ON THE AFTERNOON of the new moon, I walk into a Capitol Hill bar where people are opening small bags of dried herbs.
It’s not what you think. This is Tavern Law, before doors open, where the bartenders are having a “drop party,” making tinctures to spice up winter cocktails. The curvaceous wooden bar is decorated with coriander, cloves, cedar, orange peel, fennel bulbs and dill fronds.
A tincture is a highly concentrated extract made from clear grain alcohol, herbs and spices. Used as medicinal remedies, tinctures are also important tools in a bartender’s bag of tricks. At local bars like Canon, Tavern Law and Naga, award-winning mixologists craft house-made bitters, syrups and tinctures, all destined for the drinks of your dreams.
At my favorite bars, I had noticed rows of mysterious eyedropper bottles — some labeled in obscure writing, some with skull-and-crossbones signs — and I was curious. Were these potions the secret weapons of today’s hottest bartenders?
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I called Angela Kimber, the general manager of Tavern Law and The Old Sage, which opened next door in August. Angela explained that the herbal elixirs are made by hand in a process that takes six weeks. She invited me to the drop party to see how the process starts.
Gathered around the bar, the Tavern Law staff is wearing regular clothes, although I imagine them in cloaks with wands. We ceremoniously fill jars with herbs (about two ounces) and add 375 milliliters of Double Silo vodka. Made by hand at Project V Distillery in Woodinville, the vodka is from all-Washington wheat and deliciously sweet, even though it packs a wallop at 160-proof.
Leon Baham, a bartender at Tavern Law and the sought-after upstairs speak-easy Needle & Thread, is excited about his tincture of lavender flowers and red sea salt. “I like to create flavors that I can’t find in spirits. I can get kind of witchy when I geek out.”
Bar wizard Amanda Reed, who manages Tavern Law, is dropping clove, sage and dried orange peel. “These flavors will go nicely with scotch and rye.” In another jar she’s adding juniper berries and lemon balm for gin-like flavors.
At the moment, Angela’s favorite tincture is buchu leaf, from a plant native to South Africa, which tastes like mint and lends itself to mezcal or to Tom Collins-style drinks. “There are infinite possibilities for tinctures and infinite possibilities for cocktails,” she says. “It’s about making anything possible that a guest wants.”
A year and a half ago, Tavern Law started making tinctures using biodynamic methods, a natural extension of chef-owners Brian McCracken and Dana Tough’s philosophy of serving local and sustainable food. Angela describes the Old World technique as using changes in atmospheric pressure during lunar cycles to extract the maximum essences. The jars sit in darkness until they are pulled on the second full moon, then the tinctures are strained with a chinois and bottled.
When the party ends, the bar is bejeweled with beautiful, boozy botanicals. Time — and the moon — will work their magic.
Makes 1 drink
1½ ounces La Puritata Verde Mezcal (or other mezcal)
½ ounce Meletti Amaro
½ ounce Saler’s Gentiane Apertif
¼ ounce Benedictine
6 drops Buchu leaf tincture (made from 2 ounces dried buchu leaves and 375 ml high-proof spirit, macerated over 6 weeks, then strained)
Lemon oil (from the zest of a peel added while stirring, then discarded)
Stir and strain into a rocks glass with one large cube.
— Amanda Reed, Tavern Law
Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle-based freelance writer. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.