Plant your cocktails

Try out some botanical pours that use fresh ingredients to keep you in high spirits

Botanical cocktails contain freshly grown, natural ingredients

Gone are the days when mixologists and bar chefs relied on commercial concentrates of artificial flavourings and syrups. Just like a food recipe, your cocktails too have ingredients that have been meticulously prepared through fermenting, pickling and foraging.

Last month, at Solander Bar, in my hotel The West on Sussex Street in Sydney, I ordered Purple Reign, a cocktail inspired by lights, music and ideas festival, Vivid Sydney. After a tiring day, the first sip refreshed me. Topped with fresh mint and berries, it was spiked with Havana rum, a blackcurrant cordial, soda water, a foam of homemade blackcurrant and thyme syrup, egg white and lemon.

The bar — named after first fleet naturalist Daniel Solander, who was integral to the early documentation and collection of Australian plants — specialised in botanical cocktails. The head mixologist, explained, “The cocktail selection takes inspiration from the world of botany and plant science, using kitchen-oriented infusion techniques including sous-vide and a Rotavapor to create delectable cocktails,” our server explains.

Interestingly, the use of botanicals in cocktails is as old as the history of cocktails themselves. Some of the earliest of botanical works that date back to around 250BC are by Theophrastus, titled Enquiry into Plants or Historia Plantarum and Causes of Plants. Together these books constitute the most important contribution to Botanical Science during antiquity and into the Middle Ages. The Roman medical writer, Dioscorides, provides important evidence on Greek and Roman knowledge of medicinal plants.

Tinctures & syrups

Closer home, at Bo Tai, Zorawar Kalra’s latest offering in Delhi, the bar serves a Full Moon Festival, a gin-based cocktail with a homemade strawberry rose syrup, fresh grapefruit juice, homemade orange spice syrup, 15 ml homemade spiced vermouth and a dash of pandan tincture garnished with edible flowers. “All our cocktails have fresh and tincture botanical ingredients. Each homemade syrup takes at least six hours of rigorous preparation as we don’t use any artificial syrup or method of preparing them,” says Kalra.

Today, we look at cocktails as we do our food, Nikhil Merchant of Nonchalant Gourmand blog says, explaining the trend. “We eat with our eyes first. It’s the same with cocktails. While food has a more pronounced appeal for tempting one with its aroma, cocktails (especially in India) relied more on the contents and its taste. Simply put, botanical cocktails rely on all sensory nodes starting with the ‘nose’ as its first and final appeal.”

Using the freshest of herbs, garden fresh flowers and ingredients in their rawest form to upgrade the cocktail drinking experience. They also are heavy on the trend words used today such as ‘forage’, ‘harvested’, ‘garden grows’, ’sustainable produce’ etc. as they depend on what is available to the user immediately or grown right there.  

Merchant makes most of his home garden, infusing dried button roses into a small vial of vodka. “Within a few days, I strained the petals out and poured the infused liquid into a spray container. Now when I make my special Hendricks dry martini, I squirt a few of this rose tincture into the glass before serving, perfuming the surface of the cocktail with the smell of my mom’s garden — its pure passion,” he says.

Bartender Ashish Kumar at Juniper, Andaz Delhi, has stocked his bar with a list of botanicals, including thyme, rosemary, juniper berries, timur, pink peppercorn and elderflower. “About in every form, we have tinctures of peppercorns, syrup of elderflower, cordials for peppermint, and 40 homemade gin infusions,” he says.

While we all know sake came from rice, scotch from barley, tequila from agave, rum from sugarcane, bourbon from corn. Kumar mentions bestselling author Amy Steward’s The Drunken Botanist, which explores the dizzying array of herbs, flowers, trees, fruits, and fungi that humans have, through ingenuity, inspiration, and sheer desperation, contrived to transform into alcohol.

No syrups, please!

Chef Farrokh Khambata, restaurateur and owner of Umame & Joss in Mumbai, says he prefers using botanical ingredients fresh or as syrups. “Muddling these ingredients can give a pulpy consistency and can also release bitter flavours to the drinks so we prefer to give these fresh ingredients a good smack or lightly rub them between our hands before infusing them,” he explains.

When it comes to cocktail preparations, it can’t get better than Mother Nature-inspired mixology with botanical cocktails, but getting the balance right can be rather tricky, he adds. “Knowing what herb goes with what spirit ensures that you’ll end up with wonderful flavour profiles. As for the spirit itself, mostly gin and vodka are used in botanical cocktails — many gins have a botanical flavour to them, which will amplify the freshness of it all. For instance, gin pairs well with herbs that complement its flavour not mask it such as coriander and sage,” he says, turning his attention to vodka. “It is quite light and one dimensional so it can be paired with almost anything. We recommend infusing vodka with stronger herbs such as basil, rosemary and mint for a winning combination,” he says.

Lastly, tequila has an earthy flavour that serves as the perfect base for more fragrant and floral ingredients such as lavender. “The infusions work well with zesty fruits too. Rum-based cocktails will go well with fresher, cooling herbs due to its naturally sweet taste. Herbs like mint & oregano go well together with rum. A classic example would be a mojito,” he signs off.

Merchant leaves us with a few tips: “Stick close to your roots, look at the unusual ingredients at your local markets, invest in a herb garden tray to stick outside your window and grown herbs such as basil, rosemary, thyme, lemon, curry leaf, etc.”

 

Jam’nartini

Ingredients

  • Gin: 60 ml (infused with jamuns)
  • Dry vermouth: 20 ml 
  • Rose water or floral tincture
  • Orchid garnish
  • Ice

Method

  • Cut up some jamuns and deseed. Pop them in a 750-ml gin bottle and let sit for anywhere from five to eight days. Strain without pressing and refill bottle to use.
  • In a mixing glass place two spheres of ice and pour the gin followed by the dry vermouth. Stir well for 30 seconds tops.
  • Strain into a chilled coupe and spritz natural rose water on the surface of the cocktail.
  • Garnish with an orchid and serve immediately.

(Courtesy: Nikhil Merchant)

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