spirit possession

In Anticipation of a Hell of a Snake Oil…


listening to Dark Castle’s Surrender To All Life Beyond Form, on this day perched so precariously on the boundary between an unseasonably persistent fall and a reticent, unpredictable winter, what better time to talk about the bitters i’m intending to make? rather, that i am in the process of making. well, that are in the process of making themselves. i can’t say if they are going to be cocktail bitters à la Angostura or Peychaud’s, or whether something closer to a digestivo-style amaro will result, because it’s really in the hands of the herbs now. i have little experience with infused boozes, or for that matter, weird medicinal herbs, but it seems a worthy experiment.

i was inspired/galled into eventual action by a similar attempt by some friends last summer, when for someone’s birthday party they concocted homemade bitters and treated everyone to seriously witchy Old-Fashioneds all night. guided by Jamie Boudreau’s recipe (minus the cherries, cask-aging, or actually in any way following the directions), the basic idea is just to take a bunch of interesting, aromatic, or bitter herbs and spices, soak the life out of them in booze for a while, then make something with it. keeping the botanicals steeping separately allows one to fine-tune the eventual mix, and lessens the chance of some particular flavour storming the whole with its intensity. i also made the choice of using different base spirits depending on the herb, hoping to match or combine flavours. higher-proof alcohol works better for this, i’ve heard, as it draws the essence more rapidly from the plants, but since drinkability is foremost among my objectives (and the options for high-proof alcohols are limited) i decided to go with some regular-ass bourbon (Bulleit), brandy (Torres 10), and vodka (Kamouraska).

i was hoping originally to get some damiana or gentian, which are reputedly bitter as fuck, the latter a staple of european bitters, but haven’t had much luck tracking them down in Montréal, and am kind of into the idea of using almost entirely locally viable species. luckily, i was able to call on the expertise of some friends with very translatable herbal medicine skills and access to various community gardens around the south-west and what i eventually came up with was:

~dandelion (leaf and root)
~anise hyssop
~black walnut leaf
~orange peel
~black pepper

(the cardamom, black pepper, and orange peel aren’t local of course, and i’m not sure of the provenance of the black walnut leaf which i bought it from the Le Frigo Vert food co-op, but they seemed like additions i couldn’t afford to forego.)
leafing through Waverly Root’s Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary, and Maud Grieve‘s A Modern Herbal (my edition of which looks like it was illustrated by the same dude who did Nilsson’s The Point, which is awesome but unlikely) for bits of interesting miscellany, i came upon this charming rhyme furthering Pliny’s suggestion that fennel was bound up with the immortality and good eyesight of snakes (what, hadn’t you heard?):

Whaune the adder is hurt in the eye
Ye red fennel is hys prey,
and yif he mowe it funde
Wonderly he doth hys kynde.
He shall chow wonderly
And leyn it to hys eye kindlely
Ye jows shall sang and hely ye eye
Yat beforen was sicke et fey.

it can also used to ward against witchcraft, in over-the-door style. (more on fennel here, here, and here.)

Root’s entry on the orange goes on for four about pages, containing the usual wealth of “as far as i know”s and “probably derived from”s that endear me so to Root and other professionally inexpert food writers, and concludes with the following : “I have no information on the extremely sweet blood orange, except that Luigi Barzini says it is the favourite of Italians and John McPhee says it frightens American women.” nothing at all is mentioned of orange peels or any of their exciting and deplorable qualities, but i think they’re going to make for a hell of an addition, steeped as they are in…brandy or bourbon, or something.

what i have learned of hyssop is that it is in fact -not- the hyssop of the Bible, which is somewhat disappointing, as it means that in a pinch one can not dip it in lamb’s blood and slap it on your post and lintel to ward off baby-killing angels.

i regret that i didn’t keep some of it around to save for cooking with, as i feel like there must be a -right- purpose for it’s faintly minty sweetness. apparently it was much-used in roundly denigrated medieval saucery, which means it would have been ideal for the party we’re planning this winter wherein everyone gets half a loaf of bread and their own whole roast and we get drunk off mead in our unfinished basement. valhalla is where you make it. (under most circumstances i’d be more strict about not conflating viking and medieval revelry, but i live in a house dubbed SNAKE COMPLEX, for chrissakes, pastiche is the order of the day.)

from Grieve, i learn that yarrow “was one of the herbs dedicated to the Evil One, in earlier days, being sometimes known as Devil’s Nettle, Devil’s Plaything, Bad Man’s Plaything, and was used for divination in spells.” i like how this suggests a conflicted supernatural potency for the end product, what with the fennel’s witch-warding-off capacities. this ambivalence is perpetuated in Grieve’s discussion of yarrow’s use in folk remedies – it seems to have about a million different names, derived in part from its vulnerary applications (Soldier’s Wound’s Wort, Knight’s Milfoil, Herba Militaris), although it is also called Nosebleed, “from its property of staunching bleeding of the nose, though another reason given for the name is that the leaf, being rolled up and applied to the nostrils, causes a bleeding from the nose, more or less copious . . . so it seems to act either way.”

i shan’t tarry with the reams of medicinal properties all of these are supposed to have, suffice to say that there is sufficient wealth thereof that i feel comfortable expecting the ensuing cocktails to provoke urine, reduce flatulence and hysteria, calm, invigorate, and heal my liver.

also lead to awkward situations with witches and the devil (i can only hope).


i was late getting my hands on the wormwood (which had to be stealthed away from the Botanical Gardens under cover of night), so it’ll be a good 2-3 weeks before i’m ready to assay my first concoctions, but be assured when i do i’ll treat you to a photo of the awesome label i intend to draw for the ensuing product.

do i know what i’m doing? lord no.
am i looking forward to the results? hell yes.


8 thoughts on “In Anticipation of a Hell of a Snake Oil…

    • stillcrapulent says:

      well, synchronically yes, but when people talk about the middle ages they’re usually talking about medieval europe, post fall of the roman empire, that kind of shit, as opposed to medieval scandinavia. and in this context, the -cuisines- were definitely different. totally different sauce traditions, and the norse seemed strangely into just -boiling- everything.

  1. Pingback: Fière de ses Racines. « still crapulent

  2. I know I’m digging into an older post here to comment, but I recently stumbled on this link to a wonderful old recipe book for bitters that I thought I should share:


    The entire book is scanned, cover-to-cover, so you get the feel of the whole object in addition to some batshit crazy recipes—usually in huge volumes.

    I’ve recently become addicted to Old Fashioned cocktails made with Sazerac and Angostura so now I have bitters on the brain. I wanted to ask if there was an update on your bitters experiments?

    • stillcrapulent says:

      i mean, an old fashioned is a hell of a drink, although that said, i don’t think i’ve ever had a brandy old fashioned. or in this case, i suppose, a cognac old fashioned. that’s what sazerac is, right? a brand of cognac? i’ve never seen it around here.

      alas, i have little to report – or perhaps lots to report, but little major success. after 3 or 4 test blends, i only came up with one that i thought really worked (many of the others just had too intensely vegetal and medicinal flavours), and that one was mostly defined by the orange-peel-star-anise infusion that i put in it. so while i was happy with that one, it’s not the most flexible of bitters, which sort of defeats my original purpose of making my own personal multi-use formula.

      i’m not against trying again, but currently i’ve just drained most of the various infusions down so low that i don’t want to sacrifice their final volumes to a potentially disappointing blend. i think the best thing to come out of it is in fact the individual infusions – the black pepper, cardamom, wormwood, black walnut, grapefruit peel and orange peel, in particular have proven to be really useful single flavours to have around for precisely the purpose of subtly tricking out a classic cocktail. for example, we made black pepper bourbon manhattans for a friend’s birthday a while back that i felt really good about. so probably i’m just going to make more batches of those infusions that i like and found most useful.

      however, if i come into possession of a small oak or cherry cask, i don’t think i’ll be able to resist the urge to embark on another ill-thought-out experiment!

      something interesting that i’ve found out since is that among the major bitter/liqueur brands, it appears to be quite rare that they actually distil the herbs; most are infusions, that are then blended and usually aged, to mellow and integrate the character. Unicum claims to be one of the few that distils, which is interesting. i can send you the pdf of the Gastronomica article, if you’re interested.

      also, this book is amazing. thanks for sending it my way!

  3. Sorry, should have said “Sazerac Rye,” which I discovered is one of the few rye whiskeys still made with just rye. Most Canadian ryes are now blends–except for Alberta Premium I think. The LCBO in Ottawa got in a limited run of Sazerac Rye recently, so I snagged a bottle. I use this recipe:


    …but I swap in a broad orange twist for the lemon. I also stir in the sugar better before adding the soda and go a little heavier on the bitters.

    Based on how good I think the orange twist makes this drink, I’ll bet your orange-peel, star-anise infusion would work well. But even the Angostura makes for a fantastic cocktail.

    Blending anything is a real art, so I understand your struggle, but the individual infusions sound really interesting. I’ll bet they would be great for cooking too. That’s a bit of trend right, using things like Angostura and Peychaud in cooking.

    For sure send along the PDF, I’d love to check that out, thanks. I’m curious to see their justification for distilling over blending. I’d be afraid of ending up with moonshine rather than a workable bitters.

    • stillcrapulent says:

      aha, i wish i’d gotten ahold of that Sazerac when it around. I tried the Bulleit Rye and really liked it, but have persistently failed to acquire a bottle of my own.

      i’ll send you the article, but it’s not altogether that in-depth, more historical than technical. and i think they both distil and diffuse, then blend, so they still have control over proportions and intensities.

  4. Pingback: Embittered IV: It’s About the Book, Not About the Booze. « still crapulent

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