Our First Workshop is Jan. 8

Get your cheese ready!

Hello, wonderful witches!

BIG NEWS. The first Kitchen Witch workshop is on the books for SATURDAY, JANUARY 8, 2022, at 2:00 CENTRAL TIME (3 Eastern, 1 Mountain, 12 Pacific). I know I said December in the last issue, but with the holidays—it just seems better to push to January. The workshop will be about tyromancy, fortune telling with cheese. This will be an interactive workshop, so to prepare, you’ll need either a moldy piece of cheese (your choice of cheese) or a piece of cheese with holes in it, the more holes the better. If you’re going for the mold and you don’t want your house to stink, put a piece of cheese in your fridge now so it’s ready to go by the time we meet. This workshop will cost $20. Registration information will be sent out shortly!

Also, ICYMI, we are now publishing one or two issues a month, with special issues for paid subscribers for the sabbats and other occasions.

For today’s article, we’re learning about homemade bitters.


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Bewitched Bitters

By Tommy Werner

At this very moment, it’s likely I have something bubbling, steeping, or infusing in my kitchen. As Tom Waits would say if he ever opened my door, “Everything in your fridge is like a science project,” but I’ve got that in the best way. In many cases, my line-up of experiments is harnessing the power of roots and herbs for a final trial run in a cocktail. Infusing bitters and liqueurs have been at the forefront of my home kitchen experiments. In addition to there being a cocktail tradition for infusing herbs and roots, I’ve also found that I’m drawing on a more magical tradition as well. 

The tincture bottles of bitters I hold onto and the infusions I’ve either bought or made myself contain a host of different flavors from a palette of chopped-up roots or dried flowers. Every drop of bitters contains a cast of characters ranging from common lavender and rhubarb to more esoteric ingredients. It’s the more esoteric ones I find profoundly fascinating, and as it turns out, so do the more ardent observers of esoteric sciences. 

In God of the Witches, Margaret Murray outlines the feasts and rituals of a sabbat, and while wine in goblets (wooden in France, silver in Alsace) makes a frequent appearance, cocktails and liquors on your home bar point a lot to the medicinal and often magical aspects of the herbs and botanicals contained within. 

The use of herbs also dots historical records and the instruction of witchcraft. In The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Patricia Netzly describes wortcunning and the formation of witch’s bottles: a suffumigation of three, seven, or nine herbs used for magical purposes. Netzly also mentions a figure who I am hellbent on learning more about by the name of Francis Barrett. Barrett, a 19th-century magical instructor, includes herbs in the rituals outlined in his manual The Magus. While my kitchen experiments aren’t pulling on Barrett’s experiences with dried toad skin amulets, I do share his affinity for using herbs to “prevent the baneful and most horrible effects of the pestilential poison.” Barrett also appears to love quite a few common kitchen ingredients: bay leaves (for wrapping up anything of solary virtue), cucumbers (as a natural antipathie to oil), and rhubarb as a way to stave off choler (I happen to think it also plays very nicely with rye whiskey and blood orange juice). Barrett also lists ways to steep herbs, which comes in handy for my continuing the tradition of steeping plant material to draw out the properties. 

Here are just a few of the roots I commonly have stocked in my pantry for home infusions, what they’re used for, and why you need them to make your own concoctions. 

Calamus 

Also called “Sweet Flag,” the root of calamus has long been praised as a digestive aid in medicinal applications. As Amy Stewart points out in her indefatigable resource, The Drunken Botanist, calamus has a spiciness and bitterness that plays a crucial role in Campari and Chartreuse. In more metaphysical applications, calamus makes for an indispensable incense and in controlling spells.

An important word about calamus: It’s absolutely imperative to be aware of the variety you’re looking for. There are a few varieties of calamus, and some contain a high amount of Beta-asarone, a carcinogen that has brought some controversy to the root. The variety common in North America (A. calamus var. americanus) contains inconsequential amounts of this compound, and European-made bitters and liqueurs are regulated to limit amounts of Beta-asarone. Be sure to do your research before ingesting anything. 

Gentian 

There are two prevailing styles I’ve seen for making bitters at home. There’s an everything-in-one-jar approach, where the infusion happens over a period of weeks, or there’s developing individual tinctures and designing bitters to taste. Whatever the method, you really need to get gentian in the mix. This root comes from a gorgeous flower and once dried, plays a part in the makeup of just about any liqueur or bitters. Like Suze, the French alpine liqueur that gets its vivid color and bitterness from gentian. My homemade orange bitters draw on spices and aromatic orange zest and get their punch from gentian. In Varro Tyler’s guide, The Honest Herbal, gentian is described as having the ability to strengthen the human system and as far back as 1200 B.C. The root also works as a digestive tea (there’s a reason you see them advertised as “digestive bitters”) and shows up in alchemical applications as a cornerstone in love potions. 

Wormwood 

This is more than the root Snape stumps Harry with in his first potions class. It is the key ingredient in producing the bitter backbone of vermouth, genepy, and absinthe, a beverage that has taken on its own mythical associations. Wormwood is psychoactive, and while my packaging says that it can cause brain damage and addiction, I think the generations of artists and magical thinkers that have lost themselves with absinthe may have been more under the influence of booze than the root itself. 

I’ve made my own absinthe twice, but since I’m not infrastructurally (or legally) able to have a still in my small New York City apartment, the absinthe I make is more of a high-octane infusion. I take a big bottle of high-proof neutral grain spirit (the higher the proof, the more easily the infusion will take on potent flavors) and add bowls of different botanicals, herbs, seeds, roots, and of course, wormwood. The primary flavoring agent comes from fennel: fresh fronds, fennel seeds, and anise seeds. When finished, a batch is the deepest shade of green, and the licorice-like smell is perceptible from a room over. And it is potent. Just a dash or a spray of it is enough to flavor a cocktail. 

Quite a few of these stimulate gastric juices. Something to think about the next time you’re considering a pre-dinner drink. 

Tommy Werner is a video producer, writer, recipe developer, and amateur musicologist living in New York City. His work has been included in Gather Journal, Bon Appétit, Put a Egg On It, Kinoscope, and The New York Times.

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