To create the craft cocktail menu at Loa, Alan Walter scours neighborhoods and public parks throughout New Orleans searching for ingredients like bamboo shoots, longleaf pine needles and Spanish moss.
"The flavors in these unusual ingredients is incredible," notes Alan, creative director and "spirit handler" at Loa. "People are surprised when we present these flavors on our cocktail menu."
But Walter isn't using wild edibles for their shock value. Instead, he spends time foraging for wild ingredients as part of his commitment to creating cocktails with unique local flavors.
At Loa, the line of cocktails made from wild edibles includes the Marguerite, a margarita made from Anejo tequila, thyme-infused cointreau and longleaf pine needles; and The Jean Lafitte, a mix of pisco, white rum, Spanish moss syrup and lime.
"It puts the local environment right in the glass," he says.
The "garden to glass" movement is on the rise thanks to a growing number of creative mixologists who are incorporating wild edibles into craft cocktails.
In New York, the cocktail menu at Atera includes Sass, a mix of sassafras root and pinesap; Forager, one of the cocktails on the menu at Colicchio and Sons, changes with the seasons to feature wild edibles like huckleberries and gingerroot; and Stowe Mountain Lodge features cocktails made with cherry bark bitters, apple cider, maple syrup and other ingredients growing wild in the fields and forests around Vermont.
Charlie Hodge, owner of Sovereign Remedies, a new craft cocktail bar in Asheville, North Carolina, has built his entire cocktail menu around foraged finds. In addition to developing recipes, he also ventures into the woods to source wild edibles. The goal: Creating cocktails that are unique to the bar and the region.
"Our entire menu is designed around relationships with local farmers and foragers," Hodge says. "We want to feature ingredients that have some local history and flavor and integrate them into our cocktails in a thoughtful way."
Two of the most popular cocktails on the Sovereign Remedies’ menu feature wild edibles: The Root Daiquiri is made with a combination of aged rum and a house-made syrup crafted from sarsaparilla, burdock and dandelions harvested from the local landscape. The Garden Rickey is mixture of vodka, carbonated honey tea and holy basil that grows wild on a local farm.
While wild edibles are plentiful across the U.S., there is more to incorporating foraged ingredients into a cocktail recipe than sticking a bamboo shoot in a sugar-rimmed glass or using wild basil as a garnish. Mixologists spend countless hours distilling wild edibles into bitters, syrups and teas and ensuring that the flavors are just right.
"It's exciting to capture the flavor from a plant growing wild and off-the-beaten-path," Walter says. "When people look at the menu and see these unusual ingredients, their immediate reaction is, 'I have to try that!'"
Since wild edibles can only be sourced seasonally, the craft cocktails are limited edition.
In New Orleans, sweet olive trees bloom in April. As soon as the blossoms appear, Walter starts collecting the fragrant flowers to make sweet olive blossom liqueur, the main ingredient in The Belluci, a combination of the house-made liqueur, lemongrass, orange bitters and scotch.
"It's one of the most iconic aromas in New Orleans," he says.
Using hyper local ingredients like sweet olive blossoms, Spanish moss and longleaf pine needles give the cocktails served at Loa a true sense of place — "You drink these cocktails and it’s like taking your palate on a quick tour of New Orleans," he says. "All of the flavors of the city are in your glass."