Chinese Medicinal Ingredients in Your Cocktail

Growing up with a mother who made the occasional Chinese herb brew for her ailments, and fed me her “witches brew” (read: warm drink loaded with garlic and spicy things) when I was sick, I’ve always taken an interest in non-western medicinal treatments. So, when I was invited to attend Tales of the Cocktail this year, the first seminar I signed up for was Traditional Chinese Medicinal Ingredients. I was stoked to sit in on a class that combined the healing powers of ancient herbs with the great taste of cocktails – because we all know some of those ancient brews tend to be less than appetizing.

The charming Danielle Tatarin, the brains behind the apothecary-inspired Keefer Bar in Vancouver’s Chinatown, led the seminar. When Danielle was asked to open Keefer, its proximity to Chinese apothecary shops, along with her interest in natural healing, made pairing Chinese medicinal ingredients with cocktails a no-brainer. With the help of Dr. Nancy Chow, who specializes in Chinese medicine, Danielle began experimenting with various herbs to create tinctures for her cocktails, and there’s a reason beyond taste to mix these herbs with alcohol. Danielle explained that steeping these herbs in alcohol actually releases their medicinal properties. In fact, it is second only to water in importance as a solvent in medicine. Scientifically speaking, “Alcohol concentrates the medicinally active compounds and makes the remedy easier to dispense and consume while also improving its absorption. Combined with water to make a hydroalcoholic solvent, it acts as a preservative by preventing hydrolysis and inhibiting fermentation that would occur if water was used alone.”

Chinese medicinal herb treatments are not a quick fix. Rather than masking diseases or ailments, these herbs treat the underlying causes, and most take time to build up in the system. Danielle herself is living proof of the effectiveness of Chinese medicine. As someone who suffered from terrible allergies for most of her adult life, she began taking a homemade tincture every day. After some time, she was able to toss away her prescription antihistamines (which often caused unpleasant side effects) and for the first time she could breathe clearly. She explained that in experimenting with a handful of herbs, she wanted to create unique flavored bitters that would in theory help to boost the body’s immune system while at the same time strengthening the live and digestive Qi.

At the close of the seminar, Danielle stressed that the concept she uses looks at beneficial properties of the combined ingredients, but the drinks are developed for their flavor profiles – flavor profiles that I certainly enjoyed. These cocktails are not meant to cure your ailments overnight, but why not enjoy a delicious drink that also happens to be good for you? We sampled several cocktails throughout the afternoon, all of which were completely unique. Danielle was kind enough to share many of her recipes, including this one for her Bold Fashioned, as well as her house-made bitters blend:

Bold Fashioned
2 oz. Wild Turkey Bourbon
1 bar spoon Coconut Gomme Syrup*
3 dashes bitters**

Stir all ingredients on ice and strain into an ice-filled whiskey glass. Garnish with wide lemon zest.

*Coconut Gomme Syrup
200 mL coconut water
500 g sugar
0.5 g xanthan gum

Heat coconut water, then add sugar and xanthum gum. Dissolve.

**Keefer Bitter Blend
Astragalus (used for over 2000 years as a potent immune system tonic)
Yun Zhi (“Essence of Mushroom” – enhanced immune system)
Ling Zhi (“Mushroom of Immortality” – positively affects the life-energy or Qi of the heart, repairing the chest area and benefiting those with a knotted and tight chest)
Bamboo Leaf (anti-oxidation, anti-aging, anti-fatigue, and anti-cancer, preventing cardio-cerebro-vascular diseases, protecting the liver, widening capillary vessels, smoothing micro-circulation, vitalizing the brain, improving memory and sleep, and improving the texture of skin)
Grass of Chinese Prayer Bead (enhances autoimmune system, antibiotic, anti-aging, anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, protects liver, lowers blood sugar, helps to lessen diabetes complications)

Add approx 0.5 g of each herb to a 1-L glass jar and fill with 100-proof alcohol. Let sit for 1 month minimum. Strain through a line strainer, pressing as much liquid as possible from the herbs. Store in a clean glass bottle with dasher top. Not to be used as a prescription.

I’m a big fan of coconut water, and the Coconut Gomme Syrup in this cocktail really stood out and balanced nicely with the Keefer House Bitters – easily one of my favorite drinks from the seminar. If you’re not planning a trip to Vancouver anytime soon, try paying a visit to our friends at Apotheke in NYC – the bar that Keefer was inspired by. If you do happen to find yourself in Vancouver one of these days, I highly recommend stopping by Keefer Bar for a cocktail or two and for a chance to say hello to the lovely Danielle Tatarin.

Pictured: Ingredients for Danielle’s Allergy Soup Blend
Left to right: YunZhi, Estragalus, LingZhi