Kindred Spirits: Garden Variety
Beat the heat with these in-season, botanical-based cocktails
by Laurel Miller
Portrait by Holly Cowart
Once upon a time, sprigs, peels, leaves and stems were considered nothing more than decorative cocktail garnishes, despite their centuries-old use in the actual making of spirits like amari and other digestifs or aperitifs.
These days, fresh botanicals, from herbs, flowers, roots, seeds and pods to whole fruits or vegetables, have a defined place in the cocktail canon, and mixologists in Austin have followed suit; the thing I find most exciting is that some bar programs are taking it a step further and narrowing their focus to embrace indigenous and hyperlocal ingredients that have been thoughtfully sourced.
Emmer & Rye
Few bar programs emphasize wild-harvested ingredients, but then, not everyone has access to Will Nickel. Emmer & Rye’s full-time forager, Nickel scours the region for cultivated and wild ingredients at their peak for use in the kitchen and behind the bar. Says bartender Rachel Vederman: “Will sources items of intensely short seasonality. That allows us to maintain a hyperseasonal menu and offer a snapshot of what’s happening around Texas throughout the year. Emmer & Rye, as a concept, was created in part to revive the use of wildly underutilized native ingredients.” Depending on Nickel’s finds, drinks like the Velvet Lachance — which has a base of Oaxacan Uruapan Charanda Blanco Rum and a seasonal shrub (a concentrated syrup of vinegar and either fruit or botanicals) — are tweaked accordingly; on my visit, it was made with cassis flowers and white peach (past iterations have included loquat seed, parsnip and carrot). The resulting cocktail is refined and delicately perfumed, while the refreshing Tierra Verde (Arette Blanco Tequila, lime, foraged hoja santa, cucumber and Suze) is a verdant, dangerously drinkable libation.
Beverage director Thomas De La Garza was inspired to create this summery riff on sweet tea after relocating to Texas from New York last year. “A friend introduced me to yaupon tea when I first moved here, and because of how aromatic it was, I knew it would hold up in a simple syrup.” The cocktail is made with fresh raspberry purée; shaken with lemon juice, housemade yaupon syrup, Cathead Honeysuckle Vodka, mint leaves and ice; served in a tall vintage Collins glass; and garnished with a mint sprig and a lemon wheel. The result is a bright, balanced drink with sweet, floral notes from the vodka. “It’s not punch-you-in-the-face flavor,” says De La Garza, who says the drink has a “cola-like quality” from the herbaceous yaupon.
The tiny garden at chef-owner Bryce Gilmore’s South Lamar eatery supplies the kitchen and bar — supplemented as needed by local farms — with fragrant botanicals like lavender and hoja santa. This cucumber-forward cocktail is tangy and savory, with a subtly salty finish. Fords Gin is infused with lemon balm and sage, then combined with Ancho Reyes, cucumber juice, basil syrup and Martine Honeysuckle Liqueur; finished with a salt brine and “spicy tincture”; and served up in a vintage, etched-glass coupe.