While garnishes remain by far the most popular use of florals, bartenders are increasingly employing them to provide flavors and aromas. “When you’re putting in the time and effort into a cocktail, it should be a multilevel experience,” says Brian McDougall, head bartender at Boston’s Envoy Hotel. “If a garnish looks beautiful on top of a drink, everyone will be happy. But there can be much more.”
Trend watchers like Baum + Whiteman, Datassential, and Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants are banking on florals this year. Baum + Whiteman sees edible flowers coming back into style, while Datassential predicts elderflower flavor will grow 30 percent over the next four years. And, in its fifth annual Culinary + Cocktail Trends Forecast, Kimpton notes floral flavors, particularly rose and lavender, will gain popularity.
As spring approaches, bartenders are looking to do even more with flowers. Many prefer local, fresh floral touches that only grow in the summer.
Edible flowers will vary largely in their applications behind the bar, says Joel Schmeck, bar manager of Irving Street Kitchen in Portland, Oregon. “While all may be edible, not all are delicious when extracted or blasted with acids or heat.” Beautiful and hearty flowers can make a gorgeous garnish atop a cocktail but may be too bitter to eat or extract.
Garnishes are sometimes considered an afterthought, but that’s not the case with flowers. Most bartenders say the visual aspect usually comes first.
“Primarily my first instinct is, ‘Does it look pretty as a garnish?’” says Chris Dalaku, bar manager of Jeffrey’s of Austin. “You eat with your eyes as much as your mouth. If it is something that looks pretty in a cocktail, we tend to go with that.” At Jeffrey’s, which has access to multiple gardens, a number of flowers, ranging from borage to pansies, stand out in color and texture for garnishes. And a hibiscus honey syrup is part of a popular cocktail, Girl With A Pearl Earring, that also features gin, Cardamaro, orange, grapefruit, and pure water.
Remy Walle, bar manager of Apogee Lounge at Chicago’s Dana Hotel, also emphasizes appearance. “Our cocktail menu is picture based, so flowers and cocktail glasses are important,” he says. “We use flowers almost exclusively for garnishes.”
Flower garnishes at Apogee Lounge are largely a feature of large-format drinks. Some feature bouquets, using flowers like purple asters on top of crushed ice “so you can smell the flowers as you drink,” Walle says. But, an individual cocktail called the Nymph, features a chrysanthemum in an ice cube, he notes. The clear drink has house-made citrus- and cucumber-infused vodka, citric acid for tartness, and sparkling rose lemonade, making it look like the flower is floating on air.
The fragrance of the flowers, especially ones like lavender or hibiscus, serves to enhance the cocktail, McDougall at Envoy Hotel says. “The first thing you get when you put that glass up to your face is the nose on the garnish. It builds your olfactory senses and gets you ready for the drink.”
Extracting the flavor of flowers either into a syrup or as an infusion can be a delicate, trial-and-error process. “You get a wonderful floral release into the cocktail,” McDougall notes, “but you have to be careful how you do it. If it’s not timed correctly, the taste becomes woody, almost grassy.”
One of Envoy Hotel’s signature creations that does florals right is the Bee’s Nest featuring a honey syrup made with fresh hibiscus, along with a wild botanical gin, lemon juice, and tangerine. It is garnished with fresh flower petals like those of daylilies or snapdragons. “The hibiscus goes really well with the gin,” McDougall says.
Schmeck echoes that flowers are wonderful additions to cocktails, especially when citrus and herbaceous qualities are present. He extracts aroma by heat, acid, or ethanol. He’ll make a wildflower vinegar by preparing a shrub, swirl chamomile tea bags in a liter of gin, or steep hibiscus in a simple syrup over heat to create floral components for his cocktails.
Bitters can also add a flowery flavor, as in The Bergerac at Irving Street Kitchen. Schmeck combines bourbon, yellow chartreuse, lavender bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, lemon oil, and an Aveze rinse. “It has a lot of floral notes,” he says.
For safe floral flavors, Schmeck suggests using flowers commonly used in teas—like chrysanthemum, rose, and jasmine. McDougall also likes lavender, thyme, and hibiscus. And, of course, there’s elderflower liqueur, which has been dubbed the “bartender’s ketchup” due to its ability to fix cocktails.