Botanicals in Cocktails: A Labor of Yum

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“You can eat it,” Maharlika Erickson assures a bar patron inquiring about the pansy flower floating in the cocktail he just served up. “Tastes like a flower,” was the post-nibble response. Sure, but it added beauty. And that’s part of the craft cocktail experience — where botanicals and herbs play an essential role in creating flavors, aromas, colors and drama that make every sip a special occasion.

Erickson works behind the bar at Chicago’s Table, Donkey and Stick, a cozy gathering spot (and Michelin Bib Gourmand Award winner) serving Alpine-inspired goodness. Though not defined by its craft cocktails, this neighborhood gem has a specialty cocktail program that encourages Erickson to express his passion for flavor experimentation. And that makes sense, since most of his customers — he estimates 90% — favor creative concoctions over classic, sans-botanical cocktails.

 

THYME, MINT, ROSEMARY, STAR ANISE AND LAVENDER ARE AMONG THE MOST POPULAR COCKTAIL BOTANICALS THESE DAYS.

Turmeric, ginger root, hibiscus and rose petals rank as well. Really, anything is fair game if it works. A mixologist’s imagination is the limit. Add to that the various ways herbs and botanicals can be used — dried, candied, as infusions, as garnishes — and you can’t help but wonder: Where does one even start? So, we asked.

The term mixologist suggests there’s a science to it. Erickson jokingly suggests a “science of failure,” referring to the sometimes seemingly endless trial-and-error loop that precedes finding that winning combination. Nevertheless, if not a science, there’s for sure an art to what he does with an ever-expanding toolbox of ingredients, botanicals included.

Take, for example, the “dealer’s choice” special at Table, Donkey and Stick, where the patron picks the spirit(s) and entrusts the rest to Erickson. He starts by scanning his mental Rolodex of the 77 official International Bartenders Association cocktails. With a rough outline in mind, he then adds a unique spin based on his expertise (that trial-and-error thing), along with what’s available to him at that time.

 

SEASONALITY IS KEY, ACCORDING TO ERICKSON, BOTH FOR INGREDIENT FRESHNESS AND IN APPEALING TO WHAT WE TEND TO CRAVE AT DIFFERENT TIMES OF THE YEAR.

While lighter flavors like mint may satisfy in hotter months, baking spices like cinnamon and clove can warm the soul on a chilly winter night.

“You have to use your palate intelligently,” notes Erickson. “Like a chef.” In fact, he often works with the kitchen to create cocktail flavors that complement Table, Donkey and Stick’s seasonal food menu. When the menu featured pickled veggies, for example, Erickson used the brine in his cocktails. For him, it’s about focusing on what’s adding to the experience and what’s taking away from it. Every detail matters, down to how the shape of the glass funnels an herb’s scent with each sip.

At Table, Donkey and Stick, the culmination of every painstaking detail is consistently exceptional house cocktails that keep customers coming back. But you mustn’t have such a meticulous cocktail program to add botanical flare to your drink menu. Here’s a simple recipe to get you started. We call it the Tropics Dealer’s Choice. Add your own spin to give it a special signature.

 

Tropics Dealer’s Choice Recipe

In shaker, combine:

1.5 oz vodka
½ oz Tropics Mixology Peach
½ oz Tropics Mixology Sweetened Lime Juice
½ oz Tropics Mixology Simple Syrup
2 thyme sprigs
Rubarb or orange bitters

Shake vigorously, then fine strain to remove the thyme leaves.
Pour in a glass and top with 2 oz of sparkling wine or soda water and enjoy!