Strange Mother Tongue: Unexpected Stories Of Unusual Liqueurs
Posted on May 13th, 2012
It all began with an artichoke. I was researching one day the various ways – stuffed, sliced, plucked, or grilled – to cook those spiny beasts of the garden, a perennial summertime favorite of mine. And then I saw it, a footnote at the bottom of the page: a reference to Cynar, the artichoke liqueur of Italy.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then clearly somebody was facing dire times indeed when they made an artichoke the mother of an aperitif. Cynar is appropriately (if unimaginatively) named for Cynar scolymus, the Latin for artichoke. It is reportedly a thick, dark brown color, bittersweet in flavor, and best paired, as unlikely as it may be, with an orange juice mixer. It sounded, in a word, horribly wonderful, and I had to try it. I had to drink an artichoke.
Unfortunately for my culinary adventures, I live in Alaska, not well known as a clearinghouse for the world’s liqueurs. My artichoke-infused cocktail, perhaps paired with a nice risotto of spring greens, was not to be. But in trying to track down the elusive Cynar, I stumbled upon four other oddities of the alcoholic variety, all the children of weird, unexpected, and/or sometimes mysterious mother ingredients. Together, these prove that a rule I’ve long suspected: that if you can grow it, you can probably also drink it.
I started with Amarula, a liqueur made from fresh cream and the wild marula fruit, indigenous to the woodlands of South Africa. Long favored by the Bantu as a source of Vitamin C, it may or may not also cause drunkenness in the animals that eat the fallen, fermenting fruit. You don’t have to travel too far into the Google-verse to find an excerpt from the classic 1974 nature documentary, “Animals Are Beautiful People,” that features charmingly tipsy elephants, stumbling ostriches, and even a groggy inch-worm, all reportedly (though perhaps not factually) blotto on marula fruit. Elephants’ antics aside, Amarula is a lovely drink. With its caramel nose reminiscent of candied apples, it’s an after-dinner drink for an autumn bonfire, to be sipped watching sparks shoot through the twilight at the shadows of bare-tipped trees.
Prefer not be lulled into a warm cocoon of sleep by your beverage? Fear not! Agwa de Bolivia is the alcoholic equivalent of a high-school rave, a drink that will have your nerves jumping to the naked drum-and-bass of your quickened heart rate. Made from Bolivian coca leaves (which, the distributor reassures us, are first shipped under armed guard to Amsterdam, where they are “de-cocainized” before being distilled into drinkability), this neon-green beverage smells faintly of limes and is disconcertingly, though pleasantly, tongue-numbing. Coca leaves have been brewed and chewed for both food and religious ceremonies for over 4,000 years, and Agwa de Bolivia is only the most recent in a long-line of coca-infused beverages, including Coca-Cola in its original 1886 formula and the lesser-known Vin Mariani, a popular coca-fortified Italian wine introduced in 1860 and reportedly enjoyed by Thomas Edison and Queen Victoria. Made with guarana and ginseng for an extra-caffeinated buzz, Agwa de Bolivia will give you a lightening boost of invincibility, power, confidence, and energy just like… oh, that’s right. Cocaine.
Or, maybe, you take your aperitifs the traditional way, tipping back a teaspoon of Fernet-Branca after dinner in your tweed smoking jacket to help nicely settle the rich churnings of your coq au vin. Fernet-Branca, an Italian digestif, smells like anise-flavored cough syrup and tastes like bitter, unripe green pepper mixed with dirt. It is, simply put, not good. The ingredients of Fernet-Branca are a closely guarded secret but have been rumored to include an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mix of aloe, gentian, codeine, absinthe, quinine, St. John’s wort, and fermented beets, among other mildly horrifying things. This is a drink you must approach with fortitude, grimacing as you kick back your dosage. Unsurprisingly, its most well-known use is as a medicinal treatment, apparently capable of curing everything from colicky babies and cholera to menstrual cramps. Feeling fairly hale at the moment of my sampling, I have, however, no scientific evidence to support those claims.
The queen bee of my taste-test, however, was Chartreuse, the only alcoholic beverage to have a color named after it. Indeed, this liqueur, made since the 1740s by the Carthusian monks of La Grande Chartreuse near Grenoble, France, is a muted, yellow-green beverage of 132 secret “alpine herbs,” undoubtedly hand-plucked by be-robed brothers prayerfully wandering the mountainsides of the French Alps. The coloring comes from chlorophyll, and indeed, Chartreuse has a refreshing palate of grass, thyme, and mint, mixed with a roundhouse kick of spice. Drinking it is like passing out in your mother’s herb garden after gorging yourself on fermented marula fruit – peacefully sweet, until she finds you lying in the chive bed and slaps you upside the head.
Go forth, my friends, into the wild and wooly world of liqueurs and cordials, where nary a nut, seed, leaf, or fruit is beyond being soaked, pressed, fermented, and brewed for your drinking pleasure. Or horror.