How can getting outdoors make you a better bartender? Clinton Cawood investigates
The great outdoors doesn’t need to be as far away from your basement bar as you think. Exploring the full bounty of nature can not only step up your drinks offering but improve your wellbeing too.
This was the message from the panel at the Parks & Recreation: Nature into a Glass seminar at this year’s Imbibe Live. Claire Warner of Æcorn Aperitifs, Pippa Guy of The American Bar at The Savoy and Robert Wood of Birmingham's 18/81 shared their expertise on the subject.
In the weeds
There are, for instance, nine edible weeds in the UK, according to Guy. ‘Thanks to our friends on the South Bank I’ve no idea if I’ve spelt this one right,’ she began, referring, of course, to dandelion. Roots, leaves, hearts, flowers… it’s all useful, which is not only a handy characteristic when it comes to waste, but also opens up the possibility of creating single-ingredient drinks out of its various components, she explained.
Dandelion is also able to stand in for coffee in cocktails, if the roots are harvested and then ground and brewed like coffee beans. ‘There’s no caffeine so it’s a fantastic substitute,’ said Guy.
The wonders of seaweed were next – an ingredient that has all the credentials, from health benefits to environmental impact. ‘It can be harvested all year round, there are no chemicals, no pesticides and no deforestation, and they don’t deplete their environment,’ explained Guy, going on to present the extensive list of vitamins, omegas and more contained in this miracle weed. And to seal the deal, she presented a drink containing manzanilla infused with seaweed, fennel and tequila.
So the ingredients are out there, literally growing like weeds. But how they’re presented in a bar is crucial too. ‘Engagement is key,’ said Guy. ‘Making the guest feel comfortable, and being aware that they won’t necessarily like it. Ask yourself why you’re using an ingredient – making something weird doesn’t make you creative.’
‘We’re antiseasonal,’ began Wood, controversially, before explaining: ‘We love to showcase the lost art of preservation.’
The reasoning behind this is that the fruit we consider to be fresh almost never is. So instead, the 18/81 team works with growers and producers instead of suppliers. ‘This way you can preserve an ingredient at the height of its freshness. If we’re using an ingredient now, we bought it months ago,’ he explained.
This lost art of preservation takes many, many forms, according to Wood. There’s salt, encompassing brining but also ingredients such as kosho, and there’s fermentation – everything from wine and beer to tepache and kombucha. Sugar’s clearly a major one, covering cordials, jams, syrups, jellies and more.
‘Jelly is ace. It stores neatly in squares, you can shake it into a cocktail, and it bounces,’ said Wood.
He implored the audience to start canning, before recommending that excess juices from the day before can be frozen into sorbets or granitas. Acids, meanwhile, can be used to pickle or make shrubs. There’s drying, dehydrating and freeze-drying, not to mention alcohol’s role in preservation.
‘If you look at this list you’ll find a way to not throw something away,’ he added, later speaking of having 13 applications from a single citrus fruit.
But how to find all of these fresh ingredients to preserve in the first place? Wood had some tips, starting with looking local, and for opportunities to trade.
‘Commercial foragers would prefer to give something to you than throw it away,’ he explained, before adding: ‘Show your passion, share your passion.’
The great outdoors
With cocktails and ingredients, preservation and presentation all covered, Warner turned her attention to the wellbeing of bartenders. ‘My secret mission is to get you outside more often,’ she began. Referring to The Nature Fix by Florence Williams, Warner spoke of the recent classification of humans, in 2010, as an urban species, and how we live in an age of technology.
As an answer to these factors, she spoke of nature as a therapy with remarkable properties, ‘and one you can get by stepping outside and taking a deep breath’. Exposure to nature, according to Warner, ‘can help to reduce stress and anxiety, and help us to live longer, healthier lives’.
It’s about, as she put it, ‘using nature as an antidote to modern life’. And, as Guy and Wood had explained, about creating some new and exciting drinks in the process.