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How feasible is the ‘foraged cocktails’ trend?

Michelin-starred restaurants have foraged for ingredients for years, but now bartenders are taking a leaf from their cookbooks and discovering the practice for themselves, as Tom Aske reports.

The trend of foraged mixology has grown in popularity along with the rise in organic food

Foraging, or the practice of gathering wild food, dates back as far as the hunter-gatherer and despite its current renaissance, for quite some time it was left in the wilderness (sorry). Somewhere along the way this practice had become lost, with convenience replacing quality.

Now, the ability to trace food right back to its source has gained popularity, with ‘organic’ becoming the new buzzword by which the informed consumer makes their purchasing decisions. Developments in the restaurant scene with award-winning venues such as Noma pushing the “field to table” movement have been a natural inspiration to bartenders and brands alike.

Lynton Davidson, of The Botanist Islay Dry Gin, has been working on driving foraging within mixology for the last few years. “When we sat down and began to ask ourselves what was at the heart of our philosophy, we realised it was a sense of place, a connection to our island home, and a sense of creativity and play,” he explains. It is this idea of spontaneous creative freedom that’s really encouraging bartenders and chefs to rummage through nature’s back country for menu inspiration.

Unrivalled freshness

It’s easy to see the benefits of foraging within mixology; an ingredient’s unrivalled freshness of course being the most obvious. The ability for a bar to associate its surroundings with the ingredients listed within its menu creates authenticity and attention to detail. It creates an association between the drink and the guest whereby they can visualise its origins. This visualisation is something perhaps natural to country-folk but for those that take the Central Line through London, this notion of origin becomes slightly more blurred.

The passion for freshness is already global, with Emil Åreng, head bartender at Open/Closed in Umeå, Sweden, creating concoctions such as Camouflage, using foraged meadowsweet, spruce and birch. The drinks may take pride of place on the new bar’s menu, but he is very wary of disclosing the precious locations of his prized ingredients.

Foraging for ingredients allows bars to promote their cocktails as local and seasonal

Secret spots

“Here in Sweden it’s all about keeping secrets; people don’t tell each other where they have their certain spots for cloudberries and arctic raspberries,” he says. “You tell your son and then you take it to the grave.” It is this same secrecy and effort that has seen Åreng emerge as one of the world’s authorities on foraged mixology.

It’s surprising what you can find even as a city-dweller only minutes from home. A daily dog walk uncovers bushes full of ripe blackberries and trees brimming with rowanberry. Camomile shoots through the grass and nettles remain ignored in among the trees. Each of these ingredients alone can (with a little effort) be transformed into a useful cocktail ingredient. Nettle and fern cordials have been used for centuries as medicinal beverages and can add an interesting twist to a cocktail like a Gimlet. Rowanberries, when turned into a jelly, can provide the perfect bitter accompaniment to an Americano. These examples merely scratch the surface of foraging possibility.

On a recent foraging trip to Glasgow with The Botanist’s Davidson along the sides of the canal, we were greeted by such delicacies as wild garlic, gorse flower and few-flowered leek. We even managed to find nestled among the shopping trollies and sofas an abundant supply of the infamous Japanese Knotweed.

Locality and seasonality

As an invasive plant it has the ability to damage footpaths, buildings and cause general disturbance, however when juiced it gives off a fantastic acidity similar to the oxalic acid commonly found in rhubarb. Replacing citrus fruit with the juice of Japanese Knotweed lends an unusual twist to classic cocktails such as the Sour or Fizz. This weed could serve a double purpose of eradicating and intoxicating at the same time.

Foraging is all about locality and seasonality; an ever-changing canvas that provides a selection of different ingredients throughout the year is a creative bartender’s dream. Finding wild moss in Autumn or seaweed washed ashore on the coast feeds the imagination to no end.

It’s when you consider locality, ingredients native to different countries and micro climates – like tropical fruits in the Caribbean, Nordic Fern in Scandinavia and the multitude of Asian spices – that you begin to realise foraging’s global appeal.

Closer to home, foraged mixology is gaining a foothold in the industry with pioneering venues such as Dandelyan at the Mondrian in London focusing on sustainable, locally-sourced ingredients. The award-winning Mr Lyan has taken his ability for flavour matching and applied this to a menu that sees emphasis placed on carefully sourced fruit, vegetables and herbs, whilst incorporating modernist techniques.

While there is consumer demand for foraged ingredients in cocktails, it is a difficult trend to adopt

Forage for individuality

The Timberyard in Edinburgh has also been pushing the boundaries of foraged ingredients, showcasing cocktails such as The Rum Shrub, a delectable combination of samphire, spruce vinegar, lemon verbena and rum. It is this type of meticulous attention to detail that sets apart those embracing the art of foraged mixology, rendering their techniques and beverages non-replicable.

There are numerous benefits to foraged ingredients in the bar and kitchen, although the practice’s upkeep does come at a price. As a bar operator you have to monetise the time and effort required to produce a menu from foraging. The designated forager spends entire days gathering for the evening trade, after which ingredients must then be converted into a usable format by either preservation or distillation, which takes time. “Sweden has a very short foraging season and you need to have the time to go out there looking in the woods,” says Areng. “In the summer, time is the hardest thing to find.”

A sustainable trend?

Considering the laborious and time-consuming efforts required, is foraging a sustainable business practice or a non-profit showpiece for venue differentiation? The increase in drink price needed to fund an expert forager and an extra member of prep staff alongside the sheer quantity of wild ingredients could perhaps render wild drinks menus a non-starter.

That said, there is a consumer market for it; the rawness of foraging and its prehistoric ancestry is undoubtedly intriguing. The ability to turn a happened-upon leaf or root into a drinkable ingredient creates an empowerment that has been neglected for decades. Foraged menus based on locality and seasonality communicate a true appreciation of a bar’s surroundings and skill in creating drinks that also demonstrate true individuality. “This is just the very beginning of the journey,” predicts Davidson. “The joy of foraging is that no two drinks will ever be the same.”

There is certainly a compromise to be had. Featured in limited edition supply, these will sit comfortably as an addition to a sustainable menu. Foraging is most certainly here to stay and it will likely become more common among cocktail menus across the world. However, its commerciality as a solo concept needs exploring further; you’d just need to find a rent free, 10-seater bar to implement it.

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