Julianne Zaleta is the closest we've come to meeting an actual apothecary. A plant enthusiast since childhood, Julianne has an innate sense for the way that herbs and aromas work together, and has built a business aimed at sharing the stimulating, relaxing, and cocktail-upgrading powers of everything from thyme to angelica. We caught up with Julianne between potions to hear about how she got started, and what herbs we should be using in our Bloody Marys.
SCOUT: Okay, this one's for the uninitiated: What's one thing everyone should know about herbs & aromas?
JULIANNE: Most oils have antimicrobial properties, meaning that they fight infection. There are a few (lavender, thyme, oregano, eucalyptus) that have a reputation for being anti-microbial, but most of them are. They think that the people who survived the Black Plague were those that were using aromatic plants in their cooking. I think that everyone should have a bottle of lavender in the house ... it's the first thing I grab when I want to clean a cut or wound, it's great for blisters and is the best relief there is for burns.
SCOUT: How does one carve out a life as a modern day potion-maker?
JULIANNE: When I was a child my mother always had a really big garden, and she was very generous with it and let me pretty much do whatever I wanted in it ... I didn't really know what I was doing but I was always making some crazy thing from the garden. I distinctly remember grinding up soap and mixing it with lavender blossoms, and floating flowers in water in a jar in the sun. I think I was a natural born alchemist!
SCOUT: How did you turn pro?
JULIANNE: In college I had an older, wiser friend who used to take me foraging for wild food and herbs. I started to buy wildflower guides and herbals and cross reference them. After college I was a floral designer for some time and learned more names of plants. Later I became a meditation teacher and eventually a massage therapist which led me to aromatherapy ... I had come full circle, a lot of the plants from my mother's garden, the foraging in northern Michigan and the flowers from the design shops I worked at were all distilled in these little bottles.
SCOUT: Is here a pattern to the way you work, or is it all about discovery
JULIANNE: There is no typical day, it all depends on what I'm working on. Lately I've been making tinctures and extracts so the day begins with a lot of shaking! Everything I'm working on needs to be shaken up and assessed as to whether it's done or not. Perfume making is another sort of day. I can only work on a perfume for a little while before I can't smell it objectively anymore so I'll walk away and work on something else and come back to it.
SCOUT: Is it tricky to work with such natural ingredients in an urban environment?
JULIANNE: I feel like I have quite a bit of access to nature in Brooklyn! I'm only two blocks away from Prospect Park and I can literally get lost in there if I want to (I'm in the process of making a series of natural perfumes based on places in the park. They have such romantic and evocative names like The Vale of Cashmere and The Nethermead). I'm also involved in a community garden so I can grow some of the things I need and get my hands dirty. Of course I dream of having a place in the country where I can have a huge garden but in all seriousness I believe that living in the city is the greenest way to live.
SCOUT: What made you experiment with cocktail ingredients?
JULIANNE: Last summer was the first time I felt that I could harvest herbs and start making things with them. There is a huge angelica plant there, and I finally cut a stalk of it and smelled it and was blown away. Angelica is an umbellifer, in the celery family, and it kind of smell/tastes like celery with a twist, maybe a more grown up celery. I immediately thought it would make a great Bloody Mary! I took some home and picked up some vodka and it turned out wonderfully. After that I started making flavored vodka with chocolate mint, lemon verbena, lavender, thyme, etc., and pairing them up with mixers and some of my essential oils and absolutes.
SCOUT: What's coming up next for Herbal Alchemy?
JULANNE: I've been doing lectures on natural perfumery and some cocktail workshops and I look forward to doing more this fall including one next week at the Brooklyn Brainery. I also plan to do some teaching at The Observatory Room as well. I'm working on my Prospect Park perfumes and want to release those as a set. At the moment, though, I'm working on a bay rum recipe I'll probably also be selling some of the tinctures and extracts I've been working on this summer. I have a lot of ideas at the moment and I'm just trying to keep up with myself!