Introducing Kitty McEntee
This month sees the much anticipated launch of our new tea bar at Gazelli House, South Kensington, created in collaboration with contemporary herbal wellness brand Lab Tonica. Lab Tonica’s aim is to challenge the dusty stereotypes of herbalism with an alchemy of traditional hand-crafted methods and cutting-edge design. We caught up with Lab Tonica’s founder Kitty McEntee to find out more:
Tell us about your creative process for developing new products.
Every product I create is born out of a human need. Some are obvious like the universal need for better sleep, hence everyone’s favourite Unplugged range. But others are more personal and will never see a commercial launch, like the health tonica I am making for a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment, or the heart-healing tincture I make for my father.
But whether it is a commercial product or a more personal creation, the process is the same. And it starts from an almost spiritual place. I begin by thinking quietly about the person or the issue. I visualise the emotional and physical distress that is being experienced; I then shift the focus to healing. What needs to change? Where are the blockages? And what type of energy do we need to create for healing? This process may sound linear but it is actually a synthesis of thoughts, feelings and memories that often bring to mind herbs and plants that may not necessarily be the first ones a textbook would suggest.
Of course I then cross reference everything with botanical and physiological texts and monographs. Which leads me to start with a wide array of possible ingredients. In the case of a commercial product, I need to connect with a range of people who will have different physiological responses to herbs. That is why I always create a relatively complex blend that will extend the benefit while maintaining functionality and uniqueness of scent and flavour.
I then spend months blending, testing, tasting, blending, testing, tasting. When I’m down to my final options I ask my select team of top testers (a group of friends and contacts who have attuned noses and taste buds and an affinity with wellness) to test them for me, offering critiques and comparisons. This process helps me to push the concepts even further and often inspires new developments – like the addition of a black pepper oil to liven the sensual Saucy balm or the late entry of earthy beetroot to give depth to the invigorating POW tea.
Of course taste and scent play a huge role! I’m always mindful of mass appeal, which can be challenging as many of the most beneficial herbs are very bitter. It’s something we used to be attracted to as humans (because our bodies knew the medicinal benefits of such plants), but bitterness is something modern life has repelled us against, with commercial food production giving us an insatiable appetite for synthetic sweetness. But many fruits and blossoms have a beautiful natural sweetness so I use this to balance a bitter blend, as with Mango in the Unplugged tea to counteract the bitterness of Passion Flower and Hawthorn. Mango is wonderfully sweet but is also packed with sleep-supporting vitamins and minerals such as B6, which helps the body to produce melatonin.
What have you learnt about yourself from creating Lab Tonica?
Oh so much, I’m not quite sure where to begin!
I’ve learned that my sinuses will be blocked in the morning if I eat highly salted, sugared or processed foods at night because my cells are inflamed from the toxins.
I’ve also learnt that anxiety is not something to hide from and push away (this only makes the anguish more punishing), but something to look at, to address and to understand. For me it was (and still can be) a sign and a message that something needs to change or shift.
I’ve learnt the quiet joy of helping and healing.
I’ve realised that happiness, for me, is a much calmer pursuit than the all-night parties I used to enjoy. I still like a party, don’t get me wrong, but I think real happiness is not about pleasure, it is about authentic connections. These may be gentle moments with my children, when a small hand curls around my finger for support, or discovering St John’s Wort blooming on my local marshes at a time when I was feeling low. These unspoken messages, energies and connections between the humans I love and the nature I am a part of are what make me tick. Perhaps what make us all tick.
Louisa was my maternal great-grandmother and the idea of her has beguiled me from a young age. She was born in 1890 in Sunderland and from the age of 15 she worked in “the big house”. She ended up marrying at the age of 20 when she became pregnant out of wedlock – which must have been a real scandal for someone born in the late Victorian era. I know she lived in Northern Ireland and then moved to the Wirral where she brought up four children, one of whom was Irene, my dearest Nana.
As a young child my mother would enchant me with stories about her Nana Louisa, a tall, graceful lady with long dark hair, beautiful eyes and a magnetic but quiet aura. Louisa was well known locally for her healing skills and it was said that she could heal people from simply being in their presence or from doing something unknown and mysterious in the garden. Her secrets were sadly never passed on and only the tales of her powers remain.
Knowing what I know now about plants and herbalism, I’m sure Louisa must have had an affinity with the spirits of nature and the ways of plants. I never knew her, but her legacy inspires me and I feel an ancestral pull to her. I believe there is something quite divine about the maternal bloodline – on a basic anatomical level, a woman’s babies are born from the grandmother’s eggs, the eggs gifted her when she was formed in her mother’s womb… so my mother is actually born from Louisa’s egg. Daughters, mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and so on – this is a spiritual and physical chain that will last an eternity. How magical is that?
Could you describe the hero ingredients in each range?
Currently there are twelve individual products across the five collections, so it would take some time to do justice to a key ingredient across them all. Instead I will tell you about the herbs that inspire me most in some of our best sellers.
Breathe herbal tea is one of our most popular blends. Who wouldn’t want a calming cup of tea to ease away anxieties? We use Ashwagandha, Lemon Balm, Hawthorn, Peppermint, Fennel, Gotu Kola and Linden Blossom. The flavour is naturally sweet and soothing with a subtle earthy finish. Linden Blossom is a very special ingredient to me: it gives the tea the most wonderful floral flavour but it also holds very powerful nervine properties. The active compounds in Linden, also known as the Lime tree (latin name Tilia Cordata), work to support the nervous system, quickly reducing feelings of anxiety and hypertension. Linden also works on the heart and adrenal glands, eliminating emotional turmoil and distress.
You will often see avenues lined with Linden trees that once led to a hospital site. Linden blossom would be used to soothe the pain and distress of injured soldiers and administered to help calm and sedate people before operations. In much of Eastern Europe and Russia Linden are worshipped as ‘grandmother goddesses’ for their nurturing qualities. People still believe that sitting under a Linden tree will provide calm and protection in times of turmoil and distress.
Another ingredient I would like to talk about is the Vetiver essential oil in the Unplugged Sleep Balm and Unplugged Pillow Mist. These beautiful blends are heady and floral, with Lavender, Frankincense and Bergamot, but it is the Vetiver that really adds the guts to the blend. It is woody, earthy and even somewhat smoky, adding depth and grounding and extending the intensity and longevity of scent.
Vetiver oil is distilled from the roots of a grass-like plant called Chrysopogon zizanioides. It is a calming nervine that clarifies brain function and aids deep breathing and the flow of oxygen around the body – key functions for a deep and peaceful sleep. Vetiver has anti-anxiety properties and has been shown to calm the nervous system and reduce palpitations.
We’re intrigued by the Libido Balm – can you tell us more about how it works?
Lab Tonica Saucy balm is a wonderfully alluring therapeutic balm, with essential oils of Sandalwood, Rose, Jasmine, Patchouli and Black Pepper. The oils are blended with organic coconut oil, organic beeswax and vitamin E. It is silky and luxurious and feels wonderful on the skin.
The essential oils in Saucy have a dual impact on our bodies. First, they are absorbed into the bloodstream when massaged into the skin around our pressure points (wrists, temples, ankles, neck). This enables quick reactions within the nervous system and encourages a rush of blood to the genitals, providing physical as well as emotional arousal. Second, and perhaps most profoundly, the scent is key. The active compounds in the volatile oils olfactorily trigger neurotransmitters in the brain – which in turn influences hormone production, the function of the nervous system and our resulting mood. And as we all know, if we’re not “in the mood” then it ain’t happening.
This was the trickiest blend to get right and it took me well over a year until I was happy – one drop too much of rose and it smells like nana’s soap and too much musk and you are transcended to a damp alleyway. I’m personally in love with the final blend, which has the perfect balance of musk and floral with an earthy yet fresh undertone. I have numerous friends who wear it as perfume because they adore the scent so much.
What are your go-to Lab Tonica products at the moment?
This changes all the time, which is how it should be as our wellbeing, emotional and physical states are always in flux. Right now I’m smudging Fend balm under my nose to combat tree pollen allergies and I’m double dowsing my pillow with Unplugged Pillow Mist as I’m needing the support of Vetiver and Lavender to lull my overactive mind into sleep. But if you had asked me last week, it would have been energising POW tea all the way as I was low on oomph and needed an extra kick-start in the mornings.
How do you balance your work and wellbeing?
As with many things in life, I think the answer is in the question. “How do YOU balance YOUR work and wellbeing?”
“YOU” as in me: I am in control of my wellbeing and my life. I changed my career and life trajectory because I never felt in control – I was working all hours for someone else’s gain, to someone else’s schedule, and this was creating stress and anxiety.
Of course at Lab Tonica there are third parties involved and lots of lovely suppliers and collaborators but I am in control of my pattern. I choose how I spend my days. I choose who I work with. I choose who I let into my circle. I choose when I take a break, when I work and what I work on. I may choose to spend a whole morning foraging or researching a new plant and not even looking at any emails until the end of the day.
This isn’t about a selfish “I”: it is about personal freedom and empowerment. Setting your own barriers and parameters is the most freeing feeling there is. Lab Tonica is my own business and it is a concept that is all about reconnecting with nature and working with nature to live better and help others to live better, so I guess that wellbeing is at the heart of my business.
It doesn’t feel like work at all. It feels like a vocation. And it feels great.
Tell us about your typical day before 9am.
I wake up naturally with the dawn light, about 6.15am at the moment. I sneak downstairs before the kids get up and start the day quietly and on my own. This precious 45 minutes of calm gives me a chance to ground myself and focus on what I want to achieve that day, without any interruption or influence from external agendas, which can happen when you start the day scrolling on a phone. I now keep my phone downstairs overnight to avoid the temptation to scroll mindlessly before bed and first thing. This is so bad for my brain and creates fuzz and negative stimulation at the two most important points of the day – the start and the end.
I start every morning with about 10ml of fire cider in warm water which I drink quietly on my own either in the garden or looking out over the garden, watching the gentle buzz of life awaken. Fire cider is made by infusing herbs and roots in apple cider vinegar for about six weeks. This fiery infusion helps to warm up the digestive system, supports the immune system and provides a natural energy release.
I then practise yoga for half an hour or if I’m feeling perky I’ll do a quick HIT session. I try to empty my mind and focus on feeling strong, healthy and happy. At the end of the practice I’m feeling energised and calm and so I think about what I want to achieve that day. Then the patter of small feet can be heard from about 7am as my six-year-old and two-year-old get up and need feeding, dressing and general love and attention before school.
Mornings are full and fun in our house, with my husband generally entering the breakfast room with one soundtrack or another blasting out of the speakers, always doing a silly dance to make the kids laugh, which often results in a full-on family dance before the clock even hits 8am.
I love my busy, funny mornings. But those 45 minutes on my own, before the madness starts, are what sets the tone for the day. If I manage to have a calm and positive moment to myself, to think and relax, then I know the day will follow suit.
You can now escape the city and enjoy a herbal tea perfectly prescribed to suit your mood. The Gazelli Lab Tonica Tea Bar has been curated to embody the thriving nature of a herbalist’s lab, bringing the outdoors indoors to stimulate the senses.
Why not dedicate some time to care for yourself and visit Gazelli House? Enjoy one of our award-winning treatments, or simply soak up the ambience of our tea bar and discover all the latest brands and products in wellbeing to add to your self-care toolkit. You’re welcome any time. It’s not just our home, it’s yours.
Click here to discover Lab Tonica’s collection.