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Talking 'Bout Turmeric

The bright-orange plant has long been a staple in South Asian cooking and healing practices. Now, the root is popping up in cocktails.
Ryan Meany of Virgil Kaine whiskey suggests using turmeric in sour mixes.
Ryan Meany of Virgil Kaine whiskey suggests using turmeric in sour mixes.

If you frequent trendy coffee shops or peruse health-conscious blogs, you might have spotted "golden milk" or a "turmeric latte" turning up on menus. Lately, the once-lesser-known rhizome has been trending — not unlike its healthy brethren of kale, beets, carrots, and cashew milk.

Turmeric is native to South Asia, and was first used to dye clothing (try peeling or grating a turmeric root with your bare hands and you'll soon see its powerful staining capabilities). For thousands of years, it's also been a staple in Asian cuisines (especially curries) as well as used for its medicinal qualities in Ayurveda, Siddha, and traditional Chinese medicine.

Ryan Meany, the Chief Creative Office of Virgil Kaine whiskey, knows turmeric well. Their small-batch bourbon whiskey is infused with heirloom ginger grown on John's Island, just 30 miles away from their Charleston, SC headquarters. While working with their farmer on harvesting his ginger, Meany and his business partner discovered he also grew turmeric. "They have the same life cycle," Meany explains. "And they work well together as far as crop rotation goes."

When it comes to cocktails, he advises using it to "accent or heighten ingredients rather than to stand alone. I like using turmeric in sour mixes. The turmeric heightens your limes, lemons, pineapples, and oranges. As far as presentation, it makes that deep, beautiful color. It's not a muddled brown water color."

Little Bunny Foo Foo incorporates fresh turmeric and carrot into this rabbit-inspired cocktail. You & Yours Distilling's Little Bunny Foo Foo incorporated fresh turmeric and carrot into a rabbit-inspired cocktail this summer.

On the opposite side of the country, Laura Johnson, the owner and head distiller at You & Yours Distilling Co. in San Diego, is featuring turmeric cocktails on her seasonal menu. "I love turmeric with gin," she says. "The botanical nature of gin plays well with the earthiness. Similarly, mezcal is a great spirit to pair with turmeric as those smoky and spicy notes come together nicely."

When it comes to technique, a bit of labor is involved. Johnson explains: "I'm a big fan of juicing the fresh root and incorporating the liquid into either a sweetener/syrup or batching it out with fresh citrus, as opposed to using the powdered form. Powdered spices just have a way of tasting gritty and you can never completely get rid of the sediment."

As far as its medicinal properties, Johnson says that component needs to be balanced alongside its flavor profile and natural hue. "We take thoughtful measures to put forth a fresh and somewhat healthy cocktail program and turmeric felt like a natural way to continue on that path," she explains. "Even more so than the flavor notes and health benefits, though, I just love the color, as I want my cocktails to be as visually appealing as they are palatable."

Virgil Kaine's Turmeric Whiskey Sour

  • 2 oz Virgil Kaine Robber Baron Rye Whiskey
  • 2 oz Turmeric Sour Mix*

*Sour Mix

  • 1 lime
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 inch piece of turmeric
  • ¼ cup pineapple
  • 5 splashes of acid phosphate
  • ¾ oz Arabic gum syrup

Turmeric sour mix directions: Blended until smooth and strained through mesh.

Drink directions: Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice and shake for 30 seconds. Strain into your glass of choice on the rocks.

San Diego's You & Yours Distilling incorporated fresh-juiced turmeric root into their vodka cocktail.Back To Your Roots

by Nina Handy of You & Yours Distilling Co.

  • 1.5 oz Y&Y Vodka
  • .5 oz fresh lemon juice
  • .5 oz honey syrup (1:1)
  • .25 oz fresh juiced turmeric root
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters

Directions: Shake with ice, double strain into a chilled coupe. Expression of lemon peel, then use as garnish.

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