Your next cocktail could get supersized — with superfoods.
The boozy show “Mad Men” helped inspire mixologists to bring out the bitters, an old-school herbal concoction. But there’s another cocktail trend seems that seems like it emerged from an apothecary — and a local entrepreneur thinks it could be next big hit.
It’s a so-called miracle berry from China called schisandra — pronounced shiz-AHN-druh. The name is weird but that’s only the beginning. It’s touted as an antioxidant-packed lifesaver that can alleviate symptoms such as fatigue and low libido.
The New York attorney general released a damning report in the spring on nutritional supplements sold by GNC, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. Many Chinese herbs in particular were found to be entirely different from what were listed on the labels. Consumers cried foul, watchdogs pulled their hair. Nick Eberle, the cheerleader for schisandra, says this is the new normal.
“Corruption of Chinese herbs has been happening for years, and the general public is just now catching wind of that,” says Eberle, from his home in rural Buckingham County. Eberle owns and operates Lucidera, which inspects the supply chain for the only schisandra crop grown on American soil. There are plenty of imitators, though, and Eberle’s vision of an old fashioned with schisandra could be dashed by a public-relations nightmare.
“A lot of what I do, day-to-day, is educating wholesalers and consumers,” he says. True schisandra looks like something out of a child’s fairy tale with its bright ruby-red orbs that cluster on vines. With a complex sweet-bitter flavor, it tastes fantastical too. A bottle of schisandra from Walgreens, by comparison, contains berries that are a muddled crimson color, with a woody flavor.
Health claims aside, barkeeps are intrigued.
“If there’s an interesting ingredient out there, I’m going to find a way to use it,” says Sean Rapoza, former Balliceaux bar program manager who now creates Asian-inspired cocktails at Shoryuken Ramen. For a short time, he experimented with Sichuan pepper flowers, used medicinally for their numbing properties. Green tea, which is considered an herb, shows up in a house-made matcha cordial. Umeboshi, a pickled apricot, also makes an appearance — it’s usually prescribed for hangovers and motion sickness.
If schisandra’s time has come, Rapoza says, it’s now. Years ago, he tried making similar concoctions at the now-closed DD33 on West Broad Street. But customers weren’t buying. “People are now more willing to think of cocktails as low-risk versus buying a whole pack of goji berries you end up hating,” he says.
Rapoza takes what he calls the Mr. Potato Head approach. He substitutes one ingredient in a classic cocktail. He’ll swap strawberries out to create a schisandra daiquiri, for instance.
Still, getting authentic schisandra into the glass takes a lot of work. Last week, Eberle visited Pioneer Valley, the 40-acre Massachusetts farm that grows America’s only schisandra crop. It’s part of Eberle’s inspection of the supply chain. He makes sure the organic certification is up to date and personally inspects the crop. When harvest time comes, the berries will be flash-frozen, freeze-dried and loaded onto trucks headed for the West Coast.
Once in California, the berries are packed into various containers, some as small as two ounces. Eberle says he wants a packing warehouse closer to the East Coast, but for now the system works. “I’m on a first-name basis with every employee there,” he says. “It’s not some huge industrial operation.”
Of course, Eberle’s due diligence has a cost — or rather, it’s a cost that’s passed on to the consumer. “The [Food and Drug Administration]’s required lab tests are already a hit to your bottom line,” he says. “Adding to that paper trail, backing up your authenticity, may be noble but it’s also costly.”
Because the FDA treats herbal supplements like food, companies can find a loophole. “Labs aren’t looking to identify the plant,” Eberle says. “They’re looking to see if it’s dangerous to humans.” Some companies dye rice flour or pass off powdered cranberries as schisandra, Eberle says. If this sounds like fraud, that’s because it is.
“This is a genuine challenge for schisandra,” Eberle says. “But I’m diving into it, head-first.” To which adventuresome drinkers say: Cheers. S
by Sean Repoza
2 ounces cachaça
1 ounce honeydew melon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/2 lime, muddled
shisandra powder mixed with a pinch of kosher salt and sugar
Sprinkle a small plate with the shisandra, salt and sugar mixture. Dip the rim of a cocktail glass in the mixture. In the glass, muddle the lime with the cachaça, melon juice and simple syrup. Add ice and stir. Serves one.