botanical drinks

A Dash of Life

The botanists behind Shoots & Roots Bitters bring a new ingredient to the industry: transparency.

If they’re lucky, botanists can be intrepid explorers, traveling the world to discover and document plant species. Ashley DuVal, Rachel Meyer, and Selena Ahmed met while researching at the New York Botanical Garden; their individual fields of study run the gamut from the domestication of trees, to how food crops have changed over time, to the medicinal side of botanicals.

During their individual careers, they traveled across the world and found that, as different as places could be, there was one thing many cultures had in common: bitters—those infused, compact tinctures you often find bartenders reaching for. The herbal elixirs started as a type of medicine (the value of which was often dubious), and their production goes back hundreds of years. Bitters makers jealously guarded their ingredients to keep their competition—and perhaps their customers—from finding out what they were.

Rachel Meyer, Selena Ahmed, and Ashley DuVal of Shoots & Roots

DuVal, Meyer, and Ahmed realized that the opposite should be true: Bitters could be an effective way to bring the experience and flavors of cultures around the world back home to New York. They started making them as an educational tool at the Botanical Garden, to show people which plants they’re using and why they matter. Soon, Shoots & Roots Bitters was born.

Even in the spirited world of bitters, the flavors that Shoots & Roots draw from their tinctures stand out. Demon Flower is a mixture of 12 plants from Mexico and the Philippines; Chai Jolokia combines the native North Indian ghost pepper with masala chai; Black Bear’s Bitters uses osha root and juniper cone, two plants that bears eat to aid digestion.

The trio’s forthcoming book, Botany at the Bar, is taking their bitter transparency a step further by providing instructions for people who want to make bitters at home. Most of these plants, however, aren’t easy to find at the grocery store. “One of our missions is to increase awareness for underutilized crops,” DuVal says. “We hope generating more market interest might increase the availability of these plants down the road.”

In the meantime, the public can take after the Shoots & Roots founders and become bitters-hunting botanists, embarking on treasure hunts through their local fields and markets for new plants to extract and enjoy.

Tove Danovich writes about food and agriculture for Eater, The Ringer, Lucky Peach, and NPR. She lives in Portland.

Photography by Stephen DeVries

Originally Published December 2017