honeysuckle
honeysuckle
Honeysuckle. Photo courtesy of skenmy.

At Epicure & Culture we love telling you about the latest in sustainable travel, food and drink. Our staff is always on the lookout for great farm-to-table restaurants and bars offering locally-sourced ingredients and organic farm produce and herbs. In terms of bars, while those going this route should certainly be applauded for their moral philosophies and keeping it local, there are many mixologists now looking to go beyond farm-to-fork and actually go out and forage for natural, local ingredients to put in innovative libations people haven’t imagined in their wildest cocktail fantasies.

There was a time when cocktails came about from medicines and home remedies, full of curative herbs and bitters that were excellent for digestion. Drinks were thoughtfully made with high-quality ingredients, sipped, savored and enjoyed over long conversations with good company. The foraging trend brings us back to this way of thinking, but in a different way. Instead of looking in our medicine cabinets, apothecary shops and kitchen cabinets for drink enhancements, mixologists are now looking in nature.

One mixologist, or “Spirit Handler,” spearheading the foraging movement is Alan Walter of Loa Bar in New Orleans. His interest in foraging began at a young age, with his parents enrolling him in edible plant seminars and summer biology courses. He would pick local figs, pecans, strawberries, honeysuckle, and blackberries, giving them to his mother to use in her cooking. This interest has followed him into his adult years and weaved itself into his mixology. After he collects his ingredients — some of which include cat nip, pine needles, plums, or Spanish moss — from places like the local City Park and NOLA’s lakefront neighborhoods, he cooks them down on a butane stove on the bar to make syrups and bitters. The ingredients not only reflect the local terroir, but also culture as his various magical concoctions reflect the rituals of New Orleans.

“The rituals in New Orleans are built on the calendar and invariably wrap themselves around the seasons, and therefore they tend to feature what nature has available and plentiful at the time,” explains Walter. “My cocktail making calendar follows this cycle, as well, and I make a point to employ the season’s bounty in my cocktails. Am I going to make a special limoncello for St. Joseph’s Day from our incredible Meyer lemons? Hell yeah!”

Walter is most famous for his Spanish Moss concoctions — most notably the “Jean Lafite” cocktail — which he uses to bring depth to a cocktail as it has a flavor like a rich green tea, earthy and complex, and, ultimately, elusive. That being said, it’s not just about the flavor, but about how the ingredients add poetry to the overall experience.

“We eat and drink with our brains as well as with our eyes and ears,” explains Walter. “For many, many years in our history our chairs and mattresses were stuffed with Louisiana moss.  That means moss has been listening to our most private utterances for a very long time. It knows us well; it speaks of our older selves.”

The process to create the Spanish Moss syrup is lengthy, although it’s worth it to this chemist-slash-mixologist for the flavorful end product. After brewing the moss multiple times, Walter extracts the tea, which is then sweetened and reduced for hours to be made into a syrup. While his most well-known drink enhancer, Spanish Moss isn’t his only freshly foraged syrup creation, as some of the many other syrups (there are over 15!) include Toasted Sesame; Pine Needle-Lemongrass; Caramelized Pandan Leaf; Louisiana Strawberry-Poblano-Rose Petal; Cooked Watermelon; Satsuma-Saffron; and Grapefruit-Galangal.

green walnuts
Green walnuts. Photo courtesy of ontzy.

Alan Walter isn’t the only mixologist who’s realized the benefits of foraging. Los Angeles-based bartender Matthew Biancaniello has also caught onto the trend. Biancaniello has worked at some of LA’s hottest bars, creating the bar program at Riviera 31 at the Sofitel, reviving the Roosevelt Hotel’s bar program in Hollywood and, most recently, creating  foraged, craft cocktails at Cliff’s Edge in Silver Lake and The Victorian in Santa Monica. Biancaniello forages in the Santa Monica mountains for a wide variety of ingredients — wild mustard, mug wort, black sage, sage brush, wild cactus, and wild elderflowers, to name a few — depending on what’s in season,

There are many different ways in which he uses these ingredients in his cocktails. While he uses wild green walnuts for home-made nocino, wild currants are used for cassis. Stinging nettle gets infused into gin, toyon berry in cachaca and wild
bay leaf for rose Cocchi Americano granita. Like Walter, Biancaniello has an early appreciation of plants and nature, experimenting with farmers’ market finds and taking classes on foraging local and native plants. From there, he was hooked.

elderberry
Elderberry. Photo courtesy of indiskyz.

Vermont in general has a culture of sourcing locally and naturally, so it shouldn’t be too surprising the trend is also beginning to catch on there. Brent Miller, in-house Mixologist at Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont, forages on the property, in nearby state forests as well as Mount Mansfield and Spruce Peak for everything from blueberries, mushrooms and fiddleheads in the early spring to elderberries in the summer. These are then either added to the drink as they are or made into syrups and bitters or used for garnishes. For example, Miller recently went foraging for juniper berries to create house-made bitters with a very New England twist, as the fruit is very local. He’s also recently made an elderberry syrup to use in place of simple syrup, adding a unique seasonal spin on traditional drinks like martinis and margaritas. In the winter, an apple cider foam made from locally picked apples puts guests in a festive mood. 

When asked what led him to want to forage for ingredients for his cocktails, he responded, “When I was looking for certain items that would make our signature drinks special I was not able to find them. I began to do research and speak to local foragers and farmers about how I could find more unique ingredients for our bar.”

According to Miller, having a cocktail program that incorporates foraged ingredients keeps things interesting for both him and his guests, as his creativity is guided by what’s in season. In fact, he’s currently working on creating a drink made completely from foraged ingredients to take the bar program to the next level. The cocktail will feature vodkas infused with forest-sourced ingredients for a truly natural drinking experience.

Benefits Of Foraging

So, what are the benefits of foraging for cocktail ingredients? For Walter, it’s not just about the quality of the drink, but about quality of life.

“Foraging helps keep alive the romance we have with our locale,” he says. “Some very good things don’t have to be sold back to you; they’re in your yard or down the street, and all you need is a bag or a basket.”

For Biancaniello, it’s about creating something innovative and bringing cocktail culture to another level.

“The benefits of foraging are finding flavors that don’t already exist in cocktails,” he explains. “The flavors of the plants like the different sages are so aromatic they make the farmers market look like a supermarket. The main benefit is finding plants that are just bursting with flavor and uniqueness and there is always a big supply of them.”

And for Miller, much of the benefit is about convenience.

“These ingredients are right outside our doors to pick, giving us the quantities we need without having to order or pay for them,” he says.

Whatever the reason is for foraging, we’re definitely on board with this fresh and sustainable trend.

Moroccan Masterpiece Cocktail
A “Moroccan Masterpiece” crafted by Matthew Biancaniello with wild cactus-infused tequila, fresh lime juice, agave syrup, fresh ginger juice, raspberries and wild black safe leaves

Recipes

The above-mentioned mixologists were kind enough to share forage-focused cocktail and bitters recipes with us. Try these at home for a delicious, natural experience:

Moroccan Masterpiece by Matthew Biancaniello

Ingredients:

2 oz wild cactus infused 123 Tequila( infuse about one pound of wild cactus per bottle of tequila for one week)
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
3/4 oz agave syrup (1:1 ratio of agave to water)
1/4 oz fresh ginger juice
5 raspberries
3-4 wild black sage leaves

Preparation:

Muddle everything together except Tequila. Then add tequila and add ice and shake and strain into a collins glass with ice and garnish with cactus

Stowe Mountain Lodge’s House-Made Juniper Berry Bitters

Ingredients:

* 2 cups grain alcohol
* 8 oz dried orange peel, minced
* 1 tsp cardamom
* 1 tbs local juniper berries
* 1 tsp coriander
* 1/2 tsp caraway or anise
* water
* 3/4 cup granulated sugar

Preparation:

1. Place the spices in a mason jar and cover with grain alcohol.
2. Seal the jar and let the mixture stand in a cool, dark place for 15 days. Give the jar a good, vigorous shake once a day.
3. Strain the alcohol into a clean mason jar through a cheesecloth to separate the liquid from the dry ingredients. Once the majority is strained, gather the cloth into a ball and squeeze it to release as much liquid as possible.
4. Muddle the strained dry ingredients to break all of the seeds and create a fine mixture.
5. Place this dry mix into a saucepan and add 4 cups of water.
6. Bring to a boil then cover and lower the heat and allow it to simmer for about 5-7 minutes.
7. Pour this mixture into the original jar, cover and allow to sit for 5 days. Again, shake vigorously once a day.
8. Strain the water through a cheesecloth, discard the dry ingredients and add the water to the jar containing your original alcohol infusion.
9. Place the sugar in a small pan over medium to high heat.
10. Stir constantly and let the sugar become liquid and dark brown.
11. Remove from heat and allow to cool.
12. Add the sugar to the alcohol and water mixture (the sugar may solidify for a minute, but will dissolve).
13. Seal the jar and allow the mix to sit for 5 days.
14. Strain again and pour into a bitters bottle or small decanter with a lid.
15. Cut the bitters with water by measuring how much bitters you have, then add half that amount of water.
16. These bitters should be able to be stored for up to 12 months.

Jean Lafite Cocktail
The “Jean Lafite,” a cocktail made by Alan Walter containing foraged Spanish moss.

Jean Lafitte Cocktail by Alan Walter

Ingredients:
1 oz Matusalem Platino Rum
1 oz Campo de Encanto Pisco
.75 oz Spanish Moss syrup
.5 oz Lime
Powdered dried lime and fennel to garnish

Spanish Moss Syrup:

Spanish moss
Water
Sugar

Steep the moss in water over and over until it’s heavily concentrated. Then put it in a pot with sugar and reduce slowly until the liquid has the consistency of syrup.

Powdered Dried Lime and Fennel:

Dried limes (available at Greek markets)
Fennel seed
Combine both in an espresso grinder and use to rim the glass.

Procedure:

Shake Rum, Pisco, and Moss syrup together and serve up, in glass with powdered dried lime and fennel

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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