A Colorado family heard good things about the ‘toothache plant,’ so they decided to make liquor out of it

· Jul. 19, 2023, 4:00 am
tingala-press-club-20230711tingala-press-club-20230711Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Bob Tews and his company have been making Tingala for about a decade. He offered a tasting event at the Denver Press Club July 11, 2023.

The Tews family would like drinkers of their specialty spirit to think its origin story involves the three of them on some romantic adventure in the rainforest, questing to find hidden sources of the Spilanthes acmella flower that gives the liqueur its signature taste.

“We would love to paint a beautiful picture of me in a village on the Amazon River, making Tingala, but it isn’t quite that way,” Bob Tews said. “We’re a little more bootstrapped (than that.)”

Regardless, after about a decade of Bob making Tingala with his wife, Susan, and son, Eric, the Golden-based company is slowly taking off around the state. The family hopes the introduction of a new flavor will help usher the wholly unique brand into the mainstream.

Bob first heard of the Spilanthes flower on TV from the now-deceased chef and traveling food journalist Anthony Bourdain. He said Bourdain “raved about it” in a Brazilian soup called tacacá. The flower, also called jambú, Szechuan buttons, buzz buttons, electric daisy or the toothache plant, is prized for the tingling or numbing sensation it produces in the mouth — an experience not unlike novocaine.

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Eric Tews, at the Denver Press Club,is part of the family that produces Tingala.
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A Boulevardier cocktail that includes Tingala, on the bar of the Denver Press Club, July 11, 2023.
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Susan Tews talks about Tingala during a tasting event at the Denver Press Club.

“I’ve never heard of this flower, I have no idea what this is,” Bob said he was thinking while watching the segment. He researched more and couldn’t find any widespread use of the flower in alcohol. The family were gardeners and hobby distillers and started growing the Spilanthes plant at home to experiment with making a spirit of their own. After first bringing a concoction to a party in the form of Jell-O shots, the positive feedback had them feeling they were on the right track. 

“That’s when Eric took the formula to the distillery and we got approval,” Bob said.

The brand now makes the spirit and bottles it at Local Distilling in Golden, and the slow growth in the brand’s early years has ramped up of late. In the last year, Tingala has spread from distribution only along the front range of Colorado to locations across the state and now is sold in Wisconsin, New York, California, Nevada and Utah.

Even still, the Tews family acknowledges the niche following of their original formula. To combat that, they’ve just released a new variety, Tingala Gold.

“Even our bartenders were telling us ‘(The original Tingala is) strong, it’s fun, you know, people like it, but it is challenging,’” Eric said. “Listening to that feedback, we sort of looked at a different approach to the market, where we could have something a little sweeter, a little shootable.”

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Mixing a Boulevardier cocktail that includes Tingala, on the bar of the Denver Press Club, July 11, 2023.
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A bottle of Tingala at the Denver Press Club for a tasting event. The drink is distilled from the buds of the Spilanthes acmella plant, native to the Amazon River Basin.

The Gold variety tones down the numbing effect as well, which pleased CPR’s Ryan Warner in a recent taste test at the Denver Press Club. Click on the audio file at the top of this page to hear that adventure. 

Any entrepreneur wants their business to succeed, and the Tews family is optimistic about the future of Tingala. Yet, Bob expects he will one day feel wistful about the bootstrapped beginnings of the brand, when it was only his wife, his son and himself making and bottling everything by hand themselves.   

“It’s just going to be one of those things that we hope we can carry on and do for a very long time and still be part of the process, but it’s a journey,” he said.

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