Herbal is a craft cocktail bar on the ground floor of one of the many office/mall plazas that have sprung up in Beijing’s Sanlitun neighborhood over the last decade like so much spring bamboo after the rain.
As the city has grown richer and more cosmopolitan, many such bars have appeared to slake the modern urbanite’s after-work thirst, but Herbal offers a unique twist on the time-honored tradition of getting twisted: infusions, decoctions, and exotic ingredients culled from the millennia-old playbook of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).
While TCM is a vast and poorly understood topic (especially in the West), it’s still a vital living culture in China. There’s a pharmacy located directly across from Herbal, in fact, that stocks TCM herbs in traditional wooden cabinets alongside less ancient remedies like Cialis and Viagra.
Mapping form to function, Herbal’s interior design basically looks like a medieval apothecary exploded into a three-dollar-sign Roaring ’20s speakeasy for the upscale white collar set. Top-shelf booze shares bar space with beakers and baskets overflowing with ingredients unknown, and the menu reads like a pharmacopeia, carved up into categories such as “Hangover Cures” and “Painkillers.”
I’m no TCM doctor, but I do know from careful and repeated experimentation that drinking alcohol is bad for you, even when it claims to be medicine. I was therefore surprised to learn that Herbal’s TCM angle is more than a gimmick.
Co-founder Di Xu has a PhD in the subject, works as a resident doctor and engages in scientific research into the health benefits of TCM on the side. He balances the yin and yang in Herbal’s ingredient list. Bar maestro Jia Jian — also known as Ah Jian — moved to Beijing in 1999 and learned his craft in Sanlitun’s notorious Dirty Bar Street, which was sanitized last year and is now a huge bookstore. Jin is a veteran of several popular Sanlitun watering holes.
The duo workshopped different ideas for four years before finally opening Herbal in March, and the results are fascinating, ranging from “hmm, weird but it works” to “I did not know I had these taste buds.” Their soft opening menu is brimming with less than common mixers, such as silktree flower, dendrobium candidum, cassia twig, and bee pollen.
I’m not sure how much healthier I felt after taking a tour of Herbal’s soft opening menu on a recent work night — guess I need to get back there and gather more data. In the meantime, I had a chat with the co-founders about their unique establishment and how TCM fits into a post-globalized China.
How did you get the idea to open a TCM bar?
Jia Jian: Bartenders originated from pharmacies. There are countless foreign herbal wine brands. From the oldest Martini recipe arose vermouth, which is an herbal type of aperitif. Every day people drink herbal medicine cocktails like Negroni and Aperol spritz. Before and after dinner people drink herbal wines to whet their appetite or help with digestion.
Chinese people also have the habit of drinking herbal wines, from the common people to the emperors. However, these medicinal liquors generally have a strong herbal taste. This made me think about whether I could add Chinese herbal medicine to my Western style of bartending to make something from herbal medicines that resembled Western cocktails, while being just as tasty. Chinese medicine contains so many flavors that I had not previously come into contact with.
Di Xu: In 2017, Beijing began a large-scale renovation. Many streets — including Sanlitun’s bar street — were renovated, bars were shut down, and bookstores were opened in order to highlight the so-called characteristics of traditional culture. We believe that bars have culture, too — Traditional Chinese Medicine is also culture, and drinking herbal flavored liquor or non-alcoholic drinks is simultaneously Chinese and Western culture. So I decided to work with Ah Jian to transform the original classic cocktail, introducing herbal themes and developing new flavors of herbal liquors and cocktails.
We hope to raise people’s awareness of this traditional culture, and also to bring out the common culture between China and the West.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but alcohol is bad for the body no matter what, right? How can you harmonize TCM theory with cocktail culture?
Di Xu: Philosophy tells us that everything has two sides. Too much alcohol is absolutely not good for the body, but having wine as a drink, even the use of wine as medicine, has been traced back to the beginning of the recorded history of human civilization.
Some substances in [medicinal] herbs need to be extracted with ethanol. Alcohol’s effect on metabolism means effective substances get to all the parts of your body faster. Our strict control of the content of each ingredient from a professional point of view can allow our drinks to be safe and healthy.
Di Xu: Oracle bone inscriptions dating to around 1600-1046 BCE show that wine was considered both a drink and medicine [at that time]. The habit of using wine to soak herbs to make herbal wines and strengthen one’s health in the Tang Dynasty formed an extremely large and systematic body of theory, which is an important component of the practice and theoretical system of TCM. When I tasted European spiced wine as a Chinese medicine professor, I was amazed that the taste was very similar to that of traditional Chinese wine.
Jia Jian: The difference between other bars and Herbal is that we concentrate more on your health and looks while still having the joy of drinking alcohol — even though it sounds contradictory because drinking alcohol is harmful to your body.
But Herbal truly does this. We aren’t just a bar trying to use new ideas or styles to be innovative; we also have enough resources and strengths in our professional fields to discover the soul of the herbal cocktail. China has a history of more than 2,000 years with medicinal plants, reaching to the tens of thousands of natural medicinal plant resources.
Why do you think a TCM bar appeals to a Beijing clientele?
Jia Jian: Beijing has more than 20 million permanent residents, and they possess different educational backgrounds and professional backgrounds. This is an extremely rich, vigorous, and innovative city. Anything new will attract people’s attention, but what we’re doing is innovating as well as imparting and inheriting Eastern and Western culture. We planned the establishment of Herbal for a long time, immersing ourselves by sampling China’s traditional herbal liquor and the West’s popular spiced wine. We even went to Heidelberg in Germany to visit its pharmacy museum, as well as the Chinese countryside, where herbal medicine is produced.
What is your favorite drink in Herbal? Why?
Jia Jian: The Floating Jade Immortal Cup (玉颜飘仙杯) is extremely surprising.
Its herbal formula is designed firstly to provide nutrients and nourish the body. The original medicine is bitter, but after clever mixing, it became fresh and delicious. The bitterness is sweet, and actually resembles Coca-Cola a bit.
This was rather unexpected, as it was the first time we associated Coke with pharmacies or physicians. Actually, after the distillation and mixing process, many herbal medicines have tastes very unlike what we imagined. Sometimes this way of development has its difficulties, but it also brings the greatest surprises.
Can you list a few special ingredients you’ve incorporated into the cocktail menu, and talk about their health benefits?
Di Xu: Cinnamon is a commonly used herb in Chinese medicine, and is widely used in Western spiced wines. Chinese medicine believes that cinnamon possesses the ability to warm the kidney and dispel cold. It can help the kidney’s yang, reignite sexual function, and help with blood pressure. The blood circulation of the lower extremities also has a positive regulatory effect.
Cistanche is also a commonly used herb for warming kidneys, it grows in the desert. Its use is not just to nourish the kidney’s yang, improve sexual function and treat symptoms of a cold — it is also used to treat constipation for the elderly.
The Rehmannia glutinosa in Floating Jade Immortal Cup is a traditional Chinese medicine that nourishes the kidney yin — it is believed that it can delay aging, as well as prevent the loss of skin collagen.
Pseudo-ginseng — an inflorescence of the Araliaceae plant notoginseng — contains a variety of effective components, such as saponins. Chinese medicine uses it to help the vitals and improve the immune system, and people believe it has the effect of enriching blood and removing freckles.
Do you think young people in China know or care much about TCM? Can you give some examples of how TCM culture is practiced or recognized in contemporary Chinese society, especially among the younger generation?
Di Xu: TCM is not only an important part of medicine in China, but also a unique part of traditional culture. Almost every Chinese person has had the experience of eating Chinese medicine. I did more than a dozen TCM cultural promotion activities at elementary and middle schools in Beijing last year, and the youth’s interest in TCM is extremely strong.
However, many people are deterred by the bitter taste and complicated boiling process of traditional Chinese medicines, and wouldn’t take the initiative to [prepare it] if they weren’t already sick, which loses sight of the role of Chinese medicine in health care and ignores the essence of “preventative treatment” in Chinese medicine.
Thanks to the national emphasis on Chinese medicine and the scientific and technological achievements of Chinese medicine around the world, almost every general hospital in China has a department for TCM, each province and city has a Chinese medicine hospital, and there are tens of thousands of Chinese medicine clinics throughout the world.
According to my five years of experience doing graduate education in Chinese medicine, the average annual growth rate of people receiving postgraduate education in TCM is more than 20%. TCM treatments such as cupping, scraping, and moxibustion have gradually become a popular health care method for young people. It is believed that more young people will appreciate TCM as the science behind it becomes more concrete and advanced.
Translated by Sebastian Lau.
Cover photo courtesy of @爱拍照的COCO小姐.