Witches’ Brew

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The Cunning Crow Apothecary casts a spell —
and makes excellent cocktail mix-ins.

STORY BY AMY PENNINGTON
PHOTOS BY CHARITY BURGGRAAF

Ylva Mara Radziszewski

Walking into the apothecary, I pass by rows of dried herbs in tall glass jars, a tiered display of small, hand-woven nests, window shelves filled with shiny, colorful crystal gems, and a display of animal bones and antlers. It feels as though I’ve stepped into a voodoo shop.

Herbalist by design, The Cunning Crow Apothecary in the Greenwood neighborhood is run by self-described witches committed to “bringing the magic back into the medicine.” Before opening the small retail shop with adjoining teaching and community space, owner Ylva Mara Radziszewski had a thriving private practice as a traditional witch practicing herbalism, energy healing, and acupuncture. She opened the apothecary in 2016 to “empower the community to restore, what I consider, a birthright to natural health.”

While an herbal apothecary may not seem a likely outpost to gather signature-blended cocktail ingredients, I discovered otherwise. Here, “herbal medicine” tastes delicious and comes in the way of small dropper jars of tinctures — a dual-purpose, concentrated mix of herbs intended as remedy, but that veer into cocktail territory with ease.

A tincture is typically an alcoholic extract of plant or animal material. The original natural tinctures blended bark, roots, and herbs, steeping them to extract healing properties. While they were commonly used for their medicinal potential, occasionally they tasted good enough to drink for pleasure. Historically speaking, cocktail bitters, a key ingredient in many classic cocktails like the Sazerac and Manhattan, evolved from tinctures.

Basic herbal tinctures at Cunning Crow are extracted in organic grain alcohol or vegetable glycerin. The shop offers single-herb extracts, which can be used alone or for blending, in addition to a small selection of custom blends — created with a particular curative outcome in mind.

While the custom blends are formulated by Radziszewski, in keeping with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements for herbal medicinals, they are made in partnership with Heron Botanicals, a small producer of artisan-quality herbal extracts, on the Kitsap Peninsula. Radziszewski honors herbalists who prefer local plants and use only organic herbs and sustainable wild-crafting practices for their plant matter.

In herbalism, plants have primary functions that are called upon to treat all sorts of ailments. “All of our custom blends are formulated with multiple bodily systems in mind,” says Radziszewski. “We want to approach crafting the medicine to support the person taking it and to support the plants.” Supporting the person means it is helpful when it goes down easy. In other words, taste is important.

As with everything we put in our bodies, caution is key. The Cunning Crow Apothecary casts a fascinating spell on the potential benefits of many herbs, roots, and spices. As noted on their website, however: “The information on this website has not been evaluated by the FDA. The products and information on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always consult a qualified healthcare practitioner for all matters regarding your health.”

Buddha Belly is a house blend that can easily be interchanged with bitters as a mixer, but offers so much more. “It is based off of the Five Elements Theory in Chinese medicine — if you stimulate your digestive fire, you can actually move stagnation energetically and physically through the body,” explains Radziszewski. A traditional base of gentian and yellow dock — both herbs that are mouth-puckering acrid — is spiked with strong flavors of fennel and cinnamon, so it is flavorful, but not entirely delicious on its own. It was formulated to offer relief for poor digestion, bloating, cramps, and general stomach aches. Radziszewski recommends this bitter tincture in Manhattans, as it packs a wallop and cuts through the sweetness of the vermouth.

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The Aphrodisium tincture is popular for both its promise and spice-forward flavor. “We wanted plants that were grounding and empowering, to bring people into their own sensuality,” Radziszewski says. For this, they started with the ashwagandha herb and cinnamon, both of which are pleasantly flavored. She added damiana and rose for a gentle aphrodisiac effect that she says works for everyone, and then a bit of the African root yohimbe, a well-known aphrodisiac, as the kicker. Kava root was the final addition, added for its depth of flavor and “ability to relax the body while activating the mind,” tasting both earthy and sweet. While the mix of herbs was not blended solely for their flavor characteristics, “it just so happens it all tastes so well together.”

Because of the vast selection of tinctured herbs at Cunning Crow, visitors can also reverse-engineer the process of making a custom blend — a seemingly magic process that comes together thanks to the encyclopedia-like brain of Radziszewski’s. She needs only an idea of what sort of alcohol you plan to use and an intention of the atmosphere you hope to create. This is especially fun for dinner hosts who are aiming to manipulate the mood.

On a recent visit to the shop, I asked for an after-dinner tincture that could be blended with soda water for a non-alcoholic drink, as well as with a clear spirit, like gin. I wanted to create a festive atmosphere that was lighthearted and jovial. She suggested a tincture blend of the herb rhodiola, rose, rosemary, and chamomile, dropped into a glass of champagne or soda, calling it the “Fairy Cocktail.” It is sweet and floral, without being soapy. “Rose is a sweet digestive that will perfume your cocktail,” says Radziszewski. “The rose will go to the brain and create a lot of vasodilation, so you’re not in a food coma. And it has a refreshing taste.”

As with all fruits and vegetables, herbal tinctures have seasons. “Herbs have a tendency to work really well in the season of their purpose.” Yellow dock, Radziszewski says, is a great herb to use in spring when they’re pushing up nutrients and putting on new growth. That spring plant is “great for our body because we are getting ready to detox in spring.”

We tend to think of drinking alcohol as “bad” for us, but, interestingly, you don’t sacrifice the healing quality of plants when you pair them with a cocktail. “When we take medicinal tinctures, it changes our relationship with cocktails,” says Radziszewski. “Think of it as medicine in a martini glass.”

It is encouraging to think we can define the mood for any season with the simple help of nature’s plants, though having a witch around is helpful. While many herbs are delicious, not all are created equal, and choosing the wrong mix of plants can get you to a place of mismatched herbs and bad-tasting tinctures in a flash. Radziszewski is the first one to admit, “Some of the herbs we have here just taste gross.”

The magic of mixing awaits.


Amy Pennington is a cookbook author and urban farmer based in Seattle. Learn more about what she’s cooking and growing at amy-pennington.com

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