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Can the new breed of mixed drinks be part of your health regimen?
By Katie Loeb


ealthful cocktails? Yeah, right. This seems the start of a late night comic monologue or a phrase that could join “jumbo shrimp” and “compassionate conservative” in the annals of classic oxymorons. But in large cities across the nation and around the world, bartenders are




Left: the first-floor dining room and bar at Apothecary Right: The second-floor bar at Horizons

mixing, muddling and shaking all manner of fresh ingredients and organic spirits in an attempt to create new and interesting libations to reflect the healthier lifestyle of today’s consumers. There are plenty of reasons why people seek out “healthy” cocktails. For some, it’s an attempt to include social drinking in their life, while feeling they are maintaining their otherwise healthful habits. For others, there’s a feeling that including fresher ingredients in their drinks will somehow cancel out the alcohol, and perhaps lower the caloric content or hangover-producing effects of the alcohol. These are both wrong of course, but rationalizing one’s drinking after the fact is by no means a new concept for most folks. The best reason to jump on the bandwagon of this trend is because some of the most innovative and delicious craft spirits and cocktails are being produced in response to it. There are even places right here in the Philadelphia area where you can savor examples of “healthier” cocktails.

When I’m not writing wine and spirit articles, I am a bartender at a small wine bar called Chick’s Café in Philadelphia. I’m a big believer in making my own mixers behind the bar. There’s always homemade non-alcoholic ginger beer, fresh lemon and fresh lime cordials for gimlets and other cocktails, grenadine I’ve made myself from 100 percent pomegranate juice and any number of syrups made from herbs, spices or a combination thereof in the cooler. I do this both because I vastly prefer the flavor the fresh alternatives provide my guests and, more importantly, because I am not fond of the commercially made alternatives that are loaded with artificial flavors, caramel and other artificial colors and high-fructose corn syrup. These fresh mixes are not very difficult to make, and once you’ve tasted

these versions of common mixers, it’s hard to go back to those commercial brands. The newest addition to the hand-crafted cocktail trend is Midtown Village’s (or B3’s, or Wash West’s, or the Gayborhood’s, depending on which euphemism or demographic you’re most comfortable with) Apothecary Bar & Lounge. The bar at Apothecary looks a bit like a laboratory, with many dropper and dasher bottles in evidence on the bar. It’s a décor element that spills over on to the sleek minimalist shelves behind the bar which feature an extensive selection of organic spirits, as well as beakers and other pharmaceutically themed tchotkes filling up the spaces between the bottles. An entire section of the bar menu at Apothecary is devoted to “Elixirs” that feature ingredients ranging from low-glycemic organic agave nectar as a sweetener, to more well-known antioxidants like pomegranate juice, fresh blueberries and green tea infusions, all the way to exotic Goji berries, Siberian ginseng, yohimbe, valerian root and tincture of feverfew. These drinks are crafted from recipes that are followed to the letter, from measurement of the spirits down to the number of drops of the more extraordinary ingredients. And while I can’t say whether these drinks have necessarily improved my health in any way, I can certainly vouch for the inventiveness and deliciousness of the cocktails, the expertise with which the drinks are created and the excellent service provided by the staff at Apothecary. Horizons Restaurant, located in Bella Vista, is renowned for inventive vegan cuisine that doesn’t try to be anything other than delicious, but most people don’t realize that the selections at their bar are also vegan. Executive chef Rich Landau has made a conscious effort to include a wide range of organic/vegan spirits behind the bar, so his clientele can feel comfortable ordering an alcoholic beverage while dining at his restaurant. There is an extensive rum and tequila selection, as well as a smart selection of organic wines.



So is there any veracity to the idea of a more “healthful” alcoholic beverage? In the Dark Ages, there were alchemists trying to turn lead into gold. Distilled alcohol was one of the byproducts of that process, and almost every culture has an aqua vitae, eau de vie, aquavit, vodka or another phrase for the “water of life.” Prior to modern pharmaceuticals, this water of life was infused with herbs, spices and barks to find cures or provide comfort for the various health ills of the time. In 1510, there is a reference to an herbal elixir made by a Venetian monk at the Abbey of Fécamp, Dom Bernardo Vincelli, from 27 plants & spices from the four corners of the globe. The happily timeless result, Benedictine, has survived for close to five hundred years, and although it is now a proprietary product, the secret recipe is still closely guarded, the exact formula only known to a very few people. On these shores, the geographic proximity between the slave trade and sugar refining in the Caribbean islands led to rum becoming the drink of choice in the Colonies. Later on, the Northern Colonies started importing molasses and refining the rum themselves. In the 1700s there were hundred of rum distilleries in New England and the MidAtlantic states and rum became an important source of export and Where to go trade. During the 19th century, Chick’s Café & Wine Bar improvements in distilling technol614 South 7th Street ogy—namely the invention and Philadelphia patenting of the column, or contin215.625.3700 uous still—made liquor production Apothecary Bar & Lounge at higher proof levels (but less pure 102 South 13th Street quality) possible. Rather than makPhiladelphia ing small batches of lower-proof 215.735.7500 alcohol in pot stills, and redistilling Horizons it to get purer alcohol and less vol611 South 7th Street ume with each batch distillation, Philadelphia production could be increased, but 215.923.6117 the alcohol produced would contain higher levels of higher boiling point contaminants such as methanol and acetaldehyde. Before Prohibition, most spirits were made by smaller distilleries. The 13 long years between 1920 and 1933 put many of these family-run operations out of business. After the ban on the production and sale of alcohol was finally lifted, the corporate mega-distillery took the place of these smaller businesses. In the 1960s and ’70s, availability of better and cheaper artificial colorings and flavoring agents led greedy liquor companies to cease the actual distillation of their end product, and to begin “compounding”—adding extracts and corn sweetener to cheap, purchased neutral grain spirit—instead,
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The bar/dining room at Chick’s Café & Wine Bar

bottling it and selling it to the masses along with a recipe for a bad cocktail on the marketing materials hung around the neck of the bottle. Peach schnapps and a Fuzzy Navel anyone? On the heels of the success of beer microbreweries in the 1970s and ’80s, there’s a whole new generation of craft micro-distillers that are producing high quality, flavorful sprits that are made from traditionally harvested local grains and other ingredients grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. The term “organic” in this context is more about how the product is produced than about its health benefits. These organic spirits differ from their mega-distilled counterparts by virtue of both quantity and quality. For quality, start with an examination of the ingredients. Organic micro-distillers boast of using better quality ingredients that get processed and refined in smaller batches, often incorporating rare or indigenous blends of botanicals that yield laser-pure flavors. Many of these organic spirits possess characteristics that would be impossible to achieve with mass production efforts. For instance, in the process of making organic Scotch whiskey, organic producers use natural yeast instead of cultivated yeast, and the result is a sweeter and less harsh drink. Using organic ingredients in production also reduces the need for carbon filtering to create an artificially smooth flavor or the addition of glycerin to create viscosity. In general, organic liquor aficionados report that flavors are milder and more authentic than in commercially produced options. Domestically, organic vodka is most widely available since it is made from a variety of sources that are readily available in the U.S. including wheat, corn, rye or potatoes. Some of the more popular brands include Prairie, Tru, Rain and Square One. Imported organic spirits like Juniper Green London Dry gin, Highland Harvest Scotch Whiskey, and 4 Copas tequila are often bit harder to come by, since most are only produced in smaller quantities to begin with, and the importation adds what are sometimes prohibitively expensive tariffs to the cost. But before you dismiss spending the extra money for

organic spirits, there is a bigger picture to be considered. It’s that bigger picture that most of the organic spirits producers are considering as well. Industrial spirits are also made from natural ingredients like grain, but that grain comes from industrial farms that overwork their fields and use tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For the producers of organic spirits, it’s more about being green. It’s about supporting sustainable farming, preserving energy, reducing waste and increasing recyclables so a better planet can be passed on to the next generation of spirit drinkers. Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder of Modern Spirits distillery, which produces Tru vodka, also bottles his spirit in 100 percent recycled, recyclable or biodegradable packaging. And for every bottle sold, Modern Spirits plants new trees in tropical zones, where they are cut down in the greatest numbers. H. Joseph Ehrmann, brand ambassador for Square One organic vodka and owner of Elixir, a bar in San Francisco, echoes those sentiments. In 2004, Ehrmann overhauled both his physical plant and his daily operations to become the first certified green bar in San Francisco. To Ehrmann, it’s more about smart business decision-making. Even larger-scale operations like Maker’s Mark bourbon have in place programs to recycle glass, plastic, cardboard, aluminum cans, scrap metal, used oil and lubricants, light bulbs, batteries and newspapers. The company goal is to work toward becoming a “zero discharge” facility in terms of solid waste. And although their high levels of production mean that Maker’s Mark can’t possibly go all-organic in terms of the grains it uses to make the bourbon, they are refusing to use genetically modified corn, and they donate all of their leftover grain mash to local farmers to use as animal feed in addition to their recycling efforts. As for whether there’s really any such thing as a “healthy cocktail”—most of the evidence about organic spirits causing less of a hangover is anecdotal. However, since the consumption of cheaply refined poor quality spirits has been linked to more severe hangovers, there seems to be some truth in promoting organic spirits as a preventative measure. But there’s really only one way to completely avoid the hangover, and that’s to consume only as much as you know you can metabolize effectively. Moderation is always the answer. Certainly, imbibing cocktails including more natural ingredients that are antioxidant, lower in calories or higher in fiber can’t be a bad thing. Like chicken soup, it can’t hurt. But having the money we pay for organic spirits ensuring that we’ll receive a higher quality product, supporting fair trade practices by benefiting farm workers who are paid a better price for their efforts and, most of all, making a positive environmental contribution by supporting organic farming methods and sustainable agriculture—well, that really is something to feel good about. Unfortunately, many organic spirits are made in very small quantities and can be difficult to obtain, sometimes more so in a state controlled environment like Pennsylvania, since the state doesn’t want to

purchase a product it can’t put on all the shelves from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Square One vodka and Square One Cucumber vodka are available as Special Liquor Order products in Pennsylvania. Other products not available in Pennsylvania may be available online or in a neighboring state like New Jersey or Delaware. ❒ Katie Loeb is Inside’s master mixologist.

Celery Cup #1 Inspired by Pimm’s Cup. 11⁄2 oz. Square One Cucumber vodka 1 slice fresh English cucumber 2-inch slice celery stalk heart Small handful of fresh cilantro 1 oz. fresh lemon juice 1 ⁄2 oz. Pimm’s 3 ⁄4 oz. organic agave nectar or simple syrup 1 celery stalk for garnish In a mixing glass, muddle the cucumber, celery, cilantro and lemon juice into a pulp. Add remaining ingredients, cover in ice and shake hard for 10 seconds. Strain into a tall glass over fresh ice and garnish with a piece of celery. (Courtesy of H. Joseph Ehrmann)