Monday, March 17, 2008

Chinese Apothecary Bitters

So I've been rolling around a concept in my head ever since I've been reading some posts about asian liquor on the OBG's forums. I'd like to put together a cocktail with asian ingredients, maybe using a tea reduction, soju, maybe some lemon juice and bitters. Instead of a western style bitters though, I've been trying to think of something distinctly asian to use. Yesterday, some of the OBG board met for a Portland Monthly photoshoot (look for my ugly mug to appear in the May 2008 issue), and as I caught the bus downtown in the morning, I went walking through Chinatown on my way to the location. As I was walking down the street, I spotted a Chinese apothecary that I hadn't noticed before. There was a great poster in the window advertising Jin tonics containing deer antler, horny goat weed, sea horse and other exotic ingredients. A year ago, I would have walked on by and never given it another thought, but my recent experiences with acupuncture have made me a real believer in Eastern medicine. I've had terrible back pain for years, but after my first acupuncture session, I felt better than I have at any time since I was a teenager. If a few needles can give me that kind of relief, I'm more than willing to drink something that contains deer antler if there are some purported health benefits.

In fact, my friend JT and I have had vodka steeped with deer antler and some other exotic ingredients at a very good (and quite strange) restaurant at the Santa Monica airport, Typhoon. I seem to recall the drink being rather full flavored, almost a pronounced leather flavor on the palate, and as I was remembering these flavors, I thought an herbal tonic from the apothecary would be the perfect base for an asian style bitters.

Today, during lunch, I hopped a bus to Chinatown and wandered into the apothecary, Each wall was filled floor to ceiling with giant jars of things like cuttlefish bone, strange roots, and dull colored powders. Some of the labels had english translations, but most did not. I explained to the herbalist that I wanted a mens formula tonic, something to increase my general well being. He asked me a number of questions to eliminate any potential health problems, and when he decided that I was healthy, he asked if my sexual functions were ok. I assured the man that I was fully functional, and he indicated that he could add some ingredients to bring me to new sexual heights. Never being one to turn down opportunities for maximum virility, I said sure, add whatever you need to make this a very manly tonic. The clerk started calculating and talking to himself, peering in jars and sniffing others, before he finally made up his mind. He would create a good all around health tonic and throw in a sea horse for male potency, I would just need to come home and steep this whole concotion for at least two weeks. Even better, while he said that water or wine would work ok for this tonic, he suggested vodka as the best way to get maximum effect from the tonic. "Drink up to two shots a day" he told me, so I knew as a bitters, I'd never get close.

Here is what he put together

Chinese Apothecary Tonic/Bitters

30 g ginseng root
30 g Astralagus root
30 g schizandra fruit
30 g peony root
30 g epimidium leaves
30 g codonopsis root
30 g atractylodes root
30 g dan gui root
30 g lycium root
10 g licorice root
30 g pseudoginseng root
30 g ligustrum
30 g hoa shou wu
1 sea horse, dried (I named mine Sven)

Soak in 2 750 Ml bottles of vodka (I used 1 bottle of Everclear and 1 of vodka) for at least 2 weeks and up to 3 months. Apparently, leaving out the sea horse makes this an appropriate tonic (although less effective than other womens formulas) for women.

I started this tonight. The clerk told me that this would have a pronounced bitter flavor, however, if its not quite bitter enough, I'll hit it with some gentian at that time.

I'm really excited to have a bitters that would be appropriate for asian style cocktails. Even better, if I can offer something that has the potential to have health benefits, I think that it will be an interesting concept.

I always say that as long as I learn and take something away from each experiment, I'm succesful. I've already learned a lot today and I can't wait to see how the bitters turn out.


Anonymous said...


Trust in the power of Sven!

I'm extremely curious to see how this turns out as well.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting concept. I have been thinking along similar lines myself recently. I recently did a couple of Chinese tea infusions. I have been thinking about a Chinese herbal infusion. You can read about those by going to my site and checking out the 'experiments and infusions' section on the sidebar.

My idea was to infuse vodka or gin with a herb mix similar to that used for Bak-kut-teh (literally 'pork bone tea'), a Hokkien restorative soup.

I have also been thinking about Asian style bitters, maybe with an emphasis on liquorice, star anise, or similar.

I had a previous bad experience trying to make orange bitters using dried orange peel from a Chinese medicine shop though. My own orange bitters seemed like it needed a flavor boost so added the Chinese style orange peel as a quick fix. Big mistake! It ended up with a weird musty taste.

Let me know how it goes and keep an eye on my site in case I start infusing again.

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