The first time I ever distilled my own liquor, I experienced something of the excitement that must have been felt by Jabir-ibn-Hayyan, the eighth-century Mesopotamian alchemist who is said to have discovered the distillation of alcohol. It was the year that our apricot tree fruited like never before, an embarrassment of riches that yielded apricot pies, apricot sauce, and finally, due to sheer neglect (some over-ripe apricots left in a bowl, then accidentally submerged in water), apricot beer. The beer got me all excited, but my excitement waned when I tried it, then reached a new height as I was hit by the inspiration to extract the alcohol from the beer. I rigged a crude still out of a pot, a ceramic vegetable steamer, and a bag of ice, and produced a few milliliters of clear, strong, and deliciously fruity-flowery-aromatic moonshine. Tasting it, I was transformed by the spirit, the essence of apricot as it melted into my tongue then shone out of my every pore. This, I thought to myself, is definitely something I could do full-time.
As it turned out, I never did become a big-time producer of whiskey or rum or apricot liquor. Fortunately, there are other ways of extracting plant essences with alcohol. When I was a child, I used to help my parents make umeshu, the traditional “plum wine” of Japan. My sister and I would carefully wash and dry the unripe fruit (actually a variety of apricot), then poked them full of holes with a fork. My mother put the fruit into large glass jars, together with rock sugar, and poured shochu (grain spirits) over them. A couple of years later, we enjoyed the resulting liqueur, neat or mixed with soda water and ice as a refreshing summer drink.
This, essentially, is the art of the herbal liqueur: you take a plant, soak it in strong alcohol to bring out its flavors and other qualities, then (after a wait of at least two weeks) drink this extract in small amounts over time to appreciate its effects on your mind and body. You can do this with all sorts of things: ginseng, astragalus, angelica, walnuts and Chinese wolfberries all yield decent tonic liqueurs. And you can experiment with a variety of solvents – rum is one of my favorites, although you can use vodka, tequila, or any strong liquor.
There’s a lot of discussion among students of herbal medicine as to the proper percentage of alcohol in the solvent, in relation to the type of plant being extracted. For our alchemical purposes, I suggest any strong liquor of about 100 proof. That way, you’ll end up with a balance of water-soluble and alcohol-soluble herb constituents. Also, to create a pleasant-tasting brew it’s good to start with more liquor and less herb, significantly less than the one to five ratio (one ounce dried herb to five fluid ounces of solvent) that is considered standard strength for herbal tinctures. Better yet, begin with something that tastes good to start with, like peaches or cherries or any kind of berry! There’s a lot to be said, in terms of antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and other phytonutrients, for the health benefits of fruit. One of my fantasies, yet to be fulfilled, is to travel the length of the West Coast one summer with a huge jar of Kirsch or Calvados or some other fruity spirits, throwing in large handfuls of wild berries as I come across them in my travels. Olallieberries, raspberries, strawberries, huckleberries, currants, even the somewhat medicinal-tasting berries of the California Spikenard and Devil’s Club would all be welcome to the mix. By the end of the summer I’d have a quantity of berry elixir to last me through the rest of the year, to share with friends and loved ones, to stretch a little bit of the summer’s sweet goodness into the cooler days of fall and winter.
The satisfaction that comes from making stuff, especially stuff that tastes good and makes you feel good, is a feeling that many people do without. In this day of instant gratification and 40-hour workweeks, few of us take (or make) the extra time and effort necessary to cook our own meals, much less concoct our own medicines and dessert wines. Why bother, when our natural food stores and supermarkets offer us everything we need, pre-made and ready to go? I bother because I find this type of activity to be deeply satisfying in a way that’s difficult to describe. To be in touch with the flux of the seasons, to pick an herb when its qi has sunk into its roots in the fall or risen into its flowers in the summer, to harvest by the time of day and phases of the moon, to extract the essence of a plant and then to ingest it – these are activities that are so ancient that their re-enactment awakens in us an almost shamanic appreciation of the natural world that we are a part of. Why not take the time to appreciate, in some small way, the great cosmic cycles that shape and influence all life on our planet? Watching the sunset or the moonrise, or the Milky Way on a clear night, can do the trick. But to drink the light that was captured by a plant – that is the unique pleasure, and the rare medicine, of the herbal liqueur.