The California Bay (Umbellularia californica) is a large hardwood tree in the Lauraceae family native to coastal forests of Northern California. Similar in flavor and usage to Turkish bay leaves, California bay leaves offer a subtle herbal flavor when distilled.
California bay trees typically grow in coastal forests of Northern California, stretching up as far north as Oregon and sometimes down into the dry desert heat of Southern California. Considered an excellent tonewood ideal for woodwind and acoustic instruments, the California bay is often sought after by luthiers and woodworkers.
Today, the wood from the California bay–otherwise known as Myrtlewood–is the only wood still used as a base for legal tender. The story goes that in 1933, the only bank in North Bend, Oregon was forced to close, leading to a city-wide cash-flow crisis. The crisis was resolved when North Bend decided to mint its own currency, using Myrtlewood coins printed on a newspaper press. The city promised to redeem the coins for cash once it became available, but many decided to hold onto their sheckles as collector’s items, which have since become incredibly valuable.
The California bay’s storied past doesn’t stop there: in 1869, the Golden Spike was hammered into a railroad tie made from California bay wood, signifying completion of the Transcontinental Railway, which linked the East Coast to the West by way of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads.
Despite its longstanding cultural significance, the California bay is now much more prized for its leaves, which have a flavor similar to but much more assertive than the subtly sweet Turkish bay leaves. Both leaves are added to soups, stews, and sauces to imbue a deep, complex flavor, and are removed before eating.
Medicinally, poultices of California bay leaves were once used to treat rheumatism, among other ailments; a poultice was placed on the heads of those who suffered from seizures, for example, to restore consciousness. Single leaves were inserted into the nostrils to cure headaches, while a tea was made from the bark and leaves to treat the common cold and clear mucus from the lungs. In some Native American tribes, California bay leaves were used as natural bug repellents.
Today the California bay grows widely throughout the coastal forests of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Despite its NorCal roots, the plant has found its way into AMASS Master Distiller Morgan McLachlan’s Los Angeles backyard, where it grows alongside rosemary and grapefruit.
Found in: AMASS Dry Gin