What’s shakin, cocktail fans? Welcome to Episode 258 of The Modern Bar Cart Podcast!
Normally, we interview bartenders, distillers, authors, or other folks who are deeply entrenched and invested in the drinks industry. But long-time listeners will know that we also enjoy taking the occasional field trip to the land of academia, and that is precisely where we find ourselves this episode.
For this ingredient-focused conversation, we’re joined by Dr. Björn Hamberger and Abby Bryson of Michigan State University Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. They’re engaged in various types of scientific research designed to probe the evolutionary and genetic nuances of plants in the mint family – also known as Lamiaceae.
Compared to citrus, or some of the other esoteric flavors we’ve tapped scientists to discuss like horseradish, or capsaicin, or umami, mint is much more versatile. It shows up in boozy, sweet cocktails like the julep, sour cocktails like the southside, tiki drinks like the Mai Tai, and herbal spirits like Chartreuse, Fernet, Genepy, and Absinthe. Mint, like the other plants in the Lamiaceae family, has a way of getting the attention of human sensory systems, so we thought: what better way to understand the bewitching properties of this plant than to seek out those who know it in a deeper, more essential way than we do.
In this deep dive on the biochemistry and genetics of mint with Abby Bryson and Dr. Björn Hamberger, some of the topics we discuss include:
- Why mint and other members of the Lamiacea family have been able to evolve in such a diverse array of ecological niches, infusing their flavors and health benefits into the ethnobotanical cultures of people around the world.
- The reason why mint smells even more amazing when you “activate” it, and what these chemical “signals” might indicate in the “universal language of small molecules.”
- We also cover an important class of compounds called “terpenes,” which have become all the rage in certain beverage and cannabis communities recently, but that might also hold the key to certain health benefits.
- Then, we explore Abby’s fascinating research using computational genetics to identify important biosynthetic gene clusters in various mint species.
- And we conclude by peering into what the future might hold for this area of study, including the use of yeast to naturally synthesize flavors and medicines without harming these beautiful plants in the wild.