This article is a version of an expanded one to be featured in the Essential Herbal fall issue, which will include a foray into not only the craft of herbal oxymels, but also the art of herbal kombuchas!
The word “Oxymel” comes from ancient Greek, literally meaning “Acid and Honey,” being an herbal preparation made with vinegar and honey. It was a medicinal libation back in the old days that has lost consideration and familiarity with the passing of time, but creeps back into popular herbalism today, slowly but surely. Further along in the article, I will happily provide my own take on Oxymels in a recipe, as there are many ways to create them.
Oxymels really drew me when I first heard of them from local Iowa City Herbalist Mandy Garner Dickerson, owner, operator, and curator of Moon in June Herbs. Being that sour is my most favorite flavor, and sweet a close second (although I’d say it ties with bitter), the mixture of sweet and sour sounded so delicious I was instantly tantalized into making an Oxymel myself; especially after tasting one of Mandy’s delicious homemade blends. I am, admittedly, a sucker for sweet and sour dishes at practically any Asian restaurant, ordering them without so much as a glance at the rest of the menu. So there you go– anything involving sweet and sour, and you have my immediate, undivided attention.
What is the virtue of an Oxymel? Well, besides the wonderful combination of sweet and sour, it functions as an alternative to tinctures for specific herbs. Taste-wise, certain flavors that may be eclipsed in a tincture, tea, or elixir are emphasized in an Oxymel. It also brings together blends of individual herbs that, otherwise, may not be as compatible with each other in other mediums. In short, it is a new way of exploring herbal preparations; it’s like switching from sketching paper to a canvas palette, bringing out each herb differently like each medium brings out individual colors and textures. Particular liquid extracts enhance the value of herbs in varying, but equally important, ways.
But along the lines of herbal syrups and vinegars, Oxymels coax out the medicinal constituents of herbs in a much different way than tincture or tea. In fact, an Oxymel will bring out medicine and properties that alcohol cannot in any tincture, at least not as well. Certain herbs lend themselves much more readily to vinegars and honeys than to anything else, especially high-content food herbs like Nettle, Chickweed, or Horsetail. The most practical aspect to an Oxymel is its ability to render important nutritive minerals that alcohol can’t: silica, iron, potassium, zinc. On the other hand, more medicinally potent properties need alcohol to emerge (triterpenes, volatile oils, etc.). Vinegar preparations particularly have less potency with dosage than tinctures. One must use more to have the same effect.
Ideally, though, you can capture the entire portrait of an herb’s effects with a mixture of vinegar, water, and alcohol. In Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine, he notes that it is a good idea to not only preserve your vinegars with some alcohol, but to have it accompany the preparation for the sake of letting other constituents be drawn out, making the creation more complete. Remedial use with an Oxymel is warranted, of course, but many herbalists also find joy in it more recreationally (including myself).
Various herbalism blogs on the web have written about Oxymels, and in some ways, it is a bit of a frontier for a lot of herbalists as a preparation– not as popular as tinctures, salves, or other crafts, but it is getting there. The most renowned Oxymel is Rosemary Gladstar’s famous Fire Cider. This is a pungent medley, arguably one of the best cold-fighting herbal remedies out there. If you want a recipe on how to make your own homemade Fire Cider, please visit the Mountain Rose Blog’s excellent recipe that pays all due respects and homage to the lovely herbalist who introduced it to the rest of the world.
As many herbalists and herb-lovers well know, the freedom to make and sell Fire Cider is being threatened by a very corporate-minded, non-herbalist company called Shire City Herbals who trademarked the term “Fire Cider.” This company is currently making the rounds and finding satisfaction in bullying any herbalist or establishment that sells or hitherto has sold Fire Cider to support themselves and make a living. Many people have compared this to trademarking the word “Tea” and then being litigious against anyone who sells tea. Furthermore, the company itself has no ownership rights over the idea itself, having not invented the concoction at all. If you wish to petition Shire City Herbals I would recommend you do so by following the link. This conflict with Fire Cider easily defines the current era of struggles the herbalist has to face against corporations, and their fear of plant medicine at large. This is a prime example of our rights to our own personal medicines being threatened, and if it matters to you– please sign and participate.
COOL & SOUR DETOXYMEL – ADRIAN WHITE, HERBALIST
Here is an Oxymel recipe using cool and damp herbs, perfect for the upcoming hottest of summer months. One sip of it hydrates deeply and opens the pores. It is also a little detoxifying so as to help you kick any lingering winter stagnation.
This particular Oxymel has an array of virtues: firstly it is cooling to the organs, most notably the liver and lower digestive system, helping regulate things down there. As an alterative, it may help with lingering viruses or other issues trapped in the lymph, without losing your body much needed moisture. The herbs in this blend will soothe and bring down most fevers, allowing the pores to open and sweat heat out gently. It’s also a relaxing expectorant helpful with dry, hacking coughs and colds. Finally, it acts quite a bit like an electrolyte solution and helps your body maintain and regain moisture incredibly well!
- 2-4 Cups chopped Rhubarb (fresh)
- 2 Cups Violet flowers (dried of fresh)
- 1 Cup Wild Cherry Bark
- 4-5 Cups Honey (preferably raw/organic)
- Apple Cider Vinegar
- 1 Beet (optional, for color)
- High-Proof Alcohol (Everclear/Brandy; optional, for preservation)
-Place chopped Rhubarb and Violet flowers in a jar, preferably in an amber-tinted glass jar that can be sealed tight. Pour Apple Cider Vinegar over herbs until evenly covered, and all herbs appear to float but touch one another. Cover tightly. Let steep (or “macerate”) for 2 weeks or longer in a cool, dark place.
*Optional* Add a tad bit of alcohol to aid with maceration process, as it will help draw out some constituents that vinegar will miss. If you like, chop or grate one Beet into the mixture too, for added color and detoxifying effect.
-Once you have macerated your vinegar the full time length, infuse an herbal syrup with the honey and Wild Cherry bark. For a basic herbal syrup recipe, click here; substitute Nettle for Wild Cherry bark instead, and refrain from adding black strap molasses. Follow your intuition.
Note: This is where my recipe is a bit more original, with a stronger focus on being a remedy as most recipes will call that you combine vinegar and honey with all the herbs together, and either cold steep all of them, or simmer all of them. However, if you are looking for strong medicinal actions from all combined herbs, they will need to be prepared separately (bark with a hot decoction/syrup, and damp herbs like rhubarb and violets lose their virtues in heat, and thus need cold-steeping).
-When done making the honey, strain out or press out all herbs from your vinegar preparation and pour the liquid into desired glass container for storage. Then add cooled herbal honey into container with vinegar, to mix. If you so like, you can add small amounts of the Wild Cherry bark syrup to the vinegar to taste so you get just the right blend of sweet and sour.
-Drink and enjoy. When I use an Oxymel, I pour about 1 inch of the mixture in the bottom of a glass and then dilute it with water (especially sparkling water) for a cool, refreshing drink.
A Bushel and a Peck: Oxymel Tutorial. Wicktionary.org. The Mountain Rose Blog. Making Plant Medicine by Richo Cech.
3 thoughts on “Sweet & Sour Libations – The Craft of Herbal Oxymels”
Thank you for posting this information. I am new to the idea of oxymels but agree that sweet and sour trump everything else. Your explanations are very helpful.
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