Since the beginning of civilization, the arrival of spring is something that has been celebrated. It went beyond simply getting warmer. As fall moved into winter, the nights became longer. Food was stored for the three months where crops did not grow, but by the end of that time food could be getting scarce. There was also dealing with the dark. This was a time when night was scary; who knew if the sun was going to come back? The vernal equinox, the day when there were equal parts sunlight and moonlight, was celebrated because that meant days were getting longer. Crops were about to grow, animals were going to breed, and the land was waking up from its slumber.
It’s not just Easter – resurrection and rebirth is a common theme in many pantheons for this reason. For some, it is the story of the seasons. The fertility goddess has to go to the underworld for some business, either through abduction (Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess) or to save a lover (Ishtar), and while she is there the world stops reproducing. When she comes back, she brings fertility with her. Others tie the journey to the underworld as a way to gain wisdom. Something is sacrificed, but in the end, the hero emerges wiser. The journey through the dark to the other side is transformative.
We have been transforming plants into tasty and delicious beverages for centuries. Though beer, wine, and liquor have always had their place, adding dried herbs, fruits, vegetables, or flowers were also used to change the flavors of the beverages. Juniper, the main botanical in gin, is one of the best known, and was once used as an aid for digestion in many northern countries. Wormwood, the main botanical of absinthe, was also used as a digestive aid, (not mention a method of keeping moths away from clothes). It was also an early substitute for hops. As we came to understand more about the power of plants, we used more and more of them in spirits. Liquor itself was believed to have healing properties. After all, one could still obtain spirits by prescription during Prohibition, and it is still found in many over-the-counter medicines. But gone are the days when the apothecary was filled with herbs to create tonics and elixirs. Now we only find it in bitters and herbal liqueurs like Jägermeister, amaro and aperitifs/tivos like Campari, Italicus and the new Luxardo Bitter Bianco.
This is the time of year where everyone starts to reach for herbs, flowers, and fruits. We are also coming out of the dark spirits and rich flavors of winter and want to clean the palate a little. Mint, berries, cilantro, dill, basil, and some flowers find themselves in cocktails during this time of year, either grown in a garden or foraged from nature (Editor’s note: A terrific reference for making drinks from foraged ingredients is Forager’s Cocktails by Amy Zavatto). Gin and rum come out of hibernation to pair up with the earthy or sweet flavors provided by the plant of choice. That does not mean darker spirits go away; what would spring be without a Mint Julep?
When you are looking for flavor, the herbs that are popping out of the ground are the way to go, especially if you are muddling. You can use dried herbs in an infusion, but you should use less of them. Dried herbs have a more concentrated flavor, so be sparing if you drop them in your new bitters. The general rule is to use one third of the dry herbs you would use compared to fresh herbs. If you are going to muddle them into a cocktail, be gentle. Muddle too hard and you will release some bitter chlorophyll along with the lighted oils. For delicate herbs and fruit, leave the muddler on the bar and shake it hard. Good hard ice will do the same job a muddler will. Mint is an excellent herb for spring, as are basil, fennel, dill and sage.
As spring continues, you could be tempted to experiment with some flowers. At this time of the season, dandelions are everywhere, and they are a magnificently earthy addition to cocktails. Violets add a floral note, as experienced in the Aviation. You can also find marigolds offer a little bitterness to your cocktail. Running out the closest garden center and picking your own is not the way to go. The pesticides and other chemicals they use to make them look so fresh and vibrant are not fit for human consumption. Don’t think you are just going to pull off the highway for when you see a patch of dandelions, either. Wildflowers that close to roads can be covered in pollution, and asphalt is not a delightful flavor profile (yet, we’ll see where trends go). They may also be growing on a land fill, leeching toxic chemicals from the ground into their tasty leaves. You can forage, just do it far away from thoroughfares in a place you know is not a land fill or uses pesticides. Or you can just be safe and buy food grade ones online or at a local store that sells healthy foods.
Is gathering flowers worth it? It absolutely is. For example, there are many recipes for dandelion liqueur and dandelion wine on the internet. When our forefathers landed here, they were interested in distilling anything they could get their hands on. They missed the easy availability of a strong (and safe) drink. With so many dandelions dotting the east coast, it is not surprising that they found themselves stuck in a bucket and fermented. The recipe I am working up to make is in the book Colonial Spirits by Steven Grasse. It requires three quarts (twelve cups) of dandelion heads. Heads only, none of the bitter greens. It is going to take a few trips. I will leave it to you to buy the book for the recipe. It is an impressive one.
Dandelion flowers are just a small part of the versatility of that plant. The leaves can be used for greens in salads (and have been for a very long time), while the roots can be dried and turned into a tea. In ancient times it was used as a blood and liver cleanser, and they were not too far off. Even today it is recommended for many digestive maladies. The tea has a deliciously nutty flavor to it, and when iced, is very refreshing on a warm day.
4.5 oz. / 135 mL iced dandelion tea (recipe follows)
Garnish: dandelion head (optional)
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing tin. Shake well for 20 – 30 seconds. Strain into the tall glass over fresh ice.
Iced Dandelion Tea
4 Roasted Dandelion Root tea bags
6 cups of water (divided)
Pour three cups of water into a pot and set it to boil. Once it comes to a boil, remove it from the heat and add the tea bags. Allow to steep for a half hour. Pour into a suitable, sealable container and add the other three cups of water. Chill, then serve.
The amazing flavor of the tea is not a strong one. Adding the nutty amaretto helps preserve the flavor and adds a little buffer for the gin.
There are fewer fruits and vegetables growing in the spring, mainly because they take a little longer to develop. Rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries are spring stalwarts for cocktails, and go well together. If you are going to use rhubarb, make sure you are only using the stalks. The leaves are poisonous, which ruins a good cocktail. Rhubarb liqueur, not a common (or legal) find in the state of Ohio, is something you can make on your own with a little time and a few pounds of rhubarb. During the spring, a few pounds of rhubarb is not difficult to find. Which makes it perfect for a syrup to add to some bourbon and sweet vermouth to make a Garden Variety Manhattan. A little rye in the bourbon works well with the rest of the flavors, but too much will overwhelm them. Select your bourbon carefully.
Garden Variety Manhattan
2 oz./ 60 mL bourbon (in the spirit of spring, why not try an organic one like 2016 NYISC silver medal winner, Old Town Distilling?)
.75 oz. / 22 mL sweet vermouth (I found Carpano Antica and Dolin both have their charms)
.5 oz. / 15 mL Strawberry Rhubarb Simple Syrup (recipe follows)
3-4 dashes rhubarb bitters
Pour all of the ingredients into a mixing glass over ice. Stir for 20 – 30 seconds, then strain into the cocktail glass.
Strawberry Rhubarb Simple Syrup
1 c. / .25 L hulled strawberries
1 c. / .25 L rough cut rhubarb
1 c. / .25 L water
1 c. / .25 L sugar
In a pot, combine the sugar and water until the mixture is just about to boil. Turn down the heat, then add the strawberries and rhubarb. Allow to simmer for fifteen minutes, or until the produce begins to soften. Allow the mixture to cool, then strain into a glass container.
Spring has arrived, providing long, warm days and a wealth of flavors from the rebirth of the garden. Delicate herbs, flowers, and berries have risen from their slumber, ready to go into a libation fit for the patio. No matter what you celebrate at this time of year, lift a glass to those in the past that experimented with the herbs in their world. There are plenty of cocktails waiting to help this ancient medicine go down.
Brian Petro, a native of the great state of Ohio, found himself in the town of Dayton after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art. His path has wound through the design, education, and restaurant industries, all of them adding a little something to the overall flavor of his creative endeavors. The first time he stepped behind a bar, it felt like home. Ever since, he has absorbed all of the liquor knowledge he can find, from culture to history to recipes, and done his best to share what he knows with the world. Or, at least the readers of Dayton Most Metro, where he is the writer about all things cocktail. He also likes the word “Brilliant” too much and appreciates the beauty of winter more than most. Follow him @SmartGuyInATie.