On Valentine's Day, the shopworn option for a romantic drink is grabbing a bottle of red wine and calling it good. Honestly, that's kind of boring. We set out to find a more exciting option for February 14, and came across a bartender cleverly infusing cocktails with aphrodisiacs. Lucky for us, he was willing to share a few recipes.
From oysters in the U.S. to tiger penis in China, aphrodisiacs—food and drink believed to increase sexual desire or pleasure—vary across cultures, but they all have a common goal. "There are foods that can simulate the bodily functions that happen when you're getting horny," says Mark Sexauer (yes, that's his real name), a Seattle bartender who studied aphrodisiac folklore for his cocktail recipe book Aphrodisiacs with a Twist.
Aphrodisiacs are all about stimulating sensory cues. For example eating a chili pepper speeds up your heart rate and can make you sweat, much like what happens when your body is sexually aroused. Other ingredients considered aphrodisiacs arouse through scent, like a pungent herb, or through sight, like a plush fig or phallic-shaped banana. Sexauer realized ingredients like those (no, not the tiger's penis) could work well in cocktail recipes.
Here's where the government gets all Debbie Downer on us. There is no scientific proof—according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration—that ingesting an aphrodisiac actually works. "Almost everything was thought of to be an aphrodisiac at some point," Sexauer says. So nothing is an aphrodisiac, but everything is an aphrodisiac. "It's a lot more fun to think they're real."
Regardless, a good drink can still set a mood. So we asked Sexauer to mix up three cocktails that pair with lust, love and friendship to cover everyone's bases on Valentine's Day. Sure, Sexauer's recipes may just produce a placebo effect, but even if they do, your drinking companion will still reward the effort.
In Greek and Roman mythology a popular aphrodisiac is the woody herb rosemary. Venus, Roman Goddess of Love, is said to have used it as a douche and skin wash to make herself more seductive. Another legend tells of an elderly medieval queen who bathed in water with an infusion of rosemary to regain her youthful health and strength. "People truly believed the gods used rosemary to become seductive or younger, so in turn, they used it on themselves," Sexauer says.
In Roman times, rosemary was placed in the beds of newlyweds. "They thought the intoxicating aroma was a huge element to the sexual experience," he says. Cultures on the Mediterranean also believed rosemary would strengthen mental alertness and memory. "This drink is for a couple whose emotions are explosive in the moment."
Garden (pictured above)
½ yellow bell pepper, washed and seeded
1 ½ oz. Bombay Dry gin
½ oz. fresh lemon juice
¾ oz. Rosemary Simple Syrup (see below)
Muddle the bell pepper in the bottom of a mixing glass until it is almost a mushy puree. Add the remaining ingredients and shake hard with ice. Pour into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.
5 sprigs rosemary (6 to 8 inches long)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
Remove the rosemary leaves from the stems and put the leaves in a pan over high heat. Toss the rosemary until it becomes a little dry and extremely fragrant, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the water and sugar to the pan and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool, at least 10 minutes. Strain. Store in the refrigerator.
Westerners view roses and Champagne as important elements to a romantic evening. Sexauer says there's no reason to splurge. "Sparking wine is key," he says. His sparkling cocktail incorporates another flower, the naturally sweet and tart hibiscus, which adds a "fun, lip-smacking effect" to initiate kissing and almost as importantly, a dark, sexy red color to quicken the heartbeat.
1 ounce Hibiscus Syrup (see below)
Sparkling wine, to fill
Pour the Hibiscus Syrup into a champagne glass or coupe. Slowly add sparkling wine to fill. Garnish with a dried hibiscus flower.
1 cup water
½ cup sugar
½ cup dried hibiscus flowers (available in the Latin aisle of your grocery store)
Combine the water and sugar in a pot over medium heat. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the hibiscus flowers and remove from heat. Let sit for 1 hour. Strain and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
In the Bible cinnamon is an ingredient tied to sexual arousal (Proverbs 7:17-18: I perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love till morning), but used in a big sharable cocktail, it's the perfect spice for receiving a group of friends to your house. Sexauer prefers his family's spiced wine recipe. "The warm smell of cinnamon fills your whole house with an amazing aroma similar to fresh-baked cookies or cake," Sexauer says. "That kind of welcoming, homey feeling is hard to beat. I like to make it in advance and feel the flavors marry together over a day or two."
1 bottle Syrah
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup brandy
Zest and juice of one orange
Zest and juice of one lemon
4 whole cloves
8 whole peppercorns
8 whole allspice berries
3 small cinnamon sticks
1 Tbsp pure vanilla extract
1 Tbsp honey
Heat cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, and allspice in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Roast until a strong aroma is apparent. Pour the bottle of wine into a large pot over medium-low heat. Do not boil. Add roasted spices and remaining ingredients into the pot with the wine. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for one hour. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 to 20 minutes. The longer the spices sit, the stronger they will infuse. Strain. Store the spiced wine in a Crock-Pot or clean coffee pot to keep it warm throughout the night.
Alyson Sheppard is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Mental Floss, McSweeney's, National Geographic Adventure, the Boston Globe and more. Follow her on Twitter @amshep.
Photos by Charity Burggraaf