I could never understand why my father insisted on picking sloes. Every Autumn the whole family would head for the hedgerows to fill our buckets with the small blueberry-esque tart fruit. My 7-year old self couldn’t grasp the value of such an astringent berry tucked away amongst such viscious thorns, but of course, I was a good few years away from my first sip of sloe gin.
Things have come a long way since then, both in terms of ingredients and methods. The hedgerows have so much more to offer the booze cabinet than sloes, damsons and elderberries, there are flowers, wild greens and aromatics- even wood has a role to play. At Hunter Gather Cook, we always finish up our seasonal day courses by mixing up some wild cocktails on the top deck of our Tree house HQ. The key ingredient is you: get creative, have fun and by all means, make sure you do plenty of tasting!
Infused spirit or liqueur?
There is a big difference here, sloe gin, for example, is a liqueur. In simple terms any kind of infusion or maceration where sugar is involved in the process is a liqueur. An infused spirit is when you take your fruit, flowers or aromatics and add them to your spirit to infuse without adding any sweetness. It largely depends on what you want to do with the finished product: If you want to make cocktails, its always best to leave sugar out as you can add this later when mixing up drinks in the form of a cordial or simple sugar syrup.
Choices, choices, choices! There are many hedgerow booze recipes that state you should use the cheapest supermarket own-branded vodka, gin or whisky. To some degree that is true, if you’re making a liqueur, the added sugar will help mask the quality of the final product. If you’re making a simple infusion then go for something a little more upmarket, as there is nowhere to hide! Always bear in mind that your final product is only going to be as good as the quality of the ingredients.
Vodka is certainly the best for most infusions or liqueurs. The main reason for this is because it’s a completely neutral spirit, it’s able to take on both light floral or heavy aromatic flavours with ease. For any liqueurs you can go as cheap as you like, but for pure infusions, a good quality grain vodka such as Absolut or Ketel One, will produce excellent end results.
It is possible to use vodka as a base spirit to make your own gin which is essentially a neutral spirit flavoured with a variety of different botanicals- the principal ingredient being Juniper. Other botanicals can include orange or lemon peel, caraway seed, cardamom, coriander seed, star anise, lemongrass, rosemary, bay and so on…
Gin can vary when it comes to which one to use- as its already been flavoured with various botanicals, its best used for fruits rather than delicate floral infusions. Cheap can be cheerful- its worth noting that Aldi’s own brand gin (which costs under £10) came second in the international spirits challenge last year, beating both Bombay sapphire and Hendricks. However, you can’t go wrong with Gordon’s or Beefeater.
Whisky is also best used for fruit such as blackberries, but also wood. Sounds weird? It does. Both whisky and bourbon can be infused with fruity woods such as Apple, cherry or plum. If you whittle down a couple of branches (remove the bark fist!), take the shavings and blowtorch them prior to infusing, the results are a delightfully smoky finish. The shavings, once removed from the infusion and dried out can then be used in the smoker for a whisky finish- thrifty. Again, don’t pull out the Oban or Laphroig for this, Famous grouse is a solid choice.
There are three different methods to go about your infusing, whilst traditional maceration will always be a mainstay, you can speed up the process with the other two methods using either heat or pressure:
1. Traditional Maceration.
A solid method and one which many of you will be familiar with: Take a kilner jar, half fill it with your ingredients and then top up with your chosen spirit. Seal and stick it in a dark place for anything from 2 weeks to 2 years.
2. Sous vide.
This method uses heat to speed up the extraction process and takes 1 ½ to 2 hours. Don’t feel you need an expensive sous vide machine and waterbath for this- a deep fat fryer filled with water and a thermometer will suffice- you could even keep a close eye on a pan on the hob. You will need some zip lock bags to put all the ingredients in for infusing.
Essentially what sous vide does is A) speeds up the whole process (allowing for plenty of room for experimentation) and B) It simplifies the entire process whilst removing any danger of losing any delicate flavours to the atmosphere. In simple terms, you heat some water to 40˚C, maintain the heat, pour your spirit into a ziplock bag, add whatever you want to infuse it with, suck the air out of the bag, seal and stick it in the 40˚ C water and leave for an hour or two. A great method for berries and botanicals.
3. Cream whippers & Nitrous oxide:
This method uses pressure to aid extraction and dramatically reduces the length of time down to 2 minutes. Basically, it’s a flash infusion: the Nitrous Oxide forces all the air out of the ingredients you’re infusing and the spirit rushes into all the air pockets which then drags all the flavouring with it once the cream whipper is discharged. This method works best with delicate floral infusions such as elderflower or meadowsweet. Simply half fill the cream whipper with your ingredients, add enough spirit to cover and screw on the lid. Charge once with a NO2 cartridge and leave to stand for one minute. Remove the spent cartridge and reload, repeat the process, only this time, shake it for one minute. Finally, discharge the cream whipper completely, unscrew the top and then pour out the infusion through a sieve lined with muslin into a receptacle.
HGC Drinks lab on test day...
Here are a few recipes to get you started with some different ingredients coming into season in the wild larder over the next few months:
Meadowsweet Martini (makes 4 martinis)
Method: Cream whipper.
Meadowsweet flowers have a wonderful sweet smell to them with notes of vanilla and almond. Meadowsweet has very high levels of Salicylic acid, which was originally isolated in the plant and produced the first aspirin- so this might not give you a headache if you over indulge!
Take 4 flower heads of meadowsweet and pick off just the flowers, discarding any stalk and place in the cream whipper. Add 250ml of gin or vodka depending on your preference and infuse.
Strain the infusion into a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice, add 75ml of dry vermouth and stir, strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with a meadowsweet flower. Everyone has their preference as to their desired amount of vermouth, this is based on a 3 parts vodka to one part vermouth.
Best served sat on the riverbank where you picked the meadowsweet and enjoy while you wait for the evening rise to begin.
Rack em, Stack em and Pack em: Meadowsweet martinis lined up on the Treehouse HQ Birch Bar.
Method: Masceration for a liqueur or Sous vide for an infused spirit.
- For the liqueur, you will need:
- 1.4kg of blackberries
- 200g of white granulated sugar
- 1 bottle of whisky.
Simply place all ingredients in a large kilner jar and give a vigorous shake, repeat every couple of days for 2 weeks. Then leave in a dark place for 3 months before straining and bottling. Improves with age if you can resist!
Blackberry & Apple Hot Toddy. (makes 2)
This is a great winter warmer once you have your blackberry whisky.
Juice of 2 lemons
100ml of blackberry whisky
300ml of warmed cloudy apple juice
Honey if needed (depends how sweet you like it!)
The Bramble: A Gin-based excuse to use blackberries.
Ground Ivy & wild horseradish vodka for the perfect Bloody Mary:
Method: Sous vide.
Ground Ivy or Ale Hoof is a very common wild green, it has a pungent herbaceous aroma with notes of sage, mint, thyme and rosemary- it was originally used to flavour beer before the introduction of hops. Wild Horseradish is a very fiery root: The volatile oil, sinigrin, is released upon tampering with and capable of making a grown man weep. Both marry extremely well when infused to vodka, mind you, this really is only for use in a bloody mary!
- 2 handfuls of washed Ground ivy leaves.
- 1 large chunk of wild horseradish root chopped into £1 coin size slices.
- 1 Bottle of Vodka.
The Wild bloody mary. (makes 2)
This is a perfect recipe to make use of all those tomatoes from your greenhouse as the tomato juice is made using freshly muddled tomatoes with a pinch of salt.
- 8 fresh tomatoes
- 100ml of Infused Vodka.
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 12 dashes of Worcester sauce
- 6 dashes of Tabasco
- Salt & Pepper to taste.
Fill a cocktail shaker with ice and add the infused vodka, lemon juice, Worcester sauce and Tabasco along with a healthy dose of salt & pepper. Place the fresh tomatoes in a bowl, add a pinch of flaked sea salt and using a muddler (a rolling pin will suffice) pummel the hell out of the tomatoes for a good couple of minutes until pulverised. Strain the fresh tomato juice into the cocktail shaker and stir well. Pour into a two glasses and garnish with a horseradish leaf.
Well it has been a busy summer! Been well and truly kept away from the office with courses- not a bad thing I suppose! Our Treehouse HQ was over funded on kickstarter and has been a joy to work in this summer- Thanks to all those who helped us get there- You're awesome! a word to the Bushcraft folk that had a thing or two to say about it on their forum (You really have to read this thread!)- It most certainly does have a Wild Cocktail bar! And the Treehouse diaries is onto it's 2nd print run...thanks for the support gents.
HGC Treehouse HQ. Spring 2014.
I'm very proud to announce that Hunter Gather Cook has its very own Truffler! My furry little daughter B, graduated 2 weeks ago from trainee to practising doggy- not bad for a Jack Russell x Norfolk Terrrier pup. We got her 9 months ago, when she was only 10 weeks old and have been training her every day since. Very chuffed with the little ferret- she's had 3 successful outings so far, including digging up this beast:
Great work B: Tuber Aestivum or Summer Truffle. Sussex 2014.