My Nutmeg Bender

The surprising intoxicant hidden in your spice rack
Graham Roumieu

Thanks to its ubiquity in eggnog and other holiday concoctions, nutmeg is one of the spices most commonly associated with drinking. But even now that the last ladleful of the season has been poured, nutmeg refuses to leave the party. In fact, the spice is enjoying something of a revival in the craft-cocktail world, with small nutmeg graters now fairly common in better bars. More and more drinks—especially vintage punches and their offshoots—call for a dusting of nutmeg the way others call for a lemon twist.

This is welcome news, and not only because nutmeg brings a pleasant intricacy to many drinks (in particular, it lends an earthiness to frivolous citrus). The rediscovery of nutmeg also brings a touch of history with it, including one rather unexpected detour.

Peruse accounts of European drinking in the 18th and 19th centuries, and before long you’ll envision barkeeps standing with nutmeg graters at hand, eager to enliven some potion. The tale of how nutmeg got from the East Indies to Europe has been told well and often: the wars for the Spice Islands, the domination of the nutmeg trade by the Dutch, and later, the rise of a competing industry in the West Indies.

But in doing some research recently, I learned something new: nutmeg will fuck you up.

As it turns out, nutmeg contains a psychoactive element called myristicin, whose chemical structure shares similarities with mescaline, amphetamine, and ecstasy. A Dictionary of Hallucinations—let us pause for a moment to give thanks that we live in a world where such a reference exists—notes that nutmeg has been “reported to mediate visual, auditory, tactile, and kinaesthetic hallucinations (notably the sensation of floating).” This is not breaking news: the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen noted the mind-altering effects of nutmeg all the way back in the 12th century.

Yet recreational use never seems to have taken off. I was naturally intrigued when I came across a punch recipe from 1694 that called for five pounds of grated nutmeg—at least until I saw that it also required the juice of 25,000 lemons. Still, I can’t help but suspect that nutmeg abuse could explain some of the idiosyncrasies of the colonial era. Imagine, for instance, a group of teenage nutmeg fiends staring into a fire late one night when one says, “You know what would be cool? A hat with three corners.”

The intoxicating properties of nutmeg have more recently been documented among musicians (the jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker introduced it to his bandmates) and in prisons, where Malcolm X discovered that “a penny matchbox full of nutmeg had the kick of three or four reefers,” as he noted in his autobiography. Online research added confirmation, with one chronicler of the experience comparing it to smoking “three strong spliffs of good skunk,” and another writing that, when walking, he felt as though he was “floating to his destination.” The accounts said that the effects took a while to kick in—typically five or six hours—and that they could last for up to three days.

Users also warned of possible side effects, including loose bowels, vomiting, accelerated heart rate, and nutmeg burps “at 20 minute intervals.”

Both dubious and intrigued, I grated up a whole nutmeg and part of another, producing about one and a half tablespoons of powder. I swallowed it one small spoonful at a time, chasing each gulp down with water. Consumed in that quantity, nutmeg loses its yuletide goodness and tastes like turpentine.

Perhaps my dosage was too low, or my nutmeg too desiccated. I did go through an early giddy phase, when everything seemed immensely amusing—including the shingles on my neighbor’s house—and I felt a slight floating sensation when walking around the neighborhood. But mostly I just felt out of sorts for a couple of days. When I tried to write, my words sometimes became unmoored from my thoughts, though to be fair, this happens even without the influence of nutmeg.

Typing this column three days later, I still feel as though a mild electrical current is passing through my brain. Thoughts seem to come a bit more slowly than usual. Still, I’m able to form this one: in the future, I’ll stick to a light dusting of nutmeg on punch.

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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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