If you’ve been out for cocktails recently — and I mean out for cocktails at a place that doesn’t have a lunch combo — you may have noticed that your bartender seems to be making more than just the usual drink.
Besides the customary rows of vodka, gin, rum, whiskey and tequila, you might have spied an array of little, strangely colored bottles fitted with droppers and dasher caps and handwritten labels. No, Atticus with the handlebar mustache, the flow-and-comb hair and full beard isn’t running an illegal apothecary out of your favorite bar; he’s mastering craft cocktails, and those bottles may just be tinctures.
If you tend to associate the word "tincture" with folk medicine and not a raucous night out on the town, you’re right. And wrong. While herbs have long been combined with alcohol to concentrate and preserve their healing properties, our modern cocktail actually evolved from the early apothecaries. The elixirs, remedies and cure-alls were the only choices for the sick who lived in a world where their best chance for a lifesaving surgery wasn’t their doctor but their barber (who also happened to be your manicurist and dentist as well).
It is formerly medicinal bitters like Angostura and Peychaud’s that we mix with our modern cocktails to this day. In fact, a popular remedy for an upset stomach during that period — and some say the origin of the word "cocktail" itself — was America’s first real cocktail, the Sazerac.
Today, inventive bartenders and mixologists are embracing the rich apothecary history of the cocktail to rejuvenate the classics and invent some new drinks all their own. So next time you’re out looking for craft cocktails, be on the lookout for those oddly shaped and labeled bottles — they’re at the heart of the craft cocktail renaissance.
Simply put, a tincture is just a concentrated alcohol infusion. Basically you put whatever herb, fruit, flower, vegetable or spice you want into an airtight container, and cover it in alcohol. Seal the jar, let it steep, shaking it up occasionally, and strain. Boom! You’re ready to mix. How long you let the tincture steep depends on the proof of your alcohol and what you’re making into a tincture. Fresh herbs can take as little as six hours to get the flavor you want, whereas something like cinnamon can take weeks.
A tincture is a subtle and consistent concentrated component of the drink. It is meant to be one pure flavor designed to enhance the cocktail, either by reinforcing a single characteristic of the cocktail or to introduce a playful complexity or surprising element to the drink. It should never be overpowering. Bitters, as the name suggests, uses a bittering agent and is usually a blend of different flavors. Bartenders will sometimes mix tinctures on the spot to make an impromptu bitters.
Tinctures pack quite a punch, so use a dropper or atomizer to add only a small amount to the cocktail while you’re mixing. Powerful flavors like chilies, horseradish and smoke can become overwhelming quickly.
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