With our favorite watering holes shuttered for the past year, you could hardly blame us passionate imbibers for wandering the wilderness in search of a stiff cocktail. And it turns out, that’s not a bad idea, according to author and wild foods expert Ellen Zachos. In her latest release, The Wildcrafted Cocktail: Make Your Own Foraged Syrups, Bitters, Infusions, and Garnishes (Storey Publishing, $14.95), Zachos waxes poetic on the appeal of libations starring untamed ingredients, from nettles and daylilies to fiddlehead ferns and crab apples. Here, she gives us the inside scoop on why foraging and mixology go hand in hand, and the pleasures of a chokecherry Manhattan.
To what do you attribute the growing popularity of foraging?
I’d like to think it’s because people are becoming more aware of how wonderful and precious the natural world is, and that getting out there, in intimate contact with your environment, feeds the human spirit in a way nothing else can. It might just as easily be that people are going stir crazy after this last year and outside is one of the safest places to be. But seriously, I’ve seen an increase in the popularity of foraging that predates Covid, so I’m sticking with my first answer.
What makes foraging a great fit for the world of cocktails and mixology?
Foraging is all about un-buyable flavors. You literally cannot purchase these flavors—you have to get out there and harvest them for yourself. And mixologists love nothing more than to play with unusual flavors to create unique adult beverages, so using wild, un-buyable flavors in cocktails is a win-win.
What advice would you give someone who’s new to foraging?
Read everything you can, go on as many plant walks as you can, find a local mentor, and never ever put anything in your mouth if you’re not 100% sure what it is.
What is a foraged ingredient that you are currently loving working with?
I’ve played with a lot of infused spirits this year. It’s fun to match the wild flavor with the spirit, tinker with the sweetness and infusion time. Crab apples are great in bourbon, vodka infused with cow parsnip seeds is superb, and I’ve got an American version of sloe gin on my counter that should be ready to taste in about 10 days. It’s made with beach plums I harvested on Cape Cod instead of sloes; the size and flavor are pretty similar but sloes aren’t native here.
What is your go-to cocktail right now?
I call it the Manhattan Project. I live near Los Alamos, NM (where the Manhattan Project was born) and out here chokecherries are an abundant and traditional fruit. I infuse rye whisky with chokecherries, then use that in my version of a Manhattan. It’s my absolute favorite, perfectly balanced and spirit forward. Two friends have signed up to harvest chokecherries for me next year, on the condition that I share the finished product—which I’m happy to do because every cocktail is more delicious when you share it with friends.