June 19, 2012 at 1:59 PM ET
In a garden, weeds are the enemy – pesky, plant-choking invaders that are anything but wanted. Yes, that kind of weed. Beloved by enterprising cooks, these bitter greens can also add depth and herbaceous notes to spring cocktails.
"I have fallen in nettles before when I was kid, and that is one thing you do not want to fall into," says Brian Means, bar manager at the innovative Fifth Floor restaurant in San Francisco’s Hotel Palomar. As a child, he spent time at his family's cabin on the Russian River in Northern California, where the stinging weed is abundant. While the plant has little hairs that irritate the skin, it's delicious when cooked (especially on pizza). Means uses it to make a complex cordial syrup for his floral 9 Herb Charm, combining strawberry-infused tequila, St. Germain Elderflower and lemon juice.
He sources nettles from Heirloom Organic Gardens but still has to don gloves when making the syrup, which requires a pound of nettle tips (the stems would make the cordial overly bitter), two liters of boiling water to deactivate the pricklers, a kilo of cane sugar and citric acid to add citrusy flavor and act as a preservative. The cordial sits for seven days before it is ready to strain and use.
"The taste is like when you first bite into fresh-cooked kale – kind of earthy and superjuicy," he says. He created it to complement the green, vegetal flavors of blanco tequila and to add a multidimensional element to the drink: "I want your whole mouth to activate and have every little bit of your taste buds wake up a bit," Means says. "The nettles help bring a savory element to the cocktail. A lot of people miss that middle part of the tongue, and it should totally be invited to the party."
The name comes from an Old English poem called "Nine Herbs Charm," which was meant to treat poison and infection through repetition and the application of a salve containing nine plants, such as nettles (which do in fact have medicinal properties). "I am a total dork when it comes to coming up with names," Means explains. "I like to read a lot of classic books and look at the history of where things come from." He also likes the name's counterintuitive appeal: "Who doesn't like to believe that drinking makes you feel better?"
Midnight Cowboy Modeling, Austin: This tiki-centric lounge serves a Pisco Sourgrass, a seasonal take on a Pisco Sour that blends Don Cesar Pisco Puro with egg white, lemon juice and a house-made sorrel-honey syrup, garnished with cracked black pepper and cinnamony tiki bitters. The lemony sorrel (also called sourgrass) is not grown at the bar, but close enough—one of the bartenders brings it in from his garden.
Anvil, Houston: One of F&W’s top 50 bars in America, Anvil uses burdock root and cinnamon to infuse bourbon. The earthy, aromatic spirit is mixed with absinthe, chrysanthemum syrup, lemon juice and soda water for the bar’s Waxing Poetic.
Bishops & Barons, New York: Named for the two gangs that ruled Brooklyn in the 1950s, the new glitzy bar serves a Short Shade made with Bison Grass vodka, Aperol, agave nectar, lemon juice and mandarin puree. For extra grassiness, the fruity cocktail is garnished with a long blade of bison grass.
The Bent Brick, Portland, OR: For a vibrant green syrup, bartender Adam Robinson blends raw nettle leaves that have been cleaned of their stingers with sugar and water. The savory Pins & Nettles combines the herbaceous syrup with cardamom-inflected Small’s gin, Herbsaint (an anise-flavored liqueur) and aromatic celery bitters.
Mezze, Los Angeles: The Mediterranean small-plates restaurant offers a cocktail made with sumac. While sumac may conjure itchy memories of woodland interactions with poison sumac, the plant used in this instance is a nontoxic relative. The Wanderer (blanco tequila, hibiscus syrup and rose water, topped with a hibiscus foam) is garnished with ground sumac berries, which add a citrus element to the floral cocktail.
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