A Spice So Great It Has To Be Illegal

Courtesy mecredis/flickr
Courtesy mecredis/flickr

Everything is better with a hint of tonka. Really, it is. The tonka bean, which has its home in the northern parts of South America and the southern Caribbean, is full of flavor and might easily be the most complex spice there is. Its first impression is of vanilla - and it is actually used as a vanilla surrogate in many a kitchen - but aside from that you will get strong cocoa, coffee, and chocolate at the beginning; then toffee, cherry, almonds, cinnamon, and even a hint of cloves. Beyond that, if you smell long enough, you’ll get everything you’d also find in a well organized spice cabinet. Except, maybe, mint. In short: if “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” had a taste, it’d taste like tonka.

Not only does it have an incredible flavor profile; it also yields a slight hypnotizing effect and is quite a strong aphrodisiac. In indigenous medicine it’s believed to have powerful magical and healing effects. Due to these beliefs it’s quite commonly carried as a totem, shielding the bearer against illness, granting prosperity and success, fulfilling wishes and enhancing one’s stamina between the sheets - now who wouldn’t want that?

Sadly, for all you readers from the US, it’s completely prohibited, due to its small coumarin content. Coumarin, a natural flavoring agent, is thought to cause cancer (it’s been tested on rodents in ridiculously high doses - you’d have to eat a whole bean in order to get such a dosage, though a small scraping is enough for any dish/drink) and is therefore banned by the FDA. Yet enforcement is clearly imperfect. You’ll be able to find it at a well organized spice merchant (they’re very small and easy to hide) or simply order it online. Luckily for the rest of you readers from the free world, this prohibition might not affect you.

I’ve first stumbled upon tonka, when a friend of mine infused a rum with it. The result was astonishingly deep and so rich in flavor, we made the most amazing Rum Old Fashioneds with it. And it got me fooling around with said spice.


The Tonka Negroni (or: Everything is Better with a Hint of Tonka)

- 40ml (1 ⅓ oz*) No. 3 Gin*1

- 20ml (⅔ oz*) Aperol*2

- 30ml (1 oz) Dolin rouge or Punt e Mes*

- dash of Orange Bitters

- a wee bit of tonka bean

- a lemon zest

Grate the tonka bean with a nutmeg grater about 3 times (it’s really intense) over a tin, add the other ingredients sans the zest. Add some ice and then throw the drink, for it really does well with some aeration. If you’re not confident enough just shake. Double strain into coupette, twist the zest and rub it along rim and stem then discard.

I don’t really know why I went with a Negroni in the first place, but after trying I was completely sure about it. “I make the bestest Negroni in the world. - Why? - Cuz F*ck you, FDA!” The sweet flavors of tonka are a great match for the bitter nuances of this classic drink, making it an even better aperitif. As a whole it will now start interestingly mild and you’ll mainly catch the vanilla, cherry & almonds. After that, the expected bitter notes come through and finally, you’ll get the full impression of the spice with all it’s beautiful flavors.


*: for anyone who enjoyed the US American school system and/or failed math, ⅔ is just shy of ¾ and 1 ⅓ is, quite obviously, the difference between 2 and ⅔.

*1: I like its orange and grapefruit notes. Tanqueray TEN is great too.

*2: If it has to be Campari, tune it down a little.

*3: I prefer the light Dolin for this take, but Punt e Mes will do too.