It’s a rainy summer evening and NYU evolutionary botanist Rachel Meyer is cozied up to the bar at Estela on Houston Street, talking myrrh with mixologist Christian Schaal (Tisch ’97) as he tends to orders from a steady stream of earlybirds sizing up the cocktail menu.
Yes, that’s myrrh as in “gold, frankincense, and”—a “weird and scraggly desert plant with tiny leaves,” Meyer says, of the flora native to Saudi Arabia and the deserts in eastern Africa. Though toxic when consumed in large amounts, it’s long been used as incense and ingested medicinally (in very small quantities) to soothe the stomach. Ancient Egyptians, noting its cooling, mint-like properties, used it as toothpaste. And today it’s one the key ingredients in Fernet, an Italian brand of amaro—a type of bitter, aromatic spirit made from many different types of herbs and spices.
Digestifs—or after-dinner drinks—like Fernet don’t just go down smoothly after a big meal, Meyer explains. They actually contain plants that aid digestion, by “slowing the release of blood sugar,” Meyer says—“or inhibiting the formation of gas,” Schaal chimes in with a smile.
In conversation, Meyer and Schaal wear their connoisseurship lightly, dissecting amari with both scientific precision and unsnobbish zeal. There is also, at times, a hint of pure glee in their discovery of rare or unusual concoctions.
“You should try this one straight,” Meyer says, gesturing toward a particularly bitter and tannic variety of amaro sourced from high in the Alps. “It’s like, whoa, I’m a lumberjack.”
By day, Meyer is a postdoctoral researcher in Michael Purugganan’s lab at NYU’s Center for Genomics Systems and Biology, where she studies African rice—specifically the ability of different heirloom varieties to tolerate increasing salinity in The Gambia and Senegal. The salt tolerance genes she’s finding in these rice strains could also be useful to breeders of the world’s major food crops, especially as the effects of climate change continue to threaten food security.
Meyer was practically born a conservationist—“growing up, nobody seemed to care about plants and animals like my family did,” she says—but was a relative latecomer to the cocktail craze. It was moving to New York for graduate school—and hanging out with bartender friends here—that nurtured her instinct to hunt for the exotic on bar menus across the city.
That newfound love combined with Meyer’s enduring interest in biodiversity gave birth to a passion project—Shoots & Roots Bitters, a science-based craft bitters company she started with fellow botanists Ashley Duval and Selena Ahmed in 2012. Bitters—for those who’ve never quite known what to make of those mysterious little bottles tucked away in the back of the liquor cabinet—“are just blended and sometimes sweetened tinctures of plants, many of which have medicinal value,” Meyer explains. “The bitters ingredients in Angostura, for example, were first used to treat the army of Simon Bolivar in Venezuela.” And because bitters were viewed as medicinal, they survived Prohibition with time-tested (and often secret) recipes intact.
Lately, though, the so-called craft cocktail renaissance—and, Meyer argues, a renewed interest in the provenance of everything we put into our bodies—have inspired increased creativity when it comes to drinks. After the economic crash of the last decade, Meyers says, “people didn’t want to pay $12 for a gin and tonic. If people were going to shell out that kind of money, it had to be for something more complex that they couldn’t necessarily have made at home. At the same time, local food movements and revived scrutiny of our daily diets spawned an interest in the biodiverse plate.”
Enter Shoots & Roots Bitters, which takes a kind of education-by-libation approach to mixing up herbal extracts: The company got its start in Meyer’s apartment on 125th Street, and after about two years of presenting their wares at special events and workshops, the three co-founders launched commercial production with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. These days they work out of Hot Bread Kitchen’s incubator in Harlem, where they conceive their tinctures using laboratory techniques. Whereas many of the world’s leading bitters and amaro companies closely guard their recipes, Shoots & Roots operates on an open-source model, listing not only what’s in the bottle but also where each plant came from—and its chemical, ecological, and cultural significance. “We want to be copied,” Meyers says. “We want these plants to get more use. It would help small-scale farmers.”
And you don’t have to be a lush to sample the 200 some plant varieties used throughout the inventory—in addition to cocktails, recipe suggestions include mixing in a few drops of bitters with soda, juice, or even coconut water.
Meyer and her business partners—who once made a special blend for Wylie Dufresne’s restaurant Alder, and who have been profiled in Edible Manhattan, Newsweek, and Gizmodo—most recently put their drinkable science on display at a “Botany at the Bar” World Science Festival event. They teamed up with Schaal (their go-to when experimenting with how to put their creations to work in drinks) to pair botanical-packed cocktail and amari tastings with explanations of how plants are affected by their environments—and how the medicinal effects we value in them evolve over time. When plants are submitted to certain stresses, Meyer explains, they develop compounds that allow them to thrive in their particular climates—compounds that often have health benefits for humans as well. “A lot of desert plants can be used to reduce fever, a lot of high altitude plants can be used to treat altitude sickness, and a lot of Mediterranean plants have great antioxidant qualities and promote sweating,” she says, noting that the ever-shifting effects of climate change mean that we could be seeing major changes in plant chemicals in the near future.
Despite the horrendous threat climate change poses to the planet, some positive may come from its effect on our vegetation as evidence builds that more stress on a plant can produce more of the stuff we find desirable. “Tea is the best example,” Meyer says. “When the climate gets hotter and drier, plants may be more stressed, and with tea, we see the secondary metabolites—that is the healthy and delicious flavor compounds—increase in the leaves.”
Climate makes a difference where taste is concerned, too. Take mezcal, for example—the liquor made from Mexican agave. Tequila only comes from one kind of agave, called blue weber,” Schaal explains, but there are actually 200 species of agave that produce very different-tasting drinks depending on where they are grown. “Like wine, it varies from terroir, from low altitude to high, craggy places.”
Some of Meyer's favorite dried herbs to work with include lemon verbena (used in Shoots & Roots’ Mexican Molcajete bitters) and Kaffir lime and galangal (used in Summers in Bangkok, which also includes reishi mushroom extract). “One thing we think is especially cool about these plants is how quickly they’ve become available worldwide,” Meyer says. “They are universally loved flavors and they have some great health beneficial qualities.” Lemon verbena, for example, is good for liver health. “Though that may be counteracted with all the cocktails!” she adds.
When she gets out of the lab and into the bar, Meyer says she prefers a not-too-sweet drink with “a heavy hand of bitters”—no surprises there.
But when she’s in the mood for an old standby, there’s nothing quite like the classic Manhattan with rye. “Each bartender makes it slightly differently,” she says. “I feel like an anthropologist sampling them over and over again.”