Incense in your cocktails? Holy stick!

By / Wine + Drinks / March 24th, 2020 / 12
Incense in cocktails - Wooden stick Palo Santo

Have you heard about palo santo? Even if you have not put a name to a face, this wood is so popular that you have probably smelled its smoke somewhere. Essentially incense, palo santo (“Holy Stick”) is an aromatic wood from the tropical bursera graveolens tree that grows in a number of forests in Central and South America, where it is used in some indigenous cleansing ceremonies.

Thanks to the popularity of the global wellness culture, it has now made its way to North America, where it is used to ward off negative energy, relieve stress and anxiety, and restore tranquillity.

That is all well and good, but what about its use in beverages? Recently, I received a cocktail recipe that included palo santo syrup and wondered why anyone would ever want incense in their cocktail. To find out, I spoke to Lija Said, whose passion is healthful, botanical cocktails. The one-time Torontonian recently moved to West Hollywood to open up “plant-powered” restaurant Fresh Los Angeles: a dream come true for bartenders who focus on wellness.

Said says she became a little obsessed with palo santo when she travelled to South America and started dreaming up ways to use it in cocktails. “People are always talking about aromatics in cocktails. I thought it would be great to use palo santo, since it offers so many benefits, even through its odour. Plus, its pine, mint and lemon notes tie right into cocktails.”

Said has seen the wood used for syrup or tea, but she uses it for its aroma. For a Pisco cocktail competition, she made a drink with longan berries (similar to lychee), then filled one of the hollowed-out berry shells with palo santo slivers. Inspired by Flaming Tiki garnishes, she topped the glass with the skewered shell and lit the palo santo. Not only did it complement the flavours in her longan-pisco cocktail, it made the whole room smell like South America. And it netted her first prize.

Said obviously loves the ingredient but is concerned that it is becoming a victim of its own success: “There has been such high demand for palo santo that two of the three varietals are now on the endangered list, which is something to be aware of.”

The third tree could also be threatened if people are not careful. Said recommends researching the source carefully to make an informed, ecological choice and avoid supporting illegal tree logging. She added: “There are a few different companies in northern South America, like Ecuadorian Hands, that harvest trees but also plant 3,000 of them a year.”
Making palo santo syrup is pretty simple. The recipe I have advises lightly toasting the stick on a barbecue, adding it to a cup each of sugar and water, and heating it all up. Leave it to infuse overnight, then strain, bottle and refrigerate.

Or, you could take a page out of Lija Said’s book and use the wood for its aromatic qualities. Fill a lime or longan berry husk with palo santo and place it on top of this twist on a classic, creamy Batida.

Smoke on the Coconut Water

1 oz sweetened condensed milk
2 oz coconut water
2 oz Peruvian Pisco
1/2 oz longan berry juice*
1/2 oz lime juice

For garnish:

1/2 tsp palo santo shards
1 hollowed out berry or lime husk

Add condensed milk, coconut water, Pisco and both juices to an ice-filled shaker and shake well for 45 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with smoking palo santo.

*Cannot find longan berries? This is a pretty forgiving recipe. It should be fine to swap them for a little citrus.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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