Summer is upon us, bringing back colorful, sunny days as flowers bloom and fruit ripens between now and the end of June. Breakfasts, al fresco, afternoon picnics, and weekend cookouts beckon us to return outdoors and revel in all that the earth has to offer.
There is no better way to enjoy every day along the way than with homemade seasonal libations.
You might celebrate the return of daytime's dominance with honey and mead. The color of sunrise, honey is gifted to us by bees, our most fundamental pollinators. Spring simply wouldn't bear fruit-it could never return-without bees. Obviously, honey goes in tea, but it is also fantastic in coffee beverages, and mead is widely available. Enjoy it straight or make a cocktail by adding something fizzy and some citrus zest from this winter's harvest.
At the end of March, harvest cool weather and perennial herbs and use honey to make a simple syrup.
Herb simple syrup:
• In a small saucepan, heat 1/2 cup honey (sugar or 1-1 sugar substitutes are fine, too) with 1/2 cup water on medium-low heat and simmer until dissolved.
• Add 3-4 sprigs of rosemary or 10 sprigs of thyme, and let steep for 30 minutes or until cool.
• Strain with a sieve and store in a sealed container in the fridge. Mix 1-2 tablespoons infused syrup with seltzer or soda water and ice. Add a splash to any citrus or ginger drink.
Supposedly, April showers bring May flowers, but April brings lots of color to south Louisiana. Early spring is the perfect time to start making simple syrups infused with edible flowers. Roses begin blooming here in April and are definitely edible.
• Add 1/4-1/2 cup dried (double the amount if fresh) to the simple syrup recipe and simmer for 10 minutes.
• Remove from heat and steep for another 10 minutes before straining and storing. Stir in a teaspoon of vanilla, if you like.
Herb simple syrup:
Rose syrup is perfect for coffee and milk-based drinks, and it also pairs well with citrus, ginger, and anything sparkling. You can substitute rose water (like Costas, at the supermarket) for water and flowers. In this case, add a red hibiscus petal or two, to give the syrup a rose-red, when they begin to bloom in April. Nothing looks like spring in the morning like a tall glass of iced hibiscus tea. Replace the rose petals with hibiscus petals to make hibiscus syrup.
You can mix hibiscus syrup with rose syrup in those citrusy and sparkly drinks—but hibiscus is even better with berries. April brings not only hibiscus but also strawberries to south Louisiana. Making berry syrup is a little more complicated than herb and flower infused varieties, but not very. Replace the herbs/flowers in the recipe with a cup of sliced strawberries and simmer for 20 minutes. Let the mixture cool and then strain.
If you prefer, you can puree the fruit in a food processor or blender instead of slicing, and keep the fruit pulp in your syrup. The only catch is that syrup with pulp will store in the refrigerator for four days, a week max, while filtered syrups store for up to three weeks. Of course, with so many berries making their appearance in spring, your syrups may not need that kind of shelf life. Blackberries ripen in March, and blueberry season peaks in June.
The only difference between preparing strawberry syrup and syrup with blackberries and blueberries is that the latter can skip the food processor and be muddled directly in the saucepan. All of these berries are super-delish when mixed with any of the above flowers and herbs. They also pair with our late spring fruits and herbs, cucumbers and basil, which also prefer to be muddled, albeit directly in a cup or cocktail shaker, before going into cold drinks. Muddling is the perfect tool to add to your springtime libations repertoire.
Mint is another perennial that loves to muddle. Think strawberry rose lemonades and honey blackberry mocktails—with mint. Or think blueberry-basil margaritas and blackberry, thyme, and lemon bourbons. Flowers and berries, berries and herbs, herbs and flowers—you can combine any of these to make hundreds of variations of mocktails and cocktails based on clear liquors and bourbon or juices and teas. What you also need in your toolbox is a template for the perfect springtime refreshment.
SWEET AND SOUR (AND MAYBE A HINT OF BITTERS):
• Mix 1-2 tablespoons of the syrup/puree of your choice (a combo works here, too) or muddle a few berries and/or mint leaves with 1 tablespoon of honey, agave, or another sugar substitute in a cup or cocktail shaker.
• Add 2-4 tablespoons lemon or lime juice (although even a splash of apple cider vinegar works here).
• A dash or two of bitters has only a trace amount of alcohol, but the addition rounds out the palate, making mocktails taste much more like cocktails.
SELECT A MIXER:
For a cocktail, any kind of clear liquor (gin, vodka, rum, tequila) or bourbon works. For a mocktail, try juice, coconut water, or tea.
Pour 2-4 tablespoons into the mix.
• Add ice to the shaker, give it a go, and then strain into your glass.
• Serve your spring libation with some extra ice, if you like. If you used a filtered syrup rather than a puree, add 1/2 cup seltzer or soda water.
• Garnish with a sprig of fresh herbs or a few fresh berries, and then, sit back and enjoy the bounty that spring has come to offer.