Imagine a goblet of foraged healing herb infused spirits, set ablaze and brought to you by men wearing the oversized animus tribal masks of ancient healers to represent the gods of their forefathers—a traditional leather cased drum, beaten wildly, filling the air with the echoing drone of the primordial.
If you think blowtorching an orange rind or a glass filled with smoke is impressive barmanship, think again. From a pisco sour made with coca leaves (believed to be a Godly plant by the Incas) at Cusco’s Qespi Bar to palo santo (literally translated to Holy Tree) soaked cognac mixed with mushroom butter at Los Angeles haunt, The Spare Room, or a damiana (Central American healers’ aphrodisiac/antidepressant) infused tipple at Mexico City’s La Cotidiana, ingredients typically used to heal or perform spiritual ceremonies are beginning to grace cocktail menus across the globe in varying scales.
“If you look at the origins of spirits, many were originally created as a sort of medicine,” explains Kalel Demetrio, the man behind Agimat Foraging Bar. “So it makes a lot of sense to use these elements in cocktails just from that perspective.” Demetrio himself might even look like a modern shaman of sorts: His dark hair hangs in two long braids, his fingers and neck are heavily adorned with a mixture of silver and tribal jewelry from the indigenous groups he has explored with and befriended.
While Demetrio has been a longtime contributor to Manila’s nightlife scene, Agimat is his newest venture. Boasting ingredients and spirits exclusively native to Philippines, Demetrio finally has a bar dedicated to his deepest passion: sourcing, discovering and using little known indigenous Filipino healing plants from the help of his country’s off-the-grid indigenous elders and shamans.
You may be getting some of the compounds that are beneficial in the herb, but there likely is lacking a more spiritual, conscious connection and communion with the plant.
From discovering little known herbs shaman use to reduce inflammation and fight diabetes or liver disease, to the correct way to harvest mandrake sap to turn into a house spirit, Demetrio’s exploration into the use of native Filipino healing plants takes form in everything from tonic water made from the leafy makabuhay vine to the extremely delicate, serpentina flower, which he transforms into bitters. “We use about five different bittering agents from wild mountain plants and herbs that are used as medicine by the native peoples, right now,” Demetrio explains. Not to mention the row upon row of distillations, spirits, tonics, syrups, and infusions that are also laced with such herbs and plants that Demetrio has made himself in his fermentation lab. In fact, you won’t find one bottle of recognizable (or for the most part labeled at all) booze at Agimat.
Crediting his love for using such ingredients to the realization that healing is historically linked to plants as the first sort of medicine humans ever had, the celebrated bartender sees his work with shamans as a natural extension of hyper-localism and the native ingredients movement in Philippines. The case being, that these sorts of plants are the ones where a common knowledge has largely depleted or entirely disappeared as modern medicine and agriculture have replaced their consumption and use—especially since much indigenous healing knowledge focused around plants is passed down from person to person, mouth to mouth. Essentially: If things aren’t used, they’re forgotten. “It’s important to hold on to the origins of these things,” Dimitro says. “My belief that there’s much more to discover gets me on my hunting and foraging trips. When I was starting out, I would go on these trips alone, but the movement has really started to become solid and everyone wants to search and forage with me now.”
And at the same time, on the other side of the world in Flagstaff, Arizona, Jeremy Meyer is channeling another sort of shaman’s herbal healing power, the Navajo and Hopi Native Americans, in (of all things) a Japanese fusion restaurant and bar, Lotus Lounge. What people who aren’t familiar with area don’t know about Flagstaff is that it’s in the heart of the Coconino National forest, one of the most diverse forests in North America, surrounded by volcanos and varied high desert climates making it an incredibly diverse cornucopia of flora for the proverbial shaman picking. For Meyer, that means foraging for things like osha root (not to be confused with the very deadly and similar looking poison hemlock) a plant traditionally used by Native American healers for its decongestant and antiviral properties. Other herbs like mullein and Mormon tea plant grow wild in abundance and have histories being used to treat colds, boost energy and lower blood pressure. At Lotus Lounge, Meyer makes Mormon tea transform into earthy bitters, osha root flavors a wild house vermouth, and mullein is used for a spicy kick to the cocktail in need.
“I’ve always been into localism,” Meyer says, explaining how Flagstaff’s Native American population as well as a local apothecary, Winter Sun, rife with Native American healing herbs sparked his initial dive into using such ingredients in cocktails. Interesting, Meyer has found that Native American patrons have found fascination with his new use of such herbs, often times inspiring him further and teaching him about more plants and herbs he wasn’t aware of. “I’ve been able to lean on a lot of gathered wisdom, without having to leave the comfort of my bar perch,” Meyer jokes. “They’re usually pretty surprised that I’ve taken the time to show a genuine care for their history as it pertains to my realm of expertise."
The question that arises with such a trend is: Does using shamanic healing herbs in a cocktail get you a tipple that might (in some ways) actually be healing? Scientifically speaking, yes. “Most herbs carry well in alcohol,” explains Dana Remedios, a holistic nutritionist. “Alcohol-based tinctures are actually a preferred method for rendering herbs as they are often stronger than infusions or decoctions. They are used in most herbal traditions, primarily the European, Australian and American ones, for medicinal use.” But Remedios does insist that users remember alcohol will not work equally "for all plant components; the fat soluble ingredients would be better extracted in oil.” An example being: lavender’s oils can reduce pain while its flowers calm nerves. So, a lavender extract of oil rubbed to the skin can reduce pain while a tincture with alcohol and lavender flowers might only work to cal. Certain elements of the plants healing prowess are captured in different mediums.
At the same time, there’s more to shamanic healing than the presence of healing elements in the herbs. Phillipa Kim Downs, a shamanic medicine woman, think it’s more complex than these plants simply being in the drink: “You may be getting some of the compounds that are beneficial in the herb, but there likely is lacking a more spiritual, conscious connection and communion with the plant.” Downs, who initiated with the Q'ero tribe of the Andean medicine people in Peru, explains that traditionally it’s believed that a shaman’s ability to recognize vibration, energy and spirit within all of nature and connect with that spirit in the herbs is what makes the herb truly able to provide help to heal physical, mental and emotional wounds.
“Shamans believe that plants have a spirit,” Downs says. “Many shaman have had dreams where the plant spirits connect to them, teach them its medicine and show them where to find them. The next day the shamans would forage the jungles and forests until they found it. That’s how many of the shamanic medicine people knew how to treat ailments and issues within the tribe community that they served.” While these bartenders may be using resources beyond spiritual connection and dreams, their education and use of them is keeping medicinal shamanic plants alive in a new way when such knowledge is continuously dwindling, opening up a larger conversation and exposure to the mainstream.
“The sacred aspect would most likely be lost in a bar setting,” Dows mulls. “But it could be a cool conversation starter and perhaps introduce people to the back story behind the herb, its medicinal and healing benefits, the culture it comes from and plant a seed into people of the mystic and wonder of the shamanic ways.”