Over the last few weeks, I’ve had myriad magic potions land on my desk. Liquids in both alcoholic and non forms that promise all kinds of miracles of health to those who drink deeply of both the mix and the message. One delivery was from Bolthouse Farms in the Central Coast of California, a baby carrot grower who’s dabbling in “natural” (oh, that word) vitamin waters and protein shakes under the sub-brand name, Aura.
The words on the clear plastic (with a heartening “1” recycle number level—props!) promise a full serving of fruit, as well as a bevy of vitamins and those oh-so desirable antioxidants, and come in alluring, mildly exotic flavors like rosemary /cucumber/lemon and orange/basil. When I looked at the ingredients on the latter, it started out promising—water, apple, lemon, carrot, and orange juices (from concentrate—and no basil, either, despite the declaration of the flavor), but then comes that red flag phrase: “natural flavors,” a loose-ish blanket term that appears to cover a whole lot of things. And while the 45 calories in total was attractive, I found it to have an odd-ball aftertaste; kind of diety.
But while supermarket, and even liquor store shelves, seem to be inundated with bottles and cans and six-packs and all other kinds of containers proclaiming health promises to those of us seeking the source of vibrancy, energy, and youth (and, damn, who over 35 isn’t looking for that?), it’s really not anything new in the world or so very modern in its focus.
The search for a magic elixir has been going on since Juan Ponce de Leon purportedly discovered the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, FL, in the early sixteenth century—and likely before that, too. After all, the translation of that lovely named liqueur eau de vie says it all: the water of life.
If you think about it, drink—and alcoholic drink, more specifically—was long the healthy consumable of choice because, before the advent of modern systems of water supply, drinking it was about as safe as going for a jog in a minefield. Liqueurs and digestifs in particular are some of the oldest spirits we have, and their creation more often than not wasn’t for a nip to sip before or after a meal, but to cure what ailed you—a stomach ache, a headache, heartache, bad humor, leg pain, arm pain, fever, fainting, ashen complexion, a bad crop. Drink down a distillate of healthy herbs and other botanicals and wellness would be yours.
Monks as Mixologists
While evidence of distillates can be found as far back as 800 B.C., and certainly flowing with abandon in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, it was the clergy in the Middle Ages that tinkered around with garden-variety ingredients in such a particularly powerful way, that we still have some of the resulting relic recipes on a spirit store shelf near you.
Benedictine has that fascinating kind of spiritual lineage and a secret pile of botanical ingredients that even Indiana Jones couldn’t unearth, not to mention an acronym on the label that translates from the Latin to mean “To God, Most Good, Most Great.” Pretty weighty stuff. But its secular enjoyment factor seems to have overshadowed its initial divine inspiration—apparently an angelic vision received in 1510 by a Benedictine monk who was divinely given the go-ahead to take angelica root and save the masses from the horrific maladies of the day. Many hundreds of years later, I remember my parents sipping on the stuff after dinner—a digestif to make the meat and potatoes go down. So, not curing the plague but certainly at least masking as a post-dinner aide to digestion, and turning my mom’s pale Irish cheeks a flushed and healthy-looking pink.
Chartreuse is another, and maybe one of the best examples. The recipe is at the very least over 500 years old, and contains a still-mysterious blend of a ballpark guess of 130 natural ingredients—but here, that word actually seems to carry some clout. After all, it was the Carthusian Monks located in Voiron just outside of Paris who were presented in 1602 with this recipe—a medicinal mix of herbs, flowers, bark, roots, and other flora—contained in a manuscript apparently entitled An Elixir of Long Life, gifted to them by King Henry the IV. So wonderful the recipe seemed, thought the French monks, that its life-giving properties must have been bestowed from on high and so for decades and decades, they tinkered and tried and adjusted and tasted (probably a lot) until they got it just right.
If you’ve never sampled the stuff, wow—it’s not for the delicate. There are two kinds—the green and the yellow, the former being a little higher in alcohol (55% abv, as opposed to the yellow’s 40), but for aromatic purposes, it’s the green that, to me anyway, smells more like a walk through the woods (a robust walk, sure); medicinal but a little earthier and more floral than its counterpart, which smells like anise and eucalyptus.
So legend has it, there are only two monks of the Carthusian order who hold the recipe at a time, a practice still honored to this day. But even such long and auspicious history couldn’t kill the whims of 20th-century trends. As vodka rose in popularity from mid-century on and the tastes–of American drinkers, anyway—were lulled into sweeter, less complex concoctions, it’s a spirit that fell out of favor until very recently. Several years ago when I was interviewing drinks historian and writer Dave Wondrich–author of the J. Beard winning book Imbibe! and his latest, Punch–for a story I was writing on the then-burgeoning trend of farm-to-table cocktail trends, I asked him what the next hot thing would be. He thought for a second, and came back unequivocally with an answer that the Carthusian monks clasp their hands and pray for joy: Chartreuse, he said. And while the streets aren’t exactly flowing green or yellow, it has popped up quite a bit in chic cocktail spots across the country.
Elixir for the Modern Age
And then there are the Italian amari, dark and tasting of fennel, which I learned to love when they were pushed at me in Puglia by Italian women who assured me it would make room for post-supper treats when I swore I could eat no more, and which you now see more and more on post-dinner menus. We have the hot toddy, consumed by East India Trading company sailors to up their Vitamin C intake, warm their bones, and just generally placate them into not jumping overboard from tedium. We have stout (“Guinness is good for you!”). And many more I’m sure I’m leaving out here.
The same week I received the magic fruit-boost water drinks, I also got a box containing a little brown bottle with the letters E**X**R, provocatively blacking out the missing bits to spell the obvious. The producer, The Bitter Truth, is known for making an artisanal line of bitters, in versions like celery, lemon, chocolate, and grapefruit. The bottle I received is their latest—a new-fashioned digestif that might be the kind of gateway drug for the unintroduced. Medicinal and herby, sure, but more like a B&B than a straight-up Benedictine or a hard-core amaro. In very non-technical terms, I find it pretty yummy. It was luscious on my tongue and tasting mildly of dark chocolate, grapefruit zest, sassafras, sage, and pine.
Really. All of that. The note that came with the bottle didn’t speak of divine interventions or tout a cure for Avian flu (although they do keep their ingredients close to the chest). Instead, they suggested sipping it neat, or mixing it in to your Manhattan or Negroni. Which, if there were a plague, is what I’d be sipping anyway, so it all sort of works out in the bitter end.