bog myrtle – alcohol’s favourite herb

IN

The first time I ever came across bog myrtle was when I was researching a book about beer. I was around a Brighton-based American home-brewer’s house and we were working our way through his collection.  I’d just put down a chilli chocolate porter made with Ecuadorian chocolate and fresh coffee beans and the brewer informed me that he had something a little more unusual. He passed me his “gruit beer”. I did my best to polite and sipped it, I was, after all drunk on a strangers booze and in his house. “Disgusting isn’t it”. He offered, “I think I’ve used too much”. This was the biggest beer related understatement since, “I think this craft beer movement might be catching on”.

I’ve since brewed with many other very strong herbs, including bog myrtle. The trick is, not to treat them as you would hops and of course to keep an open mind. Bog myrtle and many other herbs such as wormwood or even bay (Lauris noblis) can act like a percussion to a great song. Think of the percussion in the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil as an example; the song will work without it but, that extra level turns a good song into a timeless classic.

The best way to determine if a drink works is by taste

Bog myrtle in beer

The reason my experimental brewer was using bog myrtle in his beer was because he’d read about gruit or herbal beers, got really excited, and wanted to have a go. Incidentally, gruit is a term that is now (mis)used to mean all herbal beers – if you are as prone to a healthy amount of booze pedantism as I am you should check out the beer historian Martyn Cornell’s blog before you ever use the term again. Word accuracy aside, this brewer was trying to copy the ancient brewing technique of using herbs or wild plants rather than the sole use of hops as a bittering agent when making a beer. One of the most important plants used in beer back in the days of yore (a historically accurate period of time), was indeed bog myrtle but, again the trick with strong flavours is to use much less than you would if using hops; around 10% of what you would normally use is a good starting block. I’d also suggest using a herb mix or even just subverting a standard imperial porter or old ale recipe and adding no more than 1g per 20 litres of beer of bog myrtle towards the end of the boil (the last 15 mins).

It was more than just flavour that ancient brewers were after as many of the herbs used would have, sometimes rather powerful, narcotic effects. The effects are similar to drinking a very strong drink in the morning on a hot summers day. That rapid drunkenness mixed with a relaxing buzz and confusion that can come with a hazy summer’s day and being drunk whilst no one else is, or, to a lesser extent similar to the hangover you get when you are still pissed from the night before. It’s kind of dreamlike and surreal.

Gin Vermouth - by Andy Hamilton

The flavour itself is rather hard to describe perhaps the closest I can think of is like root beer or mouthwash.

Bog myrtle in other drinks

The line shouldn’t be drawn at using bog myrtle just for beer. Apart from appearing in the botanist and some other less noteworthy gins, it can be used in Vermouth. Mark Williams makes a vermouth that has pedants (like me) screaming inside, as he doesn’t always use wormwood. Aside from this massive booze nomenclature faux pas, he makes a great drink and the bog myrtle really works as in combination with other flavours and so he is forgiven. Personally, I think this is really where it shines, as something that works in combination with other flavours.

The flavour itself is rather hard to describe perhaps the closest I can think of is like root beer or mouthwash. That kind of perfumed, yet medicinal flavour which I think can pair well with citrus. If using in a vermouth I’d suggest drying the leaves on newspaper for a couple of days then infusing in 400ml of 40% vodka for anything from 2 days to three months, depending on what flavour you are after. Tasting as you go and filtering and straining as the flavour develops. There is never a hard and fast rule when it comes to timings for infusions. Obviously, there are guidelines, but increasingly I go by the taste.

As an insect repellent

Those who find themselves in the lucky position to visit the West Coast of Scotland may be pleased to hear another use for this highly aromatic and slightly wayward plant as it is has been used as an insect repellent. Reportedly, Scottish crofters would tie sprigs of bog myrtle to their ankles to help repel midges. Apparently, you have to crush the leaves to help release the scent. I say apparently as everyone I have asked about the efficacy of bog myrtle has suggested that the midge repellant properties are vastly overrated.

A final word on bog myrtle

Whether you are using bog myrtle to put yourself into some kind of narcotic state or trying desperately to rid yourself of the midge menace, do be aware that it has once been used as an abortifacient. If you do brew a beer with it then perhaps give me a call and I’ll happily help you drink it first thing in the morning.

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