In the world of craft cocktails, fresh, seasonal ingredients are queen. In 2020, more privileged parts of the world have access to most produce year-round. Here in the Northern Hemisphere, you want tomatoes in February? Lettuce in September? Peaches in April? I mean, yeah… you can get it all. But nothing tastes quite like a perfectly ripe strawberry, harvested at the peak of its natural season (June here in the Pacific Northwest).
Traditionally, crops that produced once a year would be planted in quantities that could be preserved for the remainder of the year and would still taste better than a modern-day out of season crop (which wasn’t even an option back then). So “fresh” kind of becomes this relative term... There’s “fresh” just picked in-season, there’s preserved from “fresh” just picked in-season, and then there’s “fresh” grown out-of-season and shipped across the country. If I can’t pick it off the vine right now, give me a frozen or canned peach that was picked in its natural season over an unripe peach grown under lights in a warehouse any day.
Aside from freezing and canning (the two more general methods for food preservation) my three favorite methods specifically for preserving cocktail ingredients from the garden are syrups, shrubs, and tinctures.
Syrups use sugar to preserve and stabilize the components of plants and are the quickest way to do so. I know, I know sugar! Eek! Evil! Some of you may recoil at the idea of eating sugar thanks to fad diets, but if you’re not diabetic and you’re okay with the “everything in moderation” motto, then this method is for you. Sugar is necessary in cocktails anyway if we want to balance out more acidic or bitter flavors. Even a Negroni, everyone’s favorite bitter classic, uses ingredients that contain natural sugars in some capacity. So just because sugar is used in a cocktail doesn’t mean it’s going to turn into a Lemon Drop.
For herbs & flowers:
Bring 12 parts water to a boil. Remove from heat and steep 1 part dried herb (or 2 parts fresh) for ten minutes to an hour, covered. Strain off the plant material using cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer, save the liquid (now a tea) and add an equal volume of sugar. Stir to dissolve. For leafy herbs, such as those in the mint family, the secret is to blanch the herbs first, then put them through a blender with the sugar and water before steeping.
To make 1 quart:
¼ c dried herb (½ c fresh)
3 c water
3 c sugar
Mix 1 part fresh fruit with 1 part sugar and 1 part water. Bring to a simmer until the fruit is broken down fully, smashing and stirring often. Allow to cool and strain off plant material.
To make 1 quart:
3 c fruit (about 1 pound)
3 c water
3 c sugar
These will store for 1 month in the refrigerator or longer in the freezer. You can also double the amount of sugar and it should last 6 months in the refrigerator.
To use in cocktails: start with ½ oz of syrup in your recipe and experiment from there.
Shrubs use vinegar and sugar to preserve and stabilize the components of plants. Some folks call them “drinking vinegars”. It may sound odd, and it’s not for everybody, but even if you don’t enjoy drinking shrubs you can still use them to make delicious salad dressings just by adding oil. I typically like to mix an aromatic herb with a fruit of some sort. There are two main methods to making a shrub, and several techniques. The hot method, as you can imagine, utilizes heat and is faster. The cold method, which is more traditional, utilizes no heat and takes longer, relying on natural fermentation and sugar breakdown. I’m going to show you the cold method since many consider it the only way to make a “true” shrub.
>>Add 1 part fruit to 1 part sugar and coat evenly. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours. Add 1 part fresh herbs and 1 part vinegar (apple cider, balsamic, you choose but avoid distilled white). Let sit for another 72 hours. Strain off solids using cheesecloth or a fine-mesh strainer and bottle the liquid.
To make 1 quart:
1 ½ c fruit
1 ½ c fresh herbs
1 ½ c sugar
1 ½ c vinegar
More traditional methods call for this process to happen at room temperature since refrigerators weren’t available at the time shrubs were developed. Other methods call for adding all of the ingredients at once in the beginning. And others still call for straining off the fruit before you add the vinegar, however, the acidic vinegar extracts from the fruit as well so I like to let it sit. Try whatever methods you’re comfortable with and see what you like best! They should store for up to a year in the fridge.
To use in cocktails: add ½–1 oz to your recipe as your acidifying ingredient and experiment from there. You can also enjoy shrubs mixed into plain club soda as a deliciously sweet and tart zero-proof beverage.
Tinctures use alcohol to preserve and stabilize the components of plants. This method takes the longest, but it also stores the longest and requires no refrigeration. It is also going to provide the most highly concentrated flavor, so typically a dropperful or even just a few drops is enough to add to a drink. This method works best for herbaceous plants. It’s not ideal for juicy, high water content plants and fruits*
>>Fill a jar to the top with fresh herbs, or halfway with dried herbs. Top the jar with 60% alcohol and seal it with a lid. Store it in a cool dark place for 6 weeks and shake it daily. Strain the plant material using cheesecloth, filter paper, or a fine-mesh strainer. Label and store the liquid in a dark bottle. Properly made and stored tinctures should last about 3 years.
*Infusions are like quick tinctures and can be used for juicy plants and fruits with a higher water content. However, because the water that is extracted reduces the ABV of the alcohol, it’s best to either a) use these infusions over just a couple of days and store them in the fridge or b) infuse them into much higher content alcohol, such as diluted Everclear. Here is a useful alcohol dilution calculator.
Post your experiments in the comments to let me know how it goes!