood with its cousin mugwort (A. vulgaris). The product, which contains some 20 other plants, won several American spirits awards in 2001.
The Character of an Herbed Liqueur
Many herbal liqueurs have quite complex characteristics. A blend of 130 plants — including sweet flag, peppermint, hyssop, lemon balm, angelica, wormwood and cardamom — flavors Green Chartreuse, which has been produced by monks of the Carthusian order in the French Alps since 1764. Only three of the brothers are said to know the secret recipe. The French Bénédictine, based on a Renaissance monk’s recipe, includes aloe, angelica, coriander, hyssop, juniper, myrrh and saffron among its 27 botanical ingredients.
The Hungarian bitters Unicum features more than 40 herbs and spices. Jägermeister, an assertively herbal German bitters, gets its taste from a complex blend of 56 herbs, fruits and spices. Strega, one of the many popular bitters in Italy, obtains its yellow color from saffron, one of some 70 herbs and spices in the mixture, which is produced in small pot stills. The better-known Campari contains wormwood, gentian and quinine, among other things (its bright red color, once from the cochineal insect, today comes from artificial coloring).
Of course, herbs feature in some basic alcoholic products, too. The astringent flavor of gin comes from juniper berries and a variety of herbs. The popular, aromatic brand Tanqueray, for example, includes angelica and coriander in its mixture. Britain’s Pimm’s No. 1, developed in 1840, adds numerous herbs, as well as quinine, to the already herb-flavored gin. Tequila, distilled from the agave plant, provides the base for Damiana, a Mexican liqueur infused with the herb of the same name (Turnera diffusa). The herb’s reputation as an aphrodisiac dates back to the Mayans. It comes in a bottle shaped like a pregnant woman, modeled after the Incan goddess of fertility.
Simpler drinks are often made with herbs as well. A fragrant, green-gold liqueur permeated with wild thyme is a favorite after-dinner drink in Provence. Russians and Poles make toasts with icy, herb-infused vodkas. Common flavorings include tarragon and buffalo or sweet grass (Hierochloe odorata).
Add a bit of fresh flavor from your own garden with these suggestions or other favorites for lively refreshment.
Leah A. Zeldes is food editor of Chicago’s Lerner Newspapers.