Conservation Through Cocktails

Are you ready for a jujube and hawthorn martini? A new company created by a group of ethnobotanists, including Ashley DuVal M.E.Sc. ’10, thinks so.

Making bitters
Ashley Duval
Ashley DuVal, co-founder of Shoots and Roots Bitters, tests some of her newest tinctures and extract mixtures.
Ashley DuVal M.E.Sc. ’10 thinks you’re ready for a cocktail. One that is reminiscent of the taste of rice and indigo, yohimbe bark, or Sambong leaf. She’s so confident, in fact, that she has co-founded a company whose very business will be to get you drinking, and enjoying, compounds you’ve never heard of from plants you’ve never seen. 
 
In her apartment in Harlem, DuVal deposits two drops of dark red liquor onto the back of my hand. My skin stains lightly. From arm’s distance I smell a sweet, spicy aroma.
 
“We call this Chai Jolokia,” she says. It’s made from what was once “the hottest chili pepper known to man.” Surrounded by dark wood, bottles of swollen herbs, and old botanical illustrations, I half expect a tiger to come snuffing at the door. My eyes water as DuVal describes the warrior class that once cultivated the wild Naga Jolokia pepper in the jungles of Southern India. “We complemented the chili with masala spices and ginger,” she says. Now, “it’s great with rum or in a Dark and Stormy!”
 
Shoots and Roots Bitters is a bitters company officially launched last summer by DuVal (who is also a research assistant to F&ES Dean Peter Crane) and colleagues Rachel Meyer and Selena Ahmed, all botanists who met while studying at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. Bitters are blended plant extracts that can be added to drinks (alcoholic or non) for intense or varied flavors, or else used medicinally for a range of palliative properties. These new bitters are designed to make you think.
If we can strengthen markets for locally important crops, that would really be a success.
— Ashley DuVal
The company wants to provide “a new and meaningful way” for people to connect with nature and experience the richness of the biodiversity of plants, DuVal says. There are more than 350,000 distinct plant species known to humans, she explains, and nearly 30,000 of them have been used at some point as food or medicine. “But now we depend on fewer than 30 for our caloric needs.” That means we are missing out on experiencing a big piece of planet Earth. “It all comes down to appreciation,” DuVal says.
 
A lack of appreciation — call it awareness — of plant diversity can have consequences. “Land use conversion is the single biggest threat to biodiversity,” Duval says. We may well be plowing under vital plant species in order to sow the traditional big crops we’ve already grown to love. DuVal and her colleagues want you to experience these plants before they disappear. They hope new appreciation can translate into enthusiasm for conservation — and maybe also some economic incentive for cultivating the under-utilized plants of the world. “If we can strengthen markets for locally important crops,” Duval says, “that would really be a success.”
 
The next bottle we open is a tincture, meaning it contains the extracts of only one species of plant. Most of the team’s bitters contain extracts from up to a dozen plants. Nevertheless, this product is remarkable: It smells of fresh pine, chopped wood  and, well, mountain air.  “I wanted to bottle the feeling of walking through the High Sierras in the summer,” DuVal says. This tincture is extract from fresh California incense cedar.  It tastes cool and sharp and is strangely compelling. “I like to put it over soda,” she says and laughs. “I can drink it all day.”
 
“We’re not professional bartenders,” Rachel Meyer tells me later, as we tour the team’s lab space at the New York Botanical Garden. Consequently, they are partnering with bartenders and mixologists around New York City to integrate their unique bitters into new cocktail designs. [You can find some interesting recipes at the company’s Web site].
Shoots and Roots Bitters
A collection of bitters awaits shipment. The company logo is an herb immersed in a spherical jar, a reference o the botanist’s preferred method of plant compound extraction.
They are also working to make the blends non-alcoholic, Meyer says, “so we can get kids excited about biodiversity too.” Extracting chemicals from plant tissue typically requires alcohol or some solvent to break the tough cells of a plant’s bark or leaf tissue. But there are clever ways to remove the alcohol once the extraction is complete.
 
In a meeting room below the team’s lab space, the four of us try to develop a new extract mixture. We drink buckwheat tea from Yunnan and consider the merits of Yemeni honey.
 
One new tincture makes us cringe. It is bile yellow and strong, made from an Andea medicinal plant. My eyes shut involuntarily against its back-of-the-throat-bitter kick. “Wow, that’s woody,” Ahmed says. Someone is coughing. A real “high-mountain bitter,” she adds with some appreciation. Trees in the mountains produce more and stranger chemicals as a result of the intense conditions they must endure, she explains. Tasting their compounds can be intense.
 
We discuss a recent mixture, “Summers in Bangkok,” which Ahmed created to capture childhood summers spent with family in Thailand. Lemongrass, tamarind, bael fruit, pandan leaf… the recipe is part horticultural book and part personal experience. The women of Shoots and Roots are not only bottling culturally important or underutilized plants and using them to educate the world about plant diversity. They are also capturing moments and memories. In the process they end up with a product capable of taking us somewhere new, somewhere a little more wild.
 
Each of the three founders has field sites they remember fondly, which have inspired unique extract blends. For her part DuVal hopes to capture the essence of her time along the estuaries of the Amazon, where she studied the historical domestication of the açaí palm for her Master’s studies at Yale. 
 
Eventually they plan to produce multiple lines of diverse bitters. The first selection they’ve made celebrates the unique plants and cultures of particular biodiversity hotspots around the world: the islands of Japan, the mountains of the Philippines, the forests of Southern India. Future extract mixtures could take you on a journey through the evolution of a particular plant genus, as Meyer hopes, or the layers of a single forest, something DuVal currently muses on.

The team takes pains to source only from sustainable suppliers, and they avoid rare or threatened plants. That combined with their “small batch artisanal approach” means new blends will take some time to develop. Of particular concern to the team is someday using funds generated by their company to support new research and conservation projects in the plants’ home ranges. “Once we have profits,” Meyer says.
 
For now, DuVal says, “we’re having trouble keeping up with all the demand.”

About the Author

Aaron Reuben is a 2012 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, where he served as managing editor of Sage Magazine. His writing has appeared in Grist, Sierra Magazine, and the Atlantic.
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PUBLISHED: July 1, 2014
 

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