As a distiller and a gardener, it is always gratifying when my interests in liquor and plants overlap. While these two topics may seem unrelated, they are actually quite intertwined. Without agriculture, there would be no alcohol. Grains, fruit, sugarcane and their byproducts, because they are fermentable starch sources, are capable of producing myriad alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and distilled spirits.
The craft cocktail movement takes this connection a step further, utilizing fresh produce, herbs and spices, to create an endless array of drinks that are anything but garden variety. From simple garnishes to delicious DIY techniques that are easily mastered by both the professional bartender and home aficionado, here are nine different ways to incorporate plants into drinks.
Fresh citrus juices have long been used in cocktails. And for residents of Florida, there is no end to the varieties of citrus fruits available locally. But juicing doesn’t have to be limited to lemons, limes or oranges. Beet, carrot, celery and tomato juice, to name a few, have recently been popping up in more craft cocktail creations. If a fruit or vegetable can be juiced, it can be added as an ingredient.
FLAVORED SIMPLE SYRUPS
Simple syrup is a common ingredient in craft cocktails. Flavored syrups serve a dual purpose; they add a sweetening agent while also enhancing the overall taste of the drink. To make simple syrup, mix one part boiling water with one part sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. (For a thinner liquid, use two parts water with one part sugar.) For flavored syrups, add fresh botanicals or dried spices while simmering the syrup to extract the ingredients’ essential oils.
Any bartender (or chef) will tell you that the visual part of a tasting experience can be just as important as the flavors themselves. Chefs artfully arrange their food on plates, while bartenders create miniature works of art with the array of flora at their disposal. Elegantly long twists of citrus, clipped on sprigs of herbs, a dehydrated fruit wheel, a row of skewered berries. As long as it is safe to consume, virtually any plant can be used in a creative way to create a visually enticing cocktail.
There are few things more magical to behold in a bar than the brief brilliance of lightning that erupts as a bartender squeezes a citrus rind over a flame. Many an enthralled guest has watched mist bursting from the peel of a lemon as it catches fire for a split second. But is there a purpose to this parlor trick, other than the light show? Absolutely! By squeezing the outside of a thick peel of citrus over a drink (think: lemon twist), or slapping a sprig of mint quickly between
one’s hands, the natural oils that reside within the plant are brought forth. Manipulating oily plant byproducts such as leaves or rinds can produce both aromatic and taste sensations that enhance the imbibing experience.
This method has been used historically for preserving leftover fruits from the harvest and is an easy way to impart plant flavor into cocktails without the intense sweetness of simple syrups. To make a shrub, simmer the desired fruits, vegetables or herbs in vinegar for several minutes. Strain the liquid, filter it again through a film such as cheesecloth, and add sugar while hot. Shrubs are shelf stable up to six months when kept in an air-tight container. Commonly found in
cocktails, shrubs are also tasty ingredients in non-alcoholic beverages.
Bartenders utilize fresh and dried herbs as kindling for smoky flavoring in drink concoctions. Cinnamon, rosemary, thyme and sage are all popular smoking herbs, and are easy to cultivate in a home garden. Set the herbs of choice on a fireproof surface, light them with a match and trap the smoke by resting a cocktail glass (a coupe, highball or Collins glass) over the lit sprig. This captures the oily smoke residue within the vessel, the flavors of which emerge when a cocktail is sipped from the smoked glassware.
Crafting homemade tinctures and bitters is a process very similar to infusions, but on a more flavor-intensive scale. Whereas infusing typically takes a day or two, tinctures and bitters can take multiple weeks. The result is a highly flavorful liquid that can be used for a variety of purposes; cocktail seasoning, cooking and even medicinal. The difference between tinctures and bitters? Bitters include a bittering agent, such as angelica root, calamus root or citrus, while tinctures don’t include bittering botanicals. Both, however, can utilize spices, herbs, flowers, fruits, nuts and even beans to create powerful flavor combinations. To maximize essence extraction, use alcohol that is at least 100 proof and is completely neutral in flavor (for example, a high-proof vodka or grain alcohol).
A commonly used method when making cocktails, muddling physically expresses the oils and juices of fruits, vegetables or herbs to add flavor to a drink. The process involves pummeling select ingredients with a mortar-and-pestle style motion. Softer produce, such as citrus wedges, herbs and berries, are the easiest to muddle; anything larger and/or tougher may need to be cut into smaller, more manageable pieces. Use caution when muddling, however; a little goes a
long way, and be sure to not over-muddle the ingredients.
This technique adds flavor to spirits prior to using the alcohol in a cocktail. Both fresh ingredients, such as whole fruits, herbs or fresh flowers, and dried materials, such as root materials or dehydrated citrus peels, can be utilized to give spirits distinctive flavors. Soak the flavoring ingredients of choice in desired spirits for 12-48 hours. Softer fruits and botanicals require a greater volume for maximum flavor, and it is often simpler to use unaged spirits (vodka, gin, etc.) instead of aged (whiskey or rum) when creating infusions. Be sure to use alcohol that is between 90-100 proof in order to maximize extraction.