Luscious Liqueurs and Brilliant Bitters

Lumbard_2015Marley Lumbard, Certified Herbalist

One of my favorite things to do is to go to a swanky bar and try their most interesting cocktail. I’m not sure if it’s because it makes me feel sophisticated or because I sense that I am connecting with something that is a lost art. Maybe it’s a little of both. Possibly, the drinks feel sophisticated because they are a lost art and contain some ancient history in each sip.

With a little digging and a lot of curiosity, I looked into the past—specifically the past of cordials and bitters. Turns out, we are drinking a little history every time we enjoy an Old Fashioned or some Chartreuse.

Originally, putting herbs into alcohol was a way to give people medicine. After all, alcohol is one of the best agents to extract medicinal qualities from plants. Bitters alone have a rich history stemming from the 16th century. Thought of as somewhat of a cure-all, they gained popularity and eventually, in the 1800s, Angostura bitters were created—you know, that bottle you see at every bar to this day? Well originally, the recipe in that bottle was created to cure seasickness. Now we see bitters used in many cocktails to soften their flavor and to create depth that wouldn’t otherwise be achieved without a little bite.

Cordials, too, have their story. In the 1300’s Arnold de Villa Nova distilled wine into “aqua vitae” and flavored it with different herbs and spices. He wrote of their restorative and life-giving qualities, thus giving rise to possibly the very first medicinal cordial. For a time, these Elixirs remained medicinal; in fact, they were primarily used in monasteries as “Elixirs of Long Life.” However, after time passed, cordials became a beverage of enjoyment rather than a cure. This is typically how we know them today.

I feel inspired to explore this past. I want to use these medicines as they were supposed to be used—as life-giving elixirs and comprehensive tonics. And I want to explore what else can be achieved through this method. Herbs themselves have a diverse range of what they do. Why not investigate these properties and pair them with an ancient technique?

In class I’ll present some ways to work with this medicine. We’ll discuss herbs for digestive health, herbs to open the heart and create intimacy, and herbs used for celebration—seasonally inspired!

Please join me for an evening of fun, learning, and especially taste! We’ll be making a few mixtures of our own and everyone will go home with a sample.



Brad Parsons,  Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All