Why you should care
Because you can drink and heal at the same time.
When you think about finding a cure to a nagging medical issue, a cocktail bar may not be the first place you think to visit. But China has a history of mixing medicinal herbs with alcohol that goes back millennia. Recipes have been passed down through generations and tend to involve throwing indiscriminate amounts of ingredients into huge glass jars of baijiu, China’s ultra-strong national drink.
The problem? It invariably tastes awful, and its health benefits are suspect.
Herbal, located in the heart of Beijing’s trendy Sanlitun district, is the only bar in the world that builds its cocktails around traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) ingredients. But don’t expect cheap liquor flavored with dead snakes, scorpions and cinnamon sticks. Herbal merges Eastern medicine with Western tastes, producing creative cocktails that lure with their tastiness first — that they were concocted to address medical concerns may not even come into play.
Herbal’s opening in the spring of 2018 was the culmination of three years of planning. Ah Jian, a veteran Beijing bartender, was working at a bar when he met Zhai Xu, an experienced TCM doctor in Beijing. They spoke about “the possibility of modernizing something that has been part of Chinese medicinal culture for thousands of years,” says Jian, who is now the head mixologist at Herbal. Next, they teamed up with Glenn Schuitman, a New Zealand native and designer, to find a space and design an interior that would reflect the TCM vibe.
“The medicine is central to what we do,” says Zhai while flicking through a huge copy of one of two historic TCM textbooks that live behind the bar. He also develops and prepares the herbal blends that act as the starting block for new cocktails. These are paired with base alcohols, and then “syrups, bitters, mixers and the like” are added, explains Jian.
The cocktail, intended to enhance a man’s virility, is served in a corked medicine vial atop a wooden plinth with a separate glass containing a huge cube of ice.
And the drinks have some pretty interesting names, with sometimes not-so-subtle hints at their health benefits. Like His Lordship’s Fantasy, 70 RMB ($10.35), a beautifully crafted goji berry-infused concoction — also Jian’s recommendation — and one of several offerings listed under the category “Herbal Sensuality for Gentlemen.” The cocktail, intended to enhance a man’s virility, is served in a corked medicine vial atop a wooden plinth with a separate glass containing a huge cube of ice. The mix of goji berry and cranberry juice cuts through the drink’s subtle bitterness (for the bitter note, think a well-balanced Negroni). The peach bitters leave a satisfying fruity note on the palate.
Another cocktail, the gin-based Healing Tonic, is one of the bar’s “Herbal Painkillers.” Containing bee pollen and lily flower water, it’s said to calm the spirit and have general painkilling properties. The aroma of rosemary dominates, enhanced by a fresh sprig clipped to the rim of the glass, but the taste of the herb comes through in refined waves.
Other drink categories on the menu include “Herbal Beautification” and “Relaxation.” The cocktails listed under the rather ironically named “Hangover Cures” are perhaps more tenuously linked to China’s medicinal heritage — unlike beauty and relaxation, hangovers aren’t an ailment historically targeted by TCM doctors. But the TCM elements used, including cornflower stigma, claim to cleanse and protect the liver.
TCM and alcohol have a long and storied relationship, according to Teh Joe, a TCM doctor at Body & Soul Medical Clinic in Shanghai. “Herbal wine [the use of alcohol mixed with herbal medicine] was first mentioned in the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine,” a text dating back 1,700 years, he says.
Medicine is also the focal point of the bar’s decor, which is developed around a fictional backstory based loosely on that of the East India Company — a meeting point for Eastern and Western cultures and tastes. This plays out in the ornate furnishings and fixtures: mismatched and well-aged antique armchairs, huge iron chandeliers and aged portraits crowding the walls. And there’s an enormous wooden medicine chest full of things like cassia twig and dried jujube, each drawer hand-scribed with the Chinese symbol of a different ingredient. Stepping in from an empty courtyard housing banks and generic office blocks, it’s like walking into a different world.
From the menu, detailing each cocktail’s link to China’s medicinal history, to the glasses of ingredients filling every spare inch of the bar, the Herbal experience transports you to a place of ancient mystique, history and whimsical fantasy. And whether or not you buy into the claims of TCM, the thought of sipping a “healthy” cocktail makes the sipping all the more enjoyable.