Wild herbs, flowers and produce have taken to restaurant menus like weeds to a freshly tilled pasture (pun intended). The foraging craze has trickled down from the Michelin-star pantheon of culinary establishments to more humble restaurants, local grocery stores and farmers markets, so that your average foodie today knows their nettles from their dandelions. But, what’s next for these ambitious plants? Your glass.
Before it became a fad, foraging was a critical survival strategy for humans. After we adopted agriculture to secure a steady food supply, foraging continued in two major arenas: medicine and alcohol. In fact, up until about 100 years ago, there was a fine line between the two. The first -bitter liqueurs (or theriac) - date back to ancient Greece, and were infusions of wild herbs, like angelica, wormwood, yarrow and horehound, and were used for many purposes, from combating fatigue, or ‘ill humors,’ to stimulating appetite.
Though the tradition of combining herbs and alcohol arose out of medical necessity, it has flourished into a creative culinary trend that harnesses the wealth of natural flavors to step up our cocktails. Increasingly, bartenders from coast to coast are using wild plants to both decorate our glasses and make their own infusions. But the latest trend is that of distillers foraging for their spirits.
Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George’s Spirits in Alameda, is well ahead of the game. While St. George makes a range of spirits, it was gin that lured him into the great outdoors in search of botanicals. As Winters put it, “The thing that drew me into making a gin wasn't gin as a category, but was...working with this sense of terroir that's very close to home.” It was this sense of connectedness to the land that led Winters to develop his Terroir Gin. He wanted to “make a spirit that transported what we love about the monumental groves of trees, moist and misty glens, and the sun-baked chaparral of our favorite parklands” into the glass. To do so, Winters and his crew trekked through the woods around Mount Tam collecting Douglas fir, coastal sage, California juniper berries, coyote mint and more to create an aromatic profile that reflected the unique characteristics of the land.
About 400 miles south of the bay, another distiller is embracing the foraging spirit to create a European-inspired aperitif that quite literally symbolizes its origin. Based in the Arts District of downtown Los Angeles, Greenbar Distillery was founded on a dedication to produce organic handcrafted spirits, bitters, and liqueurs. While their organic spirits won them renown, husband-and-wife team Melkon Khosrovian and Litty Mathew wanted to make something that reflected the bounty and breadth of flavors found in our Golden State.
The couple was first inspired by the colorful array of herbs and flowers they spotted on their hikes through the local mountain ranges, most notably, the California poppy. Though they had planned on creating a delicate, floral liqueur, they realized that the state flower was incredibly bitter, and turned their sights toward a more traditional, European-style aperitif for inspiration. Thus, the Grand Poppy was created. Along with this iconic flower, the liqueur includes bay leaf, bearberry, rue, pink peppercorn, and other bittering agents, along with locally sourced citrus. Though Greenbar Distillbery cannot forage their own herbs (for legal reasons), they source their herbs from local apothecaries. The result is a refreshing liqueur that celebrates terroir. In the words of Khosrovian, "This is a deeper meaning of 'local'…using your uniquely local plants, landscape, and agriculture — that's making a drink that's truly of its place."
Thirsty yet? With spring in full bloom, this refreshing aperitif offers a taste of California at its peak:
The Poppy Patch
1 oz GRAND POPPY
1 oz SLOW HAND white whiskey (also a Greenbar Distillery product)
½ oz fresh lemon juice
1 oz fresh strawberries
2 dash BAR KEEP lavender bitters
Muddle the strawberry.
Combine and shake the remaining ingredients. Strain into a rocks glass and enjoy!