– Written by Lisa Kinoshita
Are you looking for the cure for 2020? Aren’t we all? Then may I recommend Reverend Al’s Bona Fide Potents, perfect for cleansing the bitter taste of 2020 from the palate, and replacing it with a refreshing, all-natural, “shrub” beverage that carries an energizing zing.
An alumnus of the Spaceworks business training program, Albert McMurry describes his private-label “shrubs” as potent drink mixers created by mixing unusual combinations of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and/or spices – with tart vinegar. Centuries ago, seamen took vitamin C-rich shrubs on long sea voyages to prevent scurvy. Today, they are a staple of craft cocktails (add a splash to champagne or your favorite liquors) as well as natural homemade sodas. McMurry began by testing out small-batch recipes on family and friends; today he works out of the RAIN building in downtown Tacoma, and sells his strikingly bottled, artisanal Potents to stores and restaurants.
“I start with locally grown or ethically-sourced whole fruits and vegetables then work, mix, steep, extract, press, strain, filter and bottle my Potents one batch at a time,” he explains on his website at bonafidepotents.com. “It’s labor intensive and takes longer [than manufactured brands] but the results are so much better.”
McMurry’s path to success has been so intriguing we decided to tell his story through a Q&A online. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
SPACEWORKS: Hi, Reverend Al. What were the first concoctions you made when you were starting out?
ALBERT MCMURRY: Grenadine started everything. It’s basically reduced pomegranate juice, and it’s amazing. It’s nothing at all like the artificial national brand that’s so popular. Learning how to make it felt like regaining some long-lost knowledge. So simple.
From there I started simply, making my own sour mix, and then experimenting with other flavors and bitters.
S: You mention in your web bio that you grew up overseas, and in that way ethnic influences and flavors found their way into your recipes. Could you elaborate?
AM: I’m an Army brat and grew up on Army bases overseas in Germany and Korea. Every holiday, birthday or other celebration happened around a potluck. Life on an Army base is incredibly diverse and so was the food. There’d be everything from German, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, Puerto Rican and American food on the buffet table. It wasn’t until we moved to the States and my dad retired that I realized how special those parties were.
S: And your parents are cooks, too –
AM: My dad is African-American from Oklahoma. He cooked mostly southern foods and is an excellent barbecue master. My mom is Korean, and would make traditional Korean food and American dishes she learned from my dad and others, with her own Korean flair. Both my parents are excellent cooks. I’ve been in the kitchen since I could remember, either helping or hanging out waiting for a little nibble of whatever they were cooking. Being exposed to such a variety of cuisines probably extended my palate some but more than anything it opened my eyes to the variety of ways a flavor could be created. For example: every culture has a different way to make something sour. Germans may ferment, in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia they use citrus juice, my dad would use fermented hot sauce, and everyone has a different type of vinegar and they all apply it in different ways.
That’s wordy. The short version is that different cultures use similar ingredients differently….I’m excited and curious about the different ways people build flavor.
S: That comes through in Bona Fide Potents, which add a complex note to drinks. For example, your award-winning Strawberry Peppercorn Shrub is steeped with pink-and-black peppercorns and a blend of vinegars. Wonderfully vivid flavor.
What is your favorite season to be making shrubs in? What delicious ingredients does that season yield?
AM: Now! Summer is incredible and we live in such an amazing area. The variety of berries coming from the Puyallup Valley are the best in the world. The stone fruit we get here is incredible. And don’t forget the sweet peppers, cucumbers, shiso leaf, mint, basil and so many herbs. We are so very lucky. I’m always surprised to see people buying non-organic raspberries from California this time of year.
S: Sourcing locally is something Spaceworks emphasizes in their business program. For an all-natural beverage maker it’s a boon – we have so many great producers here!
Do your Potents have medicinal properties, or are they purely for artisanal cooking and cocktails?
AM: I stay away from making medical claims. That said, I do start with whole fruits and vegetables, and the ingredients I use have their own nutritive benefits. For example: my product, The Purple One [named after Prince] is made with blueberries (high in antioxidants), roses, hibiscus and chamomile (nervous system support), and spices like cardamom, black pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, and allspice, which are all warming spices. Again, I’m doing it for flavor primarily but I’m not using anything artificial. That said, my Immortality Tonic and Sweet Pepper Revival are the closest things to real medicine that I make.
S: As we move through a particularly stressful phase with covid and election-year politics, have you been moved to create a new concoction to take off the edge?
AM: The Immortality Tonic. It’s a tonic syrup for making tonic water. Instead of using quinine or cinchona bark as the bittering agent, I’m using medicinal reishi and agarikon mushrooms and raw wildflower honey as the sweetener. Humans have been using reishi and agarikon mushrooms for thousands of years as everything from an anti-viral to supporting the immune system. Raw honey is used for its phytonutritive, antioxidant and antiviral qualities. There’s also a good measure of lemon juice and bitter orange, lemon and lime zest for vitamin C. So this isn’t your carbonated quinine drink you get from the store but something that’s more substantial nutritionally and flavor-wise.
S: Yum. If you could only have one core ingredient to mix with everything, what would it be and why?
AM: Citrus oleo. It’s citrus zest macerated in sugar until the oils and moisture in the zest dissolve the sugar. The resulting syrup is potent and adds a very bright, zesty flavor to everything. A little goes a long way. We do all this by hand for our products because the flavor cannot be replicated. It’s a staple. I make it at home, too, for cocktails and punches. It makes a real difference.
S: Albert, your Potents, tinctures and elixirs are remarkable; no doubt you are bringing joy to those who are spending time at home right now and want to experiment with cocktails and natural beverages. Thank you for sharing some of your secrets!
Where To Buy
Online at www.bonafidepotents.com
Proctor Farmers Market – 27th and Proctor in Tacoma
Saturdays 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM from March through December
Delightful Neighborhood Market – 4818 N 45th St. in Tacoma
Central Co-op – 4502 North Pearl Street in Tacoma
Patio at Alma Mater (prepared drinks only) – 1322 South Fawcett Ave in Tacoma – Check for hours