Last month I looked at flowers that can be used to decorate cocktails -- borage and pansies and the like -- but this month, we'll consider a few flowers that actually flavor drinks. Some of these have been used for centuries to make not just liqueurs, but boozy medicinal potions as well.
Elderflower. Cordials and sodas flavored with elderflowers are a very British thing, but it took an American distiller to recognize their potential. Rob Cooper, a third-generation distiller, tasted homemade elderflower syrup in a London bar and decided to create a liqueur from the flowers. The result is St-Germain, made in France's Bordeaux region from fresh elderflowers that arrive at the distillery the day they are picked. The liqueur has a floral, fruity flavor somewhere between honey and pears; it has become internationally popular and makes a lovely addition to sparkling wine or just about any drink made with gin.
The species of elderflower in question is Sambucus nigra, a native hedgerow plant in Europe and the United Kingdom. A variety called Black Lace has, as the name implies, gorgeous burgundy-black foliage. The pink sprays of flowers are mildly fragrant, and if you have two of them, the flowers will give way to burgundy fruit in late summer. I grow it alongside a regular green, white-flowered variety, often sold as "common elderberry," on the theory that the fruit will be better if at least one of its parents is the old, wild strain rather than a newer specimen bred for good looks. Plant them in full or part sun (Black Lace develops more color in full sun; it goes a little green in shade), give them regular water, and if you want smaller, bushier plants, cut the taller branches down in mid-summer after they flower.
Elderflower cordial is made by dropping fresh, clean blossoms into simple syrup immediately after picking and washing them. (Simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, brought to a boil and allowed to cool. Two or three cups would be about right.) Most people add sliced lemons and oranges, and if you want a little more preservative, try an ounce of citric acid, available at health food stores. A splash of vodka also serves as a perfectly respectable preservative. Cover and wait 24 hours, then strain into a clean jar. Store it in the fridge and use it up within a month.
The fruit, by the way, is a bit tart to eat raw, but people do make it into jams and wines. Just keep in mind that all elderflower fruit contains some amount of cyanide. S. nigra is lower in cyanide than our native American species, and ripe fruit across all Sambucus species is lower in cyanide than unripe fruit. Cooked fruit is safer than uncooked. So -- be careful out there.
Jasmine. Jasmine liqueur recipes date back to at least the mid-1700s, but surely someone thought to pour alcohol over jasmine flowers long before that. The species to get is Jasminum officinale, sometimes called poet's jasmine. You could also try the tropical Jasminum sambac, called pikake in Hawaii, if you thought you could protect it from temperatures below 60 degrees year-round. In fact, both of these jasmines require a mild winter, so plan on bringing them indoors if you get heavy frost or snow.
The procedure for extracting jasmine flavor from the flowers is similar to that of elderflowers -- soak them in water or simple syrup, not alcohol, because many of the flavor molecules in these flowers are water-soluble, not alcohol-soluble. Use alcohol sparingly as a preservative after you've extracted the flavor and filtered it.
Lavender.The best way to get a little lavender flavor in a cocktail is to make a simple syrup with it. Be sure to start with an English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) like Hidcote or Munstead -- they're the ones most often used in cooking or perfumes. The next best choice would be L. x intermedia like Grosso or Fred Boutin. Both require sun, fast-draining soil, minimal water and winter temperatures above zero Fahrenheit to survive.
Make up a pot of simple syrup and just toss in fresh or dried lavender buds while it cooks. Strain it, cool it and mix it. I'd use it in anything involving gin, vodka or sparkling wine. A fresh lavender bud also makes a fabulous Martini garnish; the essential oil spreads out on the surface of the gin and magical things happen.
Rose. If you have a highly fragrant rose -- Mister Lincoln or some such thing -- the petals should go straight into a mason jar and have vodka or Everclear poured over them. Some people add a vanilla bean, but I'm not a fan of that combination. Cover it well and let it sit for a few days -- but taste it daily. The minute it tastes wonderful, strain it. These fresh floral infusions get nasty if they're left too long. Mix it with simple syrup to taste, and you've got a homemade rose liqueur.
Sweet violet. Viola odorata, the old-fashioned fragrant sweet violet, is a charming thing to grow, but to be honest, you and I will never grow enough sweet violets to make a liqueur from them. Grow them for your own amusement, float them in drinks, and then go buy violet liqueur. My favorites are Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette from Haus Alpenz, and Crème Yvette from Cooper Spirits, the same people who make St-Germain.
The flowers are hardy to about -20 degrees, prefer shade and damp rich soil, and respond well to being divided every few years. Look for Queen Charlotte, a popular old European perfume variety.
This classic cocktail, the Aviation, was impossible to make until the aforementioned violet liqueurs came back on the market after a long absence. If you're in the mood to experiment, try substituting any floral liqueur or syrup for the violet liqueur.
RECIPE: The Aviation
1.5 oz gin
.5 oz Luxardo maraschino liqueur
.5 oz Crème de violette
.5 oz fresh lemon juice
1 violet blossom for garnish
Shake over ice and serve in a cocktail glass. Some versions of this recipe call for less crème de violette or less lemon juice; adjust the proportions to your liking. If you don't have a violet for a garnish, a pansy or Johnny jump-up would be a botanically appropriate substitution.