Interview with Rachel Meyer, Co-founder of Shoots and Roots Bitters
Growing up in downtown Hollywood, Rachel Meyer, didn’t always have opportunities to explore nature. However, that didn’t stop her from making “fairy salads” in her small garden with her mother, starting a nature club in elementary school, and foraging for huckleberries on family vacations. Meyer is now an evolutionary botanist at New York University where she studies how plants change and evolve as humans domesticate them for agricultural uses. Her research takes her all over the world – talking to farmers about local agricultural practices and collecting plant samples for genetic analyses.
Captivated by the cultural history of the plants she was working with, Meyer co-founded Shoots and Roots Bitters. Bitters are botanical extracts often added to cocktails to add a bitter flavor. You may be familiar with the ubiquitous Angostura bitters with the ill-fitting paper label, but bitters are making a bit of a comeback, with small craft bitters companies providing unique blends and flavors.
At Shoots and Roots Bitters, each bitters blend is composed of plants important to a specific place around the world to tell a plant-based story on culture, history, and the environment. Meyer and her colleagues hold workshops to teach people how plant use has changed over time and the importance of biodiversity – all while sipping cocktails. Shoots and Roots Bitters recently launched online sales of nine bitters.
In a recent interview, Meyer talked about some of the plants that make it into her bitters blends as well as her vision for Shoots and Roots Bitters, which combines science outreach with conservation and sustainability.
One thing I really love about the business is that it really forces us to be creative [with] how we think about the bigger picture of our science and what it really means in the human use setting. The bitters company is really making us more of anthropologists, and the feedback that we get from people at our workshops is always enlightening.
We’re helping the plants in making it into a beverage – so we’re helping to change their trajectories. We’d like to promote species that are not getting that much attention in the US.
One issue that’s really big is sustainability. If tartary buckwheat was for sale in the States it would benefit the Nuosu farmers in the Himalayan foothills because they could actually get money for their native crops. Right now, they’re not growing buckwheat for sale - they’re growing hybrid corn. But we think it would help to preserve culture – and it would increase pride of culture if other people are interested in plants that your ancestors helped to evolve.
There’s a scientist who just figured out how to cultivate [osha], so now we don’t have to wild harvest them anymore. If we can cultivate them, we’re not endangering their native population. Now all of a sudden, it’s like this is a wonderful medicinal plant that Native Americans have used for a long time – it’s awesome to have access to it, and it gives opportunities to small-scale farmers in the US.
There are some things I would really love to see more available in the market that I’m hoping to do something about. Pito-Pito tea is in every grocery store in the Philippines. There’s a ton of Filipino people in the US, and they don’t easily have the opportunity to buy their traditional medicinal tea. We’ve worked with a farmer in Thailand who will grow and harvest the individual ingredients in Pito-Pito, and what we’re hoping to do is, as we expand, is we can sell our own blend of Pito-Pito. That way the Filipino community can benefit. We’ve actually been contacted by a couple of different Filipino businesses, restaurants in New York, that are really excited about having a bitters to represent the Philippines.
We want people to get vignettes of the science that botanists do. And we want people to just love plants. That’s kind of it – just love plants.