While some ingredients are near-foolproof in a cocktail — cranberry juice, coconut milk or limes — others require a deft hand and precise pour. Lavender, which is at the height of harvesting season during summer, is one of the latter. It’s undeniably lovely and smells like heaven’s garden. But it can go bitter really quickly if you’re not careful.
For expertise on how to elegantly and effectively incorporate this delicate herb into your cocktail lineup, we consulted Nicole Lebedevitch of Boston-based Yvonne’s (which rolled out a floral-themed menu for summer 2017) and Liquid Lab NYC’s co-founders, Parker Boase and Gregory Lucas, who are recognized as innovative leaders in mixology.
The Taste of Lavender
Before adding lavender to a cocktail, you must first fully understand its flavor profile.
“Lavender adds a unique floral note that complements a variety of different base spirits and liqueurs,” says Boase, who noted it was one of Liquid Labs’ favorite ingredients to play with in the summer. “It goes especially well with gin cocktails, as it helps open up the earthy botanical notes of a dry gin.”
It’s also important to think about how lavender tastes both fresh and dried. Lebedevitch says she’s often of the mindset that, “fresh is always better,” but noted that both dried and fresh lavender have their merits.
“Make sure you know what characteristics of the flower you are looking for,” she says. “Do you want the earthy, slightly more bitter tones with a whisper of floral aromatics? Then I suggest fresh lavender. Do you want an in-your-face lavender essence with a mild bitterness? Then you probably want dried.”
Lavender Syrups, Infusions, and Muddling
Lavender is almost always incorporated into cocktails by way of syrup, bitters or elixir. Lucas says he was a fan of Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters, but notes that, “a little bit goes a long way.” Floral Elixir Company also makes a nice, sweet Lavender Elixir.
Of course, you can always make your own lavender syrup or elixir, which gives you ultimate control over the taste. Both Yvonne’s and Liquid Lab brew their own.
“We make a lavender syrup at the bar that is very versatile and has a strong lavender aroma. We steep it like a tea, adding four ounces of dried lavender flowers to two quarts of hot, almost boiling, water for 10 minutes. We then strain the water from the flowers and add equal parts of sugar,” says Lebedevitch. “As is the case with when dealing with any herbs, flowers, vegetables, etc., the longer you heat, smash, or infuse them, the more likely you are to extract the deeper, more bitter and often soapy flavors.”
Keep an eye on your syrup as it’s brewing and taste it often. One you hit that desired taste, take it off the heat and remove the lavender flowers promptly.
In addition to creating a lavender simple syrup, consider a lavender infusion.
“My personal favorite is infusing lavender into a honey or agave syrup,” says Lucas, who does so in the Lavender Honey Flip (pictured above). “Simply using fresh lavender, boiled with equal parts honey (or agave nectar) and water, let that chill and remove the lavender flowers after one or two days, or once you achieve the desired floral notes. From there you can use it to mix with a slew of different spirits and other ingredients.”
You can also incorporate lavender into your cocktails by muddling it with other ingredients. If you do this, Boase advises using fresh lavender (you can extract more flavor, more quickly), and to “make sure to double-strain the finished cocktails with a tea strainer to prevent flowers and the bitter stems from working their way into your finished product.”
Incorporating Lavender into Cocktails
“Lavender is one of our favorite ingredients to work with in the spring and summer season. It adds a unique floral note that compliments a variety of different base spirits and liqueurs,” says Lucas.
Both Lucas and Lebedevitch agree that lavender pairs especially well with gin. “A bar spoon of lavender syrup in a dry gin martini enhances the floral components in most gins, be it juniper-forward or not,” says Lebedevitch.rn
Fortuitously, summer-abundant lavender goes quite well with other summer flavors.
For example, “lavender syrup with lemon juice and a base spirit brings that refreshing, summertime, backyard-garden-party, tray-of-lemonade feel,” says Lebedevitch. “We counterbalance lavender syrup in a cocktail with a touch of St. Germain, lemon, and gin and then top it off with sparkling wine. The pinkish purple hue shines through, and the floral quality of the lavender and the St. Germain work really well together.”
Says Boase: “It also goes quite well with cucumber-based cocktails to add to its earthiness, and we’ve also offered a twist on a classic Gold Rush with bourbon and a lavender-infused honey syrup, which is quite delicious. I’m also a big fan of champagne cocktails infused with lavender; a fresh lavender flower makes a wonderful garnish in a champagne flute or coupe glass.”
How you incorporate lavender into your cocktails is ultimately up to you. Expect a bit of trial and error, but do have fun with the experimentation process. The tastier your syrup, the more comfortable you’ll be with the flavor profile, and the clearer your taste goals are, the better you’ll be able to master this herb.
And, as always, anytime you’re incorporating a new ingredient into your cocktails, take a look at the health precautions first.