Build your own alcoholic infusions from the fruits of the forest
Do your research
There are some things that should not be extracted in alcohol, and it’s important to research before foraging to make sure what you are picking is edible, that it won’t harm you when mixed with alcohol and that you are following all of the local applicable laws related to removing plants from forested areas.
“Some people were infusing tobacco into alcohol and people were getting sick from having shots of tobacco,” said Erica Marciniec, of Fairplay, a longtime forager and creator of the Wild Food Girl blog. “It really extracts the tobacco, and a shot of that, especially for nonsmokers, can really put you into a world of hurt.”
Fruit stones from cherries, peaches and apricots, as well as apple seeds, contain amygdalin, a glycoside that breaks down in alcohol into extremely poisonous hydrogen cyanide and the almond-like flavor benzaldehyde.
“A little bit, like in an apple seed, won’t hurt you, but you don’t want to fill a whole bottle with cherry pits and let it sit,” Marciniec said.
Novelty cocktails are growing in popularity, making use of the increasing number of craft spirits available in Colorado and surrounding states. One of the cornerstones of the cocktail boom is the prolificacy of flavor-infused spirits and liqueurs to spark the creativity of mixologists.
Though many commercially infused spirits are made with extracts, concentrates or essential oils, it’s fairly simple to create your own flavors using a base neutral spirit, such as vodka, and adding fresh fruits, herbs and spices. Take it a step further by sustainably foraging these ingredients from the forests in your own backyard.
“The nice thing about flavoring an alcohol is you can really get a sense of the plant’s essence without taking too much of the plant,” said Erica Marciniec, of Fairplay, a longtime forager. “I’m just intrigued by wild and exotic flavors, so for me, it’s affordable to buy a cheap bottle of hooch, and from there, there are so many different possibilities of what cocktails can be made aside from simply flavoring a vodka or another spirit.”
Marciniec, founder of the Wild Food Girl blog and a monthly digital magazine called Wild Edible Notebook, has created infusions using everything from prickly pear cactus to chokecherries and even pine nuts. She typically uses vodka as her base spirit because of its neutral quality but has also experimented with brandies and other stronger alcohols to balance more intensely flavored plants.
“I’m pretty low key about how I make my wild infusions,” she said. “I take a plant or plant part I know to be edible — to not have dangerous constituents when they react with alcohol — throw it into the bottle, cap the bottle, stuff it into the closet for a month or so and see what I get. I strain out the plant material afterwards, and then I have a flavored alcohol.”
Some infusions just take a couple of days, Marciniec said, but if you really want to be particular about the flavor, your best bet is to taste it every day, and when it gets to the point that you like it, strain out the plant matter and refrigerate the alcohol. Ingredient ratios depend upon the strength of the substrate and plant matter.
“Things considered spices, I’d go a little easier,” she said. “Things that are fully edible, I’d be more inclined to pack it in there.”
Foraged plant matter can also be used to create flavored simple syrups to sweeten up cocktails, generally made by simmering the plant or plant part in a little bit of water, straining and adding sugar in a one-to-one ratio.
“Some plants have volatile vitamin C — rose hips, spruce tips — so instead of simmering, pour hot water over it, cover it and let it sit overnight,” Marciniec said. “Similarly, some plants have a delicate flavor. Mint is one that if I simmer mint, I’ve lost the minty flavor.”
While the possibilities for creating infused spirits are as endless as the edible plants found in our forests, some flavors lend themselves better to cocktails than others. Here are a few that Marciniec has created and enjoyed.
• Pineappleweed (Matricaria discoidea): This plant is sometimes called wild chamomile, Marciniec said, not to be confused with scentless chamomile, an invasive species that produces white petals. The most aromatic, sweetest part of the pineappleweed is the flower head, and though it’s time consuming, removing the flower heads and using only those for the infusion creates a sweeter, less bitter flavor.
“Anyone with hay-fever reactions to daisies should proceed with caution,” Marciniec said. “It’s a local plant, and a lot of people consider it a weed. It does grow around people, as opposed to deep in a virgin forest. There’s no ecological or sustainability issues with foraging pineappleweed.”
This plant grows in abundance in disturbed soils, but Marciniec recommended avoiding foraging for pineappleweed near roads, where lots of people are walking their dogs or anywhere where there are signs of herbicide spraying, such as public right-of-ways and roadsides. The weed looks a bit like an invasive species, so you want to get your identification right and collect from a clean location, she said.
Pineappleweed can be infused with a neutral spirit such as vodka, packing a good amount of the flower heads into the bottle with the alcohol. True to its name, the resulting flavor and aroma are sweet and fruity with a touch of earthiness.
“I like it with seltzer or with seltzer and a squeeze of lime,” Marciniec said. “This winter, I was doing pineappleweed vodka, seltzer and a splash of maple syrup.”
• Trailing black currant (Ribes laxiflorum): This type of currant likes to grow along the Continental Divide and in a few locations in the Pacific Northwest, Marciniec said.
“It’s a plump currant that grows low to the ground and doesn’t have any prickers,” she said. “In ‘Colorado Flora’ (William A. Weber and Ronald C. Wittmann, 2012), they talk about it liking slightly open, sunny areas, but I have found it in deep, dark forests, along lakes, on dry hillsides. I’ve seen it at Breckenridge Ski Resort.”
By foraging berries, you are not harming the plant, but as with any foraged item, the general rule is to leave more than you pick to allow wildlife a share, Marciniec said. Also keep in mind that foraging on National Forest land is only permitted for small amounts of plants for personal use; a special-use permit is required to forage in quantity, and you cannot sell what you forage.
Marciniec said the berry-flavored infusions she has made have been some of her favorites, and the currant-infused vodka has an earthy flavor, sharp but pleasant, and very similar to the taste of a European blackcurrant. When making cocktails, add a bit of simple syrup to bring out the juicy, sweeter fruit taste of the berries.
“Sometimes what I’ll do is I’ll collect a couple of pints of currants, I’ll simmer them down and extract the juice for some other preparation and throw the skins into some vodka,” Marciniec said. “Sometimes, it’s a thrift decision to make use of parts I might otherwise discard. In some cases, they are just experimental. Sometimes, I just decide I’d like to try that one in vodka. I like sweet stuff, so I’ll often use berries, sweet flowers and a bit of simple syrup in it when I serve the drink.”
• Common juniper (Juniperus communis): When foraging for juniper “berries,” which are actually cones, seek out the ripe blue ones that look like mini blueberries, rather than the frosted looking ones that aren’t yet ripe, Marciniec said. Juniper berries with other added botanicals can turn a neutral spirit into what she called “bathtub gin.”
“Gin has a variety of different botanicals you can use,” she said. “I like to try to put at least one other wild botanical in if I can. This one has angelica leaves and leaf stems; it’s a similar flavor to commercial angelica. You have to be careful foraging angelica. It’s in the carrot family, which has some deadly poisonous plants. I haven’t seen hemlock here but have seen it near Heeney, and I wouldn’t put it past poisonous plants to come to this elevation. It merits some study before you forage wild angelica and eat it.”
An understory plant, juniper is a creeping, low-lying coniferous bush with needle-like leaves that are sharp on the ends. The bush is usually found in relatively dry, coniferous forests. Only a handful of the potent “berries” are needed to flavor a bottle of alcohol. Or simmer them down in water and use them to make flavored simple syrup to add to seltzer for a virgin gin and tonic, Marciniec said, adding the warning that juniper can be harmful for those with kidney problems or women who are pregnant.
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