A bad margarita tastes like two things: tequila and sugar. It also tastes like the peeling vinyl on a chain restaurant booth, the era of regret known as spring break, and New Year’s Eve 2001, when you chased the stolen vodka from your parent’s liquor cabinet with Diet Coke.
Try as you might, you’re not going to find the ice-clean silence of the Andes in that drink, or the quick pop and heat of a noisy corner chai stall in Jaipur. But that’s exactly what bitters evangelists Shoots & Roots Bitters believe you should be able to taste in your next cocktail. While they’re at it, they’re going to make sure it cures your cold, boosts your immunity, calms inflammation, and increases brain function.
Shoots & Roots was founded by a plant evolutionist, an ethnobotanist, and a professor of sustainable food systems, who are taking the knowledge they gained studying ancient trees in the Pyrenees and the effects of climate change on Japanese eggplant and applying it to getting you swizzled.
“We knew that there is this global tradition of infusing culturally or medicinally important plants in alcohol or water to take as a medicine or as an aperitif,” says evolutionary biologist and Shoots & Roots cofounder Rachel Meyer. “Ten percent of the world’s plants have medicinal properties, but the bitters market is only using ten common ingredients. So we really saw a gap there.”
Bitters have millennia of history behind them: Cultures in Ancient Egypt and China infused herbs, roots, and barks in grain alcohol for medicinal purposes. And, yet, the most popular bitters on the market still rely on 19th-century recipes that use only a few ingredients, mainly warm spices and citrus fruits.
But new holistic tinctures of herbs and plants are making their way into cocktail bars. Meyer and her partners, Selena Ahmed (the food systems professor) and Ashley Duval (the ethnobotonist), are pursuing that end through serious science, by foraging their own products for experimentation, and by sourcing from communities working in sustainable agriculture. Their list of ingredients now includes over 200 relatively unknown plants, from blue pea flower to naga jolokia peppers.
They create their bitters in Harlem, which puts them at the epicenter of the bespoke cocktail movement.
“We see it as spreading the gospel to help small-scale farmers,” says Duval. “In our modern food system, we’re just consuming so many fewer micronutrients,” Ahmed adds. “We want to bring those lost flavors back into the modern diet.” They create their bitters in Harlem, which puts them at the epicenter of the bespoke cocktail movement. “When we were getting started, it was easy to just go down the street to talk to mixologists and ask them what they thought, what flavor combinations they would want to explore,” Meyer says. “Alder was just down the street from NYU [where I was studying], and Wylie Dufresne was doing these really cool cocktails on tap.” Meyer would bring him whatever she could find while foraging in Central Park. “They’d be like, ‘This is great!’ or ‘This is disgusting!’”