Summer Cocktails: Herbal Syrups, Bitters + Recipes
Fresh herbs, warm breezes and evenings that come to life. Summer is one of my favorite seasons for luxury and languor. When the days are hot and the hours long I usually find myself gravitating toward nighttime kitchen crafting and, of course, cocktails.
I am a night owl by nature. I thrive like a moonflower in rich evening hues. When the clock strikes midnight something about those high shadows bring me to life. It’s been that way since before I can remember, I imagine it’ll remain that way for the rest of my life. Summer, in all its bounty of cucumber nights, tangy sunsets and sherbet-colored sunrises, is the one season where such late night behavior is not only condoned, it’s encouraged.
Last month we hosted our annual summer cocktail soiree. Every year we kick the gathering up another notch. Usually we put out at least several herbal cocktail potions for people to sample, often with a written invocation to read and a deep intention to set the mood. This year, inspired by the rainbowed bounty of our well-tended garden, we offered a whole bar of fresh squeezed juice, seasonal syrups, and medicinal bitters for our guests to peruse.
Herbs are the original liqueur accoutrements; they have the ability to give any drink a touch of the sensational. Long before herbalists were making tinctures, herb folk of all kinds were using plants to ferment meads, spice cordials, and smooth liquors. The whole ritual of a pre-dinner cordial originated as a way to improve digestion by imbibing medicinal digestive bitters.
Crafting your own bitters and syrups is simple, and sure to make a wave at your next soirée. I love to focus on what is most currently bursting into bloom. Medicine making, like superb hostessing skills, is about way more than just combining the ingredients. It is an alchemical mix of season and sensation, temptation and mood. I prefer to create my syrups and bitters in tune with nature’s own rhythm, encapsulating each herb at the height of their potency or bloom. By doing so each bottle becomes a kind of capsule, an entryway into a distinctively fragrant, intoxicatingly specific moment in time.
As a hostess, I am interested in creating an experience that can be remembered with every one of the senses. Unique, exploratory, and delicious—Herbal bitters and liqueurs will never be forgotten. Interested in crafting your own medicinal syrups and sensational brews? Read on for some simple how-to’s…
+++ Medicinal Syrups +++
Medicinal syrups are simple, versatile and oh-so delicious. Syrups make wonderful medicine for young children or the picky of palate, and are simply divine when mixed with late-evening cocktails.
- Gather, Harvest, Chop. To start, harvest or gather your material. I like to collect what is most fresh, abundant and seasonally sensational. How much material you harvest will depend on how much syrup you’d like to create! In general, you can guesstimate by chopping or otherwise pressing your herb into a measuring cup. You can expect the finished product to produce about as much volume as the original fresh herb. (Ex: If I harvested ½ oz of fresh lavender flowers, I will generally expect ½ oz finished syrup)
Note on processing: Some small or delicate herbs, like lavender flowers for example, will not need to be further chopped or processed. Simply add them straight to your water. Bark, like black birch, will need to be stripped from the branches with a knife. Roots must be roughly chopped, a butchers knife or pair of pruners work well.
Dry vs Fresh: Fresh herbs already have a good amount of water content inherent to them, so they will be fluffier, bigger, and more voluminous than dry herbs. As a general rule I use a 1:1 ratio of herb to water if using fresh herbs, and a 1:2 ratio of herb to water if using dried herbs.
- Make a strong tea. Once you have your herb chopped or otherwise processed you are ready to make the base of your syrup…a strong tea!
If using herbs + flowers: Make an infusion- bring your water to a boil separately, than turn the burner off completely. Remove from heat and add your herb content to the hot water. Cover the whole concoction for 20-30 minutes to steep. (Examples of herbs to infuse: lavender, lemonbalm, mint, basil)
If using bark, roots, berries or seeds (tougher material): Make a decoction- add your herb directly to your water and bring the whole mixture to a boil. Reduce the boil to a simmer and cover for 20 minutes. (Examples of herbs to decoct: sassafras, cinnamon, elderberries coriander, black birch, wild cherry)
- Strain your tea. Once your tea is done steeping or simmering, run your tea through a strainer to filer out all the plant material. (A fine mesh spaghetti strainer perched over a wide mouthed bowl works supremely well)
- Gently reheat your tea (sans herb material) and add the sweetener. What makes a syrup so sweet? Why, sweetener of course! The sweetener is also a natural preservative, which is how syrup came about in the first place (and to get children to drink their medicine!). A general ratio is 1 cup sugar or honey per 1 cup water. But you can add the sugar/honey to your taste. The higher the sugar content the longer your syrup will keep.
- Storage. Plain syrups are best imbibed within two weeks of creation. If you’d like to keep your syrup for several seasons you can add alcohol to preserve. In general, a syrup with about 20% alcohol content will preserve long-term. If you have dipped into making infused liqueurs or tinctures it’s fun to experiment with preserving your syrup with an already altered alcohol (such as adding a dash of ginger tequila to a cinnamon syrup). If making syrup as medicine, adding a medicinal tincture to your syrup greatly increases its potency. When I make elderberry syrup I combine previously infused elderberry tincture to my freshly made concoction for full spectrum medicinal mixture. Store your syrups in the refrigerator to prolong their life.
+++ Herbal Bitters +++
Herbal bitters are a hot commodity these days, as our modern diets are embarrassingly lacking in this traditional taste. Bitters are amazing agents of digestion, helping to increase the production of our digestive juices, dramatically improving processing, retention and even our mood! (If you haven’t already, check out the bevy of research illustrating our brain/gut connection) Bitter constituents are prevalent in many of our healing herbs, and can often be used as an indicator for a plant’s medicinal strength! Bitters are the prince who has been unceremoniously turned into a frog and I think it’s time to give all our bitters a good kiss on the lips and induct them back into the romance of our kitchens.
Making your own bitters can be as simple as covering a handful of dandelion roots in some alcohol, or as complex as creating your own Peychaud’s. I’m offering a very simple guide here, but feel free to be as creative as a butterfly between hibiscus leaves!
- Gather your bitter herbs. Some well known and deliciously effective, bitter roots include dandelion, sassafras, elecampagne, Oregon grape, angelica and ginger. You might also want to try citrus peels, vervain, cacao pods, coffee beans, fennel, and (the gold standard of bitters) gentian (I recommend using the flowers of gentian, rather than the root, as it is over-harvested)
+Aromatic vs simple bitter: Aromatic bitters are bitters that have a warming, stimulating, often quite spicy flavor. They are bitter… with a kick! Some good examples include elecampagne, angelia, sassafras and ginger. Simple bitters are just that, simply bitter. Simple bitters include gentian, Oregon grape root, yellow root and dandelion .
- Create your tincture. Making bitters is basically just a process of making a tincture. You can choose to create single herb batches or throw it all together into one! The benefit of single herb batches is the ability to mix and match. Also, kitchen-sink batches can sometimes end up tasting dominantly like one herb or another, depending on what heavy hitters you’re using. If you are interest in a whole-shebang type of bitter I suggest looking up recipes for proportions online! (These recipes from The Kitchn look divine)
Chop or otherwise process your herb so it is in small pieces. The more surface area of herb touching your alcohol, the stronger your mixture will become. Put your herb into a glass mason jar and cover with booze of choice. Store your bitter brew in a dark place for 6 days up to 6 weeks! Sample your bitters frequently, their taste will change overtime. If you are in a hurry you can make your bitter batch the very week of your soiree. Just remember, bitter compounds often take a few days to really steep. I have a friend who found this out the hard way when he was making a stevia extract. He let the stevia leaf sit for longer than the recommended couple days and his extract turned out mouth puckeringly bitter, which would have been wonderful for some pre-dinner digestive, but not so stellar for making sweets!
A note on alcohols: I really enjoy vodka for my bitters. Vodka tends to have less of an innate flavor than other alcohols. If you want a fuller, huskier batch of bitters try brandy or even whiskey. Gin is already chocked full of herbs, but I bet it wouldn’t mind a few more companions!
- Press and Bottle your bitters. When your tincture brew has sat long enough to pucker your taste buds, it’s time to press and bottle your bitters. I like to pour my alcohol/herb slurry through a fine mesh strainer first to separate the alcohol from the herb. Then, I take the left-over herb content and press it in a potato masher to extract every last drop of juice. Conversely, if I don’t have such a press, I dish out the herb into a tight weave cloth and wring it by hand. Whatever method you choose, as long as you are separating the alcohol from the herb content you are doing it right!
Now is the time to add in any extras. Perhaps some fresh pressed OJ to your orange bitters brew? Mint syrup or wildflower honey? Is your bitter crafted for any specific drink in mind, or a simple pre-dinner sipping cordial? Your bitter is your tabula rasa, feel free to get wildly creative.
When you bitters are mixed to your taste filter them into a bottle for storage. I will often line the filer with some fine meshed cheese cloth to catch any last debris, and funnel directly into the bottle. Label, cap, store! Your bitters should last decades if they are a simple alcohol solution. If you added any additional juices or sweeteners you can refrigerate and keep your bitters for 2-5 years.
+++ Garnishes +++
Great cocktails (and parties for that matter) are all about the accoutrements. Here are some great hints to add some extra sparkle to your night.
Edible flowers: Summer is a bounty of edible flowers, including calendula, daylily, lavender, beebalm, mint, honeysuckle and sage. Don’t forget to scatter your bar with fresh flowers and garnish your drinks with their petals and blooms. Spilanthes makes a particularly striking edible flower when skewered on a tooth pick and floated into a drink. Sometimes called eyeball plant, this mouth-tingling (and immune enhancing) flower is an oddball cocktail garnish that has been gaining popularity amongst the herbally inclined.
Creative citrus: Simple lemon wedges are so utilitarian. Try slicing a rainbow of citruses into wheels instead to illuminate your drink with vibrant moons. Zest your lemon or lime on top of a well mixed drink for some extra magic in your sipping experience.
Decorative ice cubes: Why should ice be boring? Anoint your ice cub trays with edible flowers from the garden like borage, bee balm or calendula. Just add your flowers to your ice cube tray, cover with water, and freeze. Use immediately to preserve the flowers color and flavor. (On that note, would you like to see the most gorgeous herbal ice cube blog post on the internet?)
+++ Herbal Cocktail Recipes +++
You’ve sampled your syrups and bragged about your bitters, now is the time to become a maestro (and maybe get a bit tipsy) with your herbal creations! For our part we cajoled our friend, and esteemed cocktail Prometheus, Curtiss P. Martin to bartend at our party. After stealing fire (and sassafras syrup) from the gods he came up with the following cocktail mixes. Read on for details about how to shake up such treats, and what medicine is inherent to each drink.
This evening, or sometime very soon, I invited you to whip yourself up one of these drinks. Kick off the day’s to-dos. Let down your hair and get barefoot outside. Drink in the cool of these ephemeral summer evenings. Sip, enjoy, let go, luxuriate.
1oz Fresh-pressed Watermelon Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Tulsi Syrup
4-6 Mint leaves, Muddled
Dry Shake, Add Ice, Soda to Fill
Mint + Lime Garnish
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4oz Local Honey Syrup
1/2oz Fresh Orange Bitters
Garnish with thin lime wheel and fresh honeysuckle flowers
Birchbark Sassafras Daiquiri
2oz Spiced Rum
1oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
1/2oz Sassafras Syrup
1/2oz Black Birchbark Syrup
Thin Lime wheel Garnish
Black Birch bark: Wintergreen minty and delicious, Birch bark is a lovely remedy for muscle aches, joint pain, headaches and inflammation. The secret of Black Birch’s minty relief lies within its methyl salicylates— the aromatic pain-relieving compound from which our modern day aspirin is derived.
Sassafras: One of the original ingredients in rootbeer (and America’s first wildly successful export) sassafras has a distinctly exotic flavor. The root bark of this yummy plant is known to help stimulate our bodies and minds, ease indigestion, alleviate inflammation and cleanse the blood. Used acutely for colds, flus, fever and rheumatism, Sassafras has been a beloved medicine in North America for thousands of years.
Pineapple Sage & Tulsi Tequila
1oz Fresh-Pressed Pineapple Juice
1/2oz Fresh-Pressed Lime Juice
3/4oz Tulsi Syrup
4-6 Sage leaves, Muddled
Tulsi Gin + Tonic
3/4 Tulsi syrup
Tonic to Fill
Lime wedge +Tulsi sprig Garnish
Tulsi: One of the most sacred herb of India, this holy plant has been grown as a truly miraculous health tonic for thousands of years. Tulsi (or Holy Basil) is a gentle and effective adaptogen– it helps the body and mind to deal with stress, encouraging gracefulness in your every day dealings. Tulsi is also an antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, antiinflammatory, antidepressant and immunomodulator. Traditionally, holy basil was called upon for colds and flus, indigestion, and as a tonic for asthma and sinus allergies. This sweet and tasty herb is also a supremely clearing tonic for the mind; it has found to be helpful in unfocused thinking, poor memory, forgetfulness, ADD and ADHD. In Ayurvedic medicine, Tulsi is though to balance all seven chakras and considered to be a rasayanic herb, or a medicine that brings balance to the emotions and promotes the feelings of devotion, love and compassion.
Lavender Blueberry Ricky
1oz Fresh-pressed Blueberry Juice
1/2oz Fresh-pressed Lime Juice
3/4 Lavender Syrup
Soda to fill
Lavender flower Garnish
Lavender: Oh, the joys of fresh lavender. This much beloved flower is known to help soothe digestion, calm the spirit, and settle the nerves. Used for centuries to freshen dwellings, lavender is a renown antibacterial and antifungal, as well as a beloved herb for rest and relaxation.