Cocktail Fail

Photo by Susan Whitney. Vintage coupe by Peg Leg Vintage.

Some of you may have noticed a photo on my tuamigasusanita instagram feed last week. It was of a vodka infused with witch hazel blossoms intended for this week’s cocktail. The witch hazel tree we planted in our front yard nine years ago blooms every February and emits a glorious, citrusy scent that’s a tinge medicinal. I make a point to drink it in every time I come and go. Why not, I thought, literally drink it?

Anytime I use what is, to me at least, a novel ingredient, I start with an internet search to ensure it isn’t toxic. I do not intend to be the person who brings you a basket full of foraged mushrooms and kidney failure. My quest for information on witch hazel flowers was surprisingly challenging. Few resources specifically mention the flowers. It’s all about the bark and the leaves. I called a nearby herbalist, and even she knew nothing. Still, I figured, no news is good news. I mean, if the flowers were toxic, surely more people would mention it, right?

With that thought in mind, I infused my vodka and grammed it. After 48 hours, I tasted and strained my infusion, which was delicious, then subbed it out for the gin in a Corpse Reviver No. 2. Perfect! I drank it down purely for the safety of my readers.

Photo by Susan Whitney.

Still, the lack of an overt mention of the potability of witch hazel flower tea nagged at me. At the suggestion of a friend, I called poison control. If you or anyone you know has toddlers, you know what I’m talking about. It’s the 1-800 hotline listed under the green yucky-face sticker that’s on your bottle of Pine Sol.

When I explained my question to the woman at the other end of the line, I heard her sigh and could almost see her covering the phone and mouthing to her coworkers, “It’s another forager.” 

Regardless of her exasperation, she put me on hold, did her research, then informed me that witch hazel flowers are categorized as toxic due to high concentrations of tannic acids that can cause intestinal distress and kidney damage.

“Oh,” I said, “Tannic acids aren’t bad. Tannins are in wine, tea and coffee, and we drink of them all of the time.”

“Tannic acids are different,” she responded, “The flowers are on our list of toxic plants, so I do not suggest you consume them.” To close our conversation, she delivered a general warning against foraging which I heard but won’t exactly heed.

Damn, I thought, there go four cups of Tito’s Vodka.

I did some additional research on tannic acids and found that they are, indeed, the same thing as tannins. Still, I don’t feel right publishing the recipe after her stern warning. Of course, if I had a toddler, I’d have a sea of green yuck-faces staring at me from my bar. At the end of the day, it’s all poison, right? Me – I’m willing to take my chances.

What about you guys? Do you have any good resources for gauging the safety of off-the-beaten-path ingredients?


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