9 Awesome Facts About Hierbas Ibicencas
Image credit: Mari Mayans
It’s hard to come to Ibiza and not cross paths with a chupito of Hierbas. But what is Hierbas?
Hierbas (pronounced year-bass) Ibicencas is a herbal liqueur made in Ibiza with different herbs and botanicals that grow around the island. It’s usually taken as a digestif after lunch or dinner. The traditional non commercial version of Hierbas has been made on the island for generations, with each family having their own ‘special and secret’ recipe.
Here, we will share with you 9 awesome facts about Hierbas and Hierbas Ibicencas
1. Hierbas ‘Ibicencas’ is protected by law
Hierbas Ibicencas has a protected geographical status which came into effect in 1997. If you want to call your product Hierbas ‘Ibicencas’ (with the emphasis on the Ibicencas at the end) you have to register as a manufacturer with the local government.
There are certain rules that apply, but the most important one is that the Hierbas has to be made in Ibiza. This helps protect the genuine products made in Ibiza and helps ensure a high standard is met.
Interestingly, commercial Hierbas Ibicencas is made differently from the way traditional Hierbas is made. Hence we get two broad yet distinct categories of Hierbas: One being the legally defined Hierbas Ibicencas which is made according to the rules, and the traditional Hierbas which is made in the more traditional way.
2. Hierbas literally means herbs in Spanish
This one probably isn’t much of a surprise to all those Spanish speakers out there.
However it can create confusion when you are speaking in Spanish and you mention you just need to go to the shops to pick up some “Hierbas” – is that hierbas (herbs) to cook dinner with, or Hierbas (liqueur) to drink because someone finished the bottle the other day and didn’t replace it?
Ah, the problems you can run into when living in Ibiza.
3. You must use an odd number of herbs
Some say that Hierbas Ibicencas must only be made with an odd number of herbs. These kinds of beliefs can be traced back to a time where people practiced polytheism would worship their respective pagan deities, of which Ibiza has several examples such as the Phoenician goddess Tanit. However as times change often these beliefs are brought across and reshaped to match the new religious view. It’s often been said it’s good luck collecting only an odd number of herbs on the morning after a full moon before the day of San Juan.
Religion aside, we think there is always a way to get around this – creative counting.
Traditionally Hierbas is an infusion of herbs in an anise based liqueur. So whether or not you decide to count anise as one of the herbs could mean you will always arrive at an odd number. Another trick would be to look at the juniper. Typically a small branch is included when making Hierbas, which includes the leaves and the berries. Now you could count the whole branch as one herb, or if you chose, you could count the branch as one, and the juniper berries as another.
Creative counting. If only you could do that with your taxes…
4. Families closely guarded their secret recipe
Although the basics of traditional Hierbas were widely known, the specifics were often a closely guarded family secret. This could range from the number of herbs used, they type of herb, when it was picked, infusion process, storage time, and sweetness. This recipe was often handed down from generation to generation with some family names becoming well known for their special version.
Typically recipes call for around 18 different herbs (we know, its not an odd number) although we’ve seen recopies from 12 all the way to 35 herbs. Traditionally all the herbs and botanicals are ones that can be found growing on the island, many of them wild, however some recipes have called for more exotic spices such as cloves, cinnamon and star anise – none of which can be found naturally on the island – but probably came as a result of the spice trade.
5. Ibiza is the perfect place
As if we didn’t know that already. However, there have been some studies that have shown due to the unique location of Ibiza it has the perfect conditions to grow medicinal herbs. This is due to the combination of latitude, climate, rainfall, sunlight hours, soil make up, long hot dry summers and mild wet winters. These conditions lead to herbs rich in oil content which makes them wonderfully aromatic and perfect for making Hierbas.
It’s a phenomenon you can attest to when walking through the country side on a hot summers day when a gentle wind blows and you clearly pick up the scent of fennel or rosemary in the air.
6. It’s medicine
There is a long and colourful history of alcohol and medicine. It turns out alcohol is a great solvent, and will extract both fat soluble (essential oils) and water soluble (alkaloids) substances from plants, with many of these substances having well documented health affects. What’s more, alcohol is also a great preservative – you could store this extraction in a bottle on the shelf, it wouldn’t need refrigeration, and it would last almost indefinitely. This was particularly handy if you had a herb that was only available for a short period of time and didn’t keep well. You could make an extraction using alcohol and then have access to it whenever you please. It was from this history of creating medicines that so many of the worlds herbal liqueurs were born.
Interestingly Coca Cola started out this way as a tonic wine. The inventor was addicted to opiate drugs and wanted to create a stimulant drink to help him kick his drug habit. So he used wine as the alcoholic base to extract caffeine from cola nuts and cocaine from coca leaves as well as using other botanicals for flavour. They ended up selling this as a tonic wine to pick you up when you were feeling ill, and with cocaine, caffine and alcohol in it, it was sure to work!
There are many examples of liqueurs around today that have their history in the roots of medicine. Jägermeister is probably the best example, but then the amari from Italy are also well known, such as Campari, Cynar and Fernet Branca. And of course you will find Hierbas has it’s roots in medicine as well, with many of the herbs showing strong medicinal effects. Of course these liqueuers aren’t used as medicine today, but it’s curious to know they were originally created for that purpose.
7. It’s a digestif
One of the reasons Hierbas is so commonly drunk after a meal is due to the fact the majority of the herbs selected for Hierbas possess digestif properties. These compounds when entering the mouth and stomach promote the release of digestive enzymes, and extra digestive enzymes mean better digestion.
Take green anise (Pimpinella anisum) for example. Aniseeds are delightfully fragrant due to their high concentration of anethole, an essential oil. The seeds also contain other important compounds like acetophenone, p-anisaldehyde, anise alcohol, estragol, limonene and pinen. The seeds have also been used to reduce flatulence, cure sleeplessness, aid nursing mothers with the production of milk and to stimulate appetite. Aniseed can also improve digestion, alleviate cramps and reduce nausea. This botanical is used in a lot of liqueurs around the Mediterranean, such as Sambucca in Italy, Ouzo in Greece, Absinthe in France or Raki in Turkey – all of which are commonly taken after a meal to aid in digestion.
Another example, Peppermint (Mentha ×piperita), is also a well-known digestive herb for easing tummy troubles. Peppermint oil has been shown to work well to prevent dyspepsia and is a relaxant for the muscles of the intestinal wall.
8. It’s an aperetif
Wait, didn’t we cover that one already? Sort of. The difference between digestif and an aperitif is that an aperitif designed to get the gastric juices flowing before a meal in order to kick start the digestive process, hence it is usually taken before the meal rather than after.
Typically aperitifs tend to be lower in alcohol and drier, compared with digestifs which tend to be heavier and sweeter. However there are no hard and fast rules here, and if you want to have a Hierbas before a meal to get things going, then the all those herbs in there will certainly do the trick.
9. Shhh… it’s actually good for you
Legally, any producers of any alcoholic products are not allowed to make any health claims on their products. It’s probably obvious why. But, like everything in life, the right thing in moderation can be good for you.
The medicinal properties of all the herbs and botanicals chosen in Hierbas are well studied and not to be sniffed at, and these are all going to be present in your glass. Ancient medicine was based on the extraction of the active compounds found in plants using alcohol, and Hierbas is a good example of this, thus making it a medicine. It’s common knowledge in Ibiza that a glass of Hierbas after a meal will help you digest, improve your mood, and even increase your longevity.
It’s also no coincidence that Spanish word for “cheers” is salud, which also means health.
So cheers, to good health!
Bonus - learn to make your own
Like Hierbas? Love it? Or maybe you want to learn more about it?
If you’re coming to Ibiza then why not learn the secrets and make your own in a 2-hour fun and hands-on experience held in a beautiful location. Click here to learn more