Join Janet on her adventures as a designer, writer, maker, and farmer in montana. no two days are ever the same. you might even see a bear or two.

Botanical Experiments

Botanical Experiments

I got caught up on some of my podcast backlog last week while driving around the Pacific Northwest. (Another excellent reason to take a road trip.) Nicole, host of the Living Free in Tennessee podcast, does an annual episode every fall on homemade Christmas gifts. It’s one of my favorite episodes and I was curious to hear what her recommendations were for this year. She suggested making bitters. If you’re not a fan of cocktails, you might not be familiar with bitters, although they have a long history as digestive aids. Nowadays, as an addition to mixed drinks, they are a huge area of study unto themselves. Making bitters has been on my list of things to try for a while now, and the podcast put them back on my radar screen.

And then I got home and discovered that my friend and fellow Washington College alum, Scott, had updated his blog with an entire post about making bitters for mixed drinks. The coincidence was too much to ignore. We’ve been chatting since by e-mail about various recipes. Basically, bitters have a couple of components: the bittering agent, the aromatic agent, and sometimes a citrus agent. Each component is made by soaking the botanicals in something like Everclear (190 proof grain alcohol) for several weeks. The components are then mixed together by dropperfuls to get various flavor combinations.

Scott ordered gentian root, a popular bittering agent, from Amazon. I looked at the list of potential bittering agents and realized that several of them were growing in our woods or in my herb garden. Oregon Grape is one, although I am steering clear of this one until I do more research as preliminary indications are that it can be toxic to the liver. (“So can Everclear,” observed the husband.) Wormwood is another, and I know I had a wormwood plant in my herb garden at one point but I can’t find it. (Absinthe is traditionally made from wormwood, but that is not without its risks as well.) Horehound can be used as a bittering agent. I had horehound, too, at one time, but it died out. (Horehound is related to mints and I think if I want to grow some of those mints, I am going to have to set up a drip irrigation system in the herb garden to keep it wet enough.) I have yarrow and could use yarrow root, although the flowers are past blooming. I finally settled on hops. I have hops vines all over the fence in the herb garden and they just happen to be flowering right now.

[Hops are the new Big Thing in the Flathead Valley. Our climate is perfect—my hops vines have been thriving for 20+ years now—and we have lots of microbreweries. The husband has done foundation work this summer for two new hops operations going in.]

We keep Everclear on hand in case we need it for medicinal purposes after the apocalypse. I went out to the herb garden and picked some hops flowers yesterday afternoon. I’m using this recipe from the Oregon BrewLab website. It instructs you to cover one ounce of hops with 550 mL of Everclear, so I got out the postal scale and weighed them:


I used the hot infusion method, which is supposed to give better results. I heated the Everclear almost to boiling—but not quite—because I didn’t really want to set my kitchen on fire. When poured over the hops, it turned a bright green:


These jars will go into a cool, dark cabinet to steep for a couple of weeks. I’ll strain the plant matter out and see how strong the flavor is. The hops have been in the garden for so long that I have no idea what the variety is anymore. Hops bitters are supposed to pair well with orange, though, so I’ll start some dried orange peels to steep and also some aromatic spices.

The husband joked this morning that he was going to buy me a lab coat. I can’t help myself—this kind of stuff is right up my alley. I really would like to do a better job of harvesting some of the herbs in my herb garden. I need to make that a priority for next spring and add back in the horehound and wormwood.


I spent a couple of hours yesterday morning trimming back some raspberry canes—although I still need to do a thorough pruning—and weeding around the berry bushes. I also got half the lavenders pruned. This is the first year I’ve been able to prune that lavender hedge in the fall and I am hoping it helps with the snow load. If I wait until spring, the bushes tend to get weighed down by the snow and misshapen and it takes them longer to spring back into shape.

The beans have one more day to dry on the vines and then they need to come out of the garden. Rain is forecast for the weekend and temps are going to cool below normal.

Today is apple pie filling day. We’ll see how far I get. If I make more than we need, I can always share with the neighbors.

There Will Be Sewing

There Will Be Sewing

Apples and Pears

Apples and Pears