Interview – with Herbalist, Jennifer May of Sage Moon Apothecary – Seal Harbor, ME

Sage Moon LOGO

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Flavors Produced to Date

Chamomile Blood Orange ~ Golden Root ~ Lavender Vanilla ~ Sunshine  

Elderberry Orange ~ Hangover ~ Lilac Lemon ~ Coffee ~ Cardamom Rose

They also have an interesting selection of Tinctures, Elixirs, Syrups, Electuaries, Teas, Artisan Cocoas, Oils, and much more

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Bitters Hub – What was it that motivated you to get started in the world of bitters production?  Is it a natural extension of everything else that you produce today?

Jennifer May – I was drawn to bitters as an extension of my work as an herbalist.  It initially began as a way to support the body’s digestive system and to help support the body in functioning optimally.  Bitters, when used approximately 15 minutes before a meal, help stimulate the digestive process, which may result in more complete and thorough digestion.  When our digestion is functioning well, we take in more nutrients, thus open the doors to greater health potential. I like bitters for the same reason I like adaptogenic herbs.  They aren’t necessarily “DOING” anything to the body, but are helping the body do it’s work better.

BH – What experience do you have in the culinary field, or another field, that gave inspiration to delve into the now-popular bitters products?  

JM – I have been working in the field of herbal medicine for over 20 years now and in the field of intuitive energy healing for ten years.  I have virtually no culinary experience, which sounds funny given some of the amazing things I can create. I have a vast knowledge of herbs, started with a basic bitters recipe, and then draw upon other herbs and their properties (both physical and energetic) to invoke what I want to see in a bitters formula.  The results have been pretty amazing.

BH – Are you originally from the East Coast of Maine? What led you back there after your studies on the West Coast at the School of Herbology in Santa Cruz, CA?

JM – I was born and raised in San Jose, California.  I moved to Maine, on an intuitive whim, in 2005, which surprised everyone I knew.  I was drawn to Maine, without any logical reasons. I didn’t really know anyone here. I had never even visited Maine. I just knew it was the place for me and it turned out that there was so much here for me to discover – paths that expanded my  healing work, my current life partner, many supportive friends and community members. You could say I heard the call of my tribe and followed it.

BH – How is the supply and demand going so far with your bitters, and what could be improved, if anything, knowing that bitters is for the most part, a small-batch artisanal endeavor?

JM – I think it is going well and the demand has been increasing since opening my brick and mortar shop.  Many people visit me looking for different ways to improve their health. One of the things I recommend to most people are to incorporate bitters into their routines.  Having a brick and mortar allows me to explain the reasons for this, how bitters work, why they are a benefit, and also how I make them, which I feel is a very interesting process.  

BH – You’ve been doing this amazing medicinal practice in your herbal career for 20 years that includes energy work, healing arts, sound therapy, and homeopathy. Did your path start at the school in Santa Cruz or was it maybe earlier in your life?

JM – My path probably started very early on in life, but it wasn’t until a little over 20 years ago, when I fell extremely ill that I allowed these doorways to open. I had to quit my job at a major computer company in Palo Alto, California because I became very sick. I was literally in bed for a year, extremely ill, and none of the 12 doctors and many tests and procedures I had could come up with any answers. The 13th doctor I had seen, an endocrinologist, finally did the right tests and discovered I had an autoimmune thyroid condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.  I was put on a thyroid medication and told I would need to be on it the rest of my life. This didn’t sit well with me. I felt that my body didn’t have this before, so there had to be a way to reverse this pattern. I started seeking the help of an acupuncturist for my migraines. I then started exploring the field of herbal medicine, and began using an herb called milk thistle, which is a liver tonic.  I knew virtually NOTHING about herbal medicine at the time, but for some reason, felt very strongly that if I supported my liver, and relieved some of the pressure that might be on it, that it would free up some of the energy and efforts my body was putting there and allow it to be directed to other areas it needed to heal. I was apparently correct in my assumption, and after three months on milk thistle, all of my labs were normal. Antibodies were gone (and remain so to this day) and I gradually began to regain my health. Shortly after I began to study Herbal Medicine both Eastern and Western. It was when I moved to Maine and was drawn into the field of energy healing (which I previously had felt was bogus fluff), that I experienced real true and lasting healing. It was so huge that I knew that I had to study this and make it available to others. I did a three year apprenticeship in a healing modality called Presence in Healing, which is a form of intuitive energy healing.  After this I studied at a distant homeopathic college for several years, adding this to my symphony of healing arts. I’ve also studied a variety of other healing modalities such as Reiki, Craniosacral work, gemstone and harmonic sound therapy and incorporate all of the knowledge I have acquired over the past twenty years into my work. It’s a very interesting and unique composition. I am incredibly grateful that I became so ill all those years ago. If that hadn’t happened, I might not be doing what I am doing today.

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BH – I know your market demographic probably isn’t much in the direction of bartenders, mixology, or culinary, but have bartenders reached out to you about your bitters?

JM – I’ll admit, I am rather selective about where my products go with regards to something like being used by others to make other things. I have had a few bartenders and restaurant owners reach out to me.   I finally connected with a wonderful microbrewery here, Fogtown, in Ellsworth, Maine. They hold similar values in that they want to support local and locally made products, and support their community. They create and serve amazing beer, because that is their main focus, and in doing so they support local growers and farmers sourcing their ingredients from them as much as possible.  They hold open mic nights, and have music events, and food trucks that all help to really support connection and community above anything else. I liked that very much. As a result of that connection, Fogtown carries my Botanical Sodas as a healthful, non-alcoholic offering for their customers. My Botanical Sodas, bring together my artisan syrups (sourced from locally grown ingredients), raw apple cider vinegar, and my bitters which are then added to a keg, which is then carbonated, and the result is a delicious herbal soda, with health benefits.  It’s been a great connection and one I am very happy with. It helps get people exposed to the idea that bitters are not just for cocktails and herbal medicine doesn’t have to always feel like medicine.

BH – Okay, help me out here, where you live and have your shop at, is it the village of Seal Harbor in the town of Ellsworth on the Mount Desert Island?

JM – I live in Seal Harbor, a small village, on Mount Desert Island, in Maine.  I worked out of my home here for quite a few years, selling my products at markets that I organized and holistic wellness clinics, which I also organized, as well as at several shops on the island. In June of 2018, I opened my brick and mortar shop, Sage Moon Apothecary & Curiosities, which is in the town of Ellsworth.  I still maintain my main office and shipping area in Seal Harbor.

BH – What is it like and what do you see from your perspective hanging out in your community in regards to support with your various products? And do you have pretty good reach so far with sales from your online presence?

JM –  I have a fantastic reach with my online presence and feel very fortunate for that.  I think it was helpful that I started with an online business, which allowed me to reach individuals across the country with my  herbal medicine creations. I was chugging along slowly building my business, and in February of 2015, I was tagged in a Facebook post about turmeric.  I responded with information on the proper way to source and use turmeric and then I did something I never did. I tagged my website, specifically one of my products, Golden Milk Electuary.  I sold $2000 of that product literally overnight. Within 2 weeks, I had sold $10,000 of this one product. The next month the same thing happened. It has tapered down since then, but remains steady with many repeat customers and new ones almost daily.  The success and popularity of this one product, which is anti-inflammatory, pain relieving, and liver supporting, is what allowed me to expand my product line to include bitters and many other wonderful creations. It’s what helped build my business.

I mentioned that I held markets and wellness clinics. I run an organization called Village Health & Wellness which is sort of a web of people doing amazing work in the fields of holistic wellness, allopathic health care, art, crafts, music, and the culinary field, who all come together with the intention of helping foster vibrancy in our communities.  The events I held through this organization helped me get my products out to people in my community and has formed many wonderful connections. So yes, I have had an excellent response from my community here which has been incredibly supportive. Now that I also have a brick and mortar, which has been incredibly well received locally, that support has expanded.  

BH – What is the longest maceration process for any of the bitters flavors you’ve produced to date?

JM – The longest process so far has probably been about 8 weeks.  The process is fairly involved and requires diligent attention from me.   I will put up my main blend which usually has a bitter herb base of either gentian, dandelion root, or wild cherry bark along with the other main herbs to be included.  After a couple of weeks, I will add other herbs, usually the ones to bring some spice and sweetness, such as cardamom, clove, cinnamon. I will then begin checking weekly and deciding what to add next, which will often be a fruit such as raisins, figs, or dates and perhaps a “sweeter” herb such as some licorice root.  The last thing I will add will be the heavier floral notes such as lavender or rose. I learned by trial and error that if you add everything at the beginning, the end result is very different, and some things like clove or flowers can overpower. As most people probably are aware, bitters tend to mellow over time. So what I create will “age” and mellow as it sits on the shelf.  I tend to get very excited when I create a new blend and want to get it on the shelf and available to people. And I’m learning that with bitters, sometimes patience is needed.

BH – What is the facility like in which you create your various bitters?

JM – I have a kitchen facility within my apothecary shop. It is set up the way many commercial kitchens would be set up, minus the stove.  I have floor to ceiling shelves that hold many glass jars filled with herbs, old antique dental cabinets that house my essential oils and bottles of tinctures.  Everything is pretty much set up to have a very old world, Victorian/antique feel to it. It’s very atmospheric. And I adhere to the necessary requirements to produce products like this in Maine….such as a two bay sink, a stainless sterilizable work table, induction burners, bleach for sterilizing, ingredients at least 18 inches off of the floor, etc.  

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BH – How and where do you go about sourcing the ingredients you use for your bitters?  

JM – I always try and obtain locally grown ingredients first.  It may be that a bitters formula only contains one locally grown herb, and I feel very strongly that it does. There is a certain magic about Maine, that I feel is energetically infused into the things I create using locally grown herbs.  If I can’t find something grown locally, I will source first from local resources, such as health food stores or other small businesses. After I have searched these areas, I fill in the rest with herbs from reputable herb suppliers.

BH – What are your storage and temperature necessities that you feel equate to the best results for your bitters?

JM –  My bitters are all stored in an antique hutch that is kept cool-ish and away from direct light. Bitters are stored at the same temperatures as my herbal tinctures, and this has worked well for me.  I recommend people store them in a cool place out of direct light.

BH – Is all of your bottling and labeling done in-house?

JM – Yes. All of everything is done in house, by me.  I had an intern that was with me for the summer that would help with some of the labeling, but for the most part I do everything from sourcing ingredients and supplies, making the products, designing and printing labels, labeling, filling, listing on my website, and social media marketing. It’s a lot.  AND I never want to grow so big that I am not the one making my products. It’s very important to me that I am the one creating them, because it’s what I love about this work.

BH – How do you decide on which bottles and tops to use when it comes to eyedroppers, atomizers, dasher tops, woozy, Boston round, flask-style etc?

JM – By A lot of trial and error!  I originally started with 2 ounce Boston round dropper bottles, most of the time amber ones.  What I found was that because bitters are primarily alcohol based, that some evaporation would occur through the rubber tops on dropper bottles. I would check the bottles periodically and notice that they were a little lower in volume.  Also, bitters should last indefinitely and shift and change as time goes by, often resulting in more richness and texture. Dropper tops, after some time has gone by, can impart a “rubber” flavor into the bitters, which pretty much destroys the elegant flavor layers.  I have since began shifting to a dasher top bottle, which prevents the evaporation from occurring and prevents any possibility of “rubber” taste. I have also switched to clear bottles because the colors of the bitters I make are so beautiful that I want them to be seen.  

BH – How do you determine the best bottle sizes to use – 1oz., 2oz., 4oz?

JM – I use two ounce bottles for my bitters.  It just seemed like the right size to go with.  1 ounce is great for tinctures which might be use for a short period of time. Bitters are something that I feel everyone should use on a regular basis and 2 ounce seems to give you enough to last a while and not feel overwhelming like a large 4 ounce bottle might. Plus being smaller, keeps them affordable and within most people’s financial means.

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BH – Are the legal requirements and approvals strict and/or lengthy for producing bitters in the state of Maine? Do you need some special license and/or certification, how does that all go where you’re at?

JM – I don’t believe there are specifically with bitters, and honestly I have avoided opening that can of worms yet.  All of my products are made as herbal medicines or natural skincare products.  If they were made and marketed as food and beverages, I would run into some legal things that would need to address. Herbal Medicines do not have state laws (at least in Maine) around them – really only in the field of acupuncturists using herbal medicines.  They fall into an interesting category of if they are considered foods, they require a commercially licensed kitchen……..if they are considered supplements, they fall into a whole different category which requires specific nutritional labeling.  Mine are somewhere in between.

BH – Are their costs/fees/expenses involved, and are there regular facility inspections?

JM – I rent a facility that houses my apothecary, shop, and wellness space, so yes there are the usual expenses of rent and utilities. I often use a licensed kitchen to make any consumable products at, which I typically barter for the use of.   Once I license my kitchen, which I plan on doing this year, I expect there will be facility inspections. However because I am not preparing food, the licensing requirements are different than those of a restaurant.

BH – I love all of the flavors you’ve come out with so far. When I read Sunshine, it made me wonder how that tastes. Can you elaborate on the process and how this idea came about?  I noticed that you used Thompson raisins in the recipe, is that for sweetness?

JM – My favorite bitters blend that I have made to date is the Sunshine Bitters.  This was the first blend I made and it took quite a bit of trial and error to come up with it. It is also the only blend that I continue to reproduce.  I had come across a recipe that used calendula and gentian root. This intrigued me. I decided to add chamomile which is also a wonderful digestive herb and a very sunshiney flower.  The cardamom, fennel, and dandelion root were brought in to also add digestive support. I had a pretty good flavor to the bitters but I felt it was lacking texture and richness. I find the best bitters are ones that you can notice the individual flavor notes, but each is subtle enough to blend in with the others. There is a sort of texture to it.  This texture ends up being enhanced by dried fruits such as Conadria Figs and Thompson Raisins. They impart a slightly sweet richness and texture but are not overpowering such as something like honey might be. The end result is this beautiful Sunshine Bitters that also carries antibacterial and antiviral properties as well as some lovely energetics that help to lift the spirit and emotional bodies.  

BH – What are the most samples and least samples of trial and error testing you had to go through to get the flavor profile you wanted with a couple of your bitters releases ?

JM – I have had some blends, such as my Cardamom Rose that I did one batch of and it came out perfect. It was a simpler formula than that of the Sunshine, which took about three rounds to perfect.  There are some, like the Lavender Vanilla that I made only once. They came out lovely, but they weren’t spectacular enough to create again.

BH – Why is Cardamom so popular to use?  It seems like many bitters brands have that either in their flavor lineup or as an ingredient in a bitters.

JM – I think primarily for it’s flavor, which is rich, spicy, and exotic. It lends a nice texture that isn’t overpowering when used appropriately in bitters.  Cardamom also has some wonderful health benefits such as supporting healthy digestion (which is a bonus to enhance the already digestive supporting qualities of bitters), it is antibacterial, and anti inflammatory. It also is said to have cancer-fighting properties.  Something that many people don’t know is that cardamom is an alkalizer. This means that it may help reduce things like the effects of hangovers. When used in coffee, it can help reduce it’s acid qualities and may neutralize the effects of caffeine on the body.

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BH – Switchels vs. Shrubs. Is there a difference, or only in name?

JM – Technically they are different.  A shrub is typically a preservation of fruit in vinegar, while a switchel is a beverage.  I tend to refer to things such as Elderberry Sodas as shrubs, because it does contain the berries (fruits), and things like my Turmeric-Ginger vinegar infusions, switchels.  I recently started calling most of them Botanical Soda Concentrates, to clear the confusion.

BH – Do you have any new bitters flavors coming up in the near future that you can tell us about, or is it still a secret at this point? I noticed that some of your previous flavors are either retired now or seasonal.

JM – I don’t have any specific bitter blends coming up and tend to go with what I am drawn to in the moment.  I love to do seasonal blends based on what is available locally from season to season. I would like to create a blend that serves as a potent antiviral for cold and flu season.  I used to have an Elderberry Orange Bitters blend, which was amazing. I would like to use that as the base formula and bring in other herbs such as cat’s claw bark and other antivirals.  I would also love to create a CBD bitters formula bringing in a high CBD Cannabis strain. This isn’t something I could sell in my apothecary, but something I think would be interesting to explore.

BH – What was your debut bitters flavor and when was it released?

JM –  My debut flavor was my Sunshine Bitters, which was released in 2016.  It is my favorite to date and the one I continue to recreate and keep in stock.  

BH – – I love your brand name and logo/label design on your various products? May I ask what the inspiration was?

JM –  Thank you!  Sage Moon started years ago as a small business, Sage Moon Handcrafts, where I created and sold fiber art clothing and sculptural pieces.  Later, when I started doing my intuitive energetic bodywork, I kept the Sage Moon and called myself Sage Moon Harmonics. It just seemed right that my apothecary should also keep the Sage Moon name, hence Sage Moon Apothecary took form.  

With regards to the labels, I wanted them to invoke the feeling of “old world”.  I wanted them to feel like the medicines of yesteryears. I also found that using a black and white laser printer was much more economical than the ink jet I had been using. So, at least in part, my resulting logo/labels were utilitarian.  I had to find a way to create an attractive label using only gray scale, so I reached to the Victorian flora art. This has worked well at encompassing the feeling that I was trying to create and also to be something I could afford doing myself.

BH – Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time with this insightful interview into your bitters world. I’m sure the visitors here on Bitters Hub will appreciate you sharing your knowledge on how things go in creating Sage Moon Apothecary and to get a glimpse into what it takes to be the multi-task master of your own brandCheers!

JM –  Thank you, Kyle,  for giving me this opportunity. I love talking about the things I create, my favorite being bitters!  I am always happy to answer questions, offer support or guidance with regards to medicine making (including bitters), product selection, and just overall choices that may lead to greater health and wellness.  I can be contacted via email to sagemoonapothecarymaine@gmail.com, through my website at www.sagemoonapothecary.net, or for those in or visiting Maine, at my shop on Main Street in Downtown Ellsworth.

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