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Forest to Flask: Everything You Need to Know About Foraged Spirits

by Kathleen Willcox

posted on January 06, 2020

Photo Courtesy: iStock/Clarkandcompany

These days, it’s not enough to be a seasonally-minded locavore with a Kinfolk subscription. Farm-to-table dining is less a selling point than a baseline expectation, while natty wines have begun to hit mainstream markets. That new new that sets apart the in-the-know from common heathens is actually quite old-fashioned: We are, of course, speaking of foraging. And no, we’re not merely talking about harvesting bundles of chanterelles, ramps, and miner’s lettuce (though we’ll take those too), but rather, the up-and-coming trend of forest-to-flask spirits and beers.

Foraging has become such a trend, several metro areas are taking action. New York City has outlawed the practice in its city parks, citing concerns about the sustainability of such practices (some of the more-desirable edibles were being picked clean) and health worries (no one wants a litigious hipster suing a government entity over incorrectly-identified edibles, like hallucinogenic or poisonous mushrooms, that made them ill).

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Marie Viljoen)

According to a study conducted by the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins, foragers in Baltimore are taking to the urban fields to gather 140-plus species of plants and fungi; 20-percent of the foragers they spoke with sourced 10-percent or more of their diet from foraged edibles.

Some cities are even investing in the trend: Boston, Seattle, LA, San Francisco, Madison, and Asheville have created planned foraging areas such as public orchards and fields and forests. Park rangers in Seattle even offer classes on foraging in a bid to make the practice less risky for both eaters and the ecosystem.

We consulted a few of the world’s leading experts on foraging for tips. So ready your Amish wicker basket and insulated work gloves and prepare to set forth to gather ingredients that will transform your workaday G&Ts pronto. (By all means grab greens, herbs, and berries for salads, pies, and smoothies, while you’re out there, but the most exciting flavor makeovers are happening in a highball near you.)

Marie Viljoen, author of Forage, Harvest, Feast: A Wild-Inspired Cuisine, grew up in South Africa, surrounded by mountains teeming with diverse indigenous plants. She says she has “paid attention to plants since before I could read,” but became a full-time forager after being laid off from her garden designer job in 2008 during the economic crash. (She moved to the US in 1994).

Viljoen takes foraging for libations to the next level by seeking out invasive species that can choke out other plants:

“Making drinks like vermouth with wild plants is incredibly exciting to me,” she enthuses. “Every season has its own flavors and ingredients, but I always use mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) as a basis. It’s native to Europe, but is an invasive plant in North America, and has become one of the most versatile herbs in my kitchen and bar.

She also seeks out common milkweed flowers, elderflowers, scented viburnums, and linden flowers for use in homemade vinegars that she adds to salads, cocktails, and even occasionally drinks straight-up.

The self-described philoso-forager and epicure of the obscure, Alan Muskat, founded the first foraging tour company in the nation, favors burdock cordial and “anything made with autumn olive juice.” (Autumn olive juice is made from tart olive berries, which ripen in late September, and are extraordinarily high in lycopene.)

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Marie Viljoen)

So what does a budding wildophile need for his or her bar cart? “The four most-common and easy-to-find forageable cocktail-friendly plants are pine, blackberries, autumn olive, and Japanese knotwood,” Muskat says. Here are 60 more. (Some, like carpenter ants and the “slightly-toxic” wild ginger root aren’t advisable for beginner foragers).

And, if you’d rather not try your luck in the wild, that’s just fine. There are plenty of commercial options (especially beers and spirits) harvesting the foraging trend. Here are a few of our favorites:

WILD BEERS

Goose Island’s Scavenger: Goose Island caught a lot of flack after it sold to Anheuser-Bush in 2011, but brewer Tim Faith is as obsessed as ever with hand-crafting irresistible brews that belie the brewery’s corporate ties. The latest example is Scavenger, brewed with wild yeast foraged from Shawnee National Forest, Illinois-grown hops and malt. Faith explains that he collected more than 40 samples of yeast from everything from slugs to tree bark, in order to find a balance between “subtle and edgy.” (It may sound weird, but strains of yeast can lend flavors ranging from bananas to butterscotch to wines and beers.) Several trials and lab analyses later, Goose found one that delivered, coaxing out the full flavors of the Illinois terroir. Now, the wild yeast strain is cryo-frozen and banked in the lab for future batches to make a more consistent product, he explains. Scavenger, brewed with wild rice, flaked corn, and barley, is incredibly dry with a white-grape character and a finish of fresh melon, and straw.

Lone Pine Brewing Company’s Chaga Stout: Portland’s Lone Pine was founded in 2016 by two hop heads (Tom Madden and John Paul) who loved making traditional European ales with a modern American twist (like IPAs, farmhouse brews, etc.) that they and their friends loved, but weren’t always finding, from local brewers. With $17 in the bank, Madden and Paul managed to build what has become one of Maine’s most-iconic craft breweries, offering delicious, newfangled spins on traditional styles, like Tessellation Double IPA. Tesselation, a brew made with mosaic hops, balances notes of blueberry and mango with piney heft. Lone Pine also boasts a forest-to-can offering made from, well, fungus: the Chaga Stout, brewed with foraged Chaga mushrooms. (Chaga mushrooms will already be familiar to the wellness set, who use this adaptogenic ingredient to boost immunity and fight inflammation.) Lone Pine sources their Chaga supply from professional forager North Spore; the end result: an earthy, antioxidant-rich brew. Naturally, this one’s tough to find: a four-pack of cans will run you $18 and is only available in Maine. Chaga may be headed to New Hampshire and Massachusetts in the next year, but the vast quantities of mushrooms required to make a batch prevents Lone Pine from really cranking up the volume.

Scratch Brewing: As the name suggests, everything at Ava, Illinois’ Scratch Brewing is foraged and made from scratch, including the beers, snacks, and the brewery itself. Cofounders Marika Josephson, Aaron Kleidon, and Ryan Tockstein (the latter recently left to work in Utah’s Bohemian Brewery), launched Scratch on a patch of partially-forested land Kleidon’s family owned. Over about five years, they built out a stage for live shows, created a movie screening area, a cellar for bottle conditioning, and cranked out a line of beers and quick bites that have become a must-stop for cross-country #VanLifers and those who aspire to join their ranks. The trio (now duo) hunts through the woods on their property to source maple bark, spicebush branches, sassafras leaves, black trumpet mushrooms, and dandelions for now-legendary brews like Tree Leaf IPA and Black Trumpet Sahti. And yes, you can taste the earthy, spicy, berry-tinged terroir. The beers are available on-site, and in North Carolina, NY, Massachusetts, Colorado, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

WILD SPIRITS

Maine Craft Distilling’s Fifty Stone: There are few places on earth as steadfastly committed to consuming products grown, harvested, and built within its own borders, in spite of its challenging weather conditions, as Maine. (Norway is up there too.) So it’s no surprise to find a Scottish-style single malt made from Maine-grown barley and foraged sea vegetation. Owner Luke Davidson contracts with local ocean foragers to source coastal peat and seaweed, both of which are smoked and then used as flavoring agents in the distillation process. Maine Craft’s Fifty Stone tastes of the sea, yes, but also surprisingly, like butter.

High Wire Distilling Co.: Founded by husband and wife team Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall in 2013, High Wire was created with the goal of introducing the whole small-batch artisanal hooch thing to South Carolina. Mission accomplished, Their amaro, made with 20 pounds per batch of Yaupon Holly (an evergreen shrub native to the southeastern US) and mint, delivers notes of fresh citrus, licorice, and, of course, minty freshness, with a slightly-bitter note of vanilla on the tail. Locally-grown Charleston black tea and Dancy tangerine are also used as flavoring ingredients. The amaro is technically a liqueur, and can be sipped as a digestif after a (hopefully farm-to-table) dinner, or in a Paper Plane or Negroni, where it replaces the sweet Vermouth. High Wire is available in most of the Eastern and Southern states.

Beverages made from foraged ingredients are inherently small-batch — no responsible forager would ever advocate stripping a wild area completely of an herb, green, fruit, or flower, no matter how delicious. However, Viljoen does have some concerns about the commodification and commercialization of foraging.

“Not every plant can withstand indiscriminate collection,” she observes. “Take ramps, which in many areas, have been picked clean. That’s why I now advocate very strongly for the cultivation of popular foraged plants. Foraging is a gateway to new flavors. They can, and should, make their way into our gardens and farms.”

(Photo Courtesy: Instagram/Marie Viljoen)

And bars. Check out Viljoen’s delicious — and phenomenally-sustainable — recipe for Forest Vodka:

FOREST VODKA

Strip 4 tablespoons of needles from a forest fir tree

Pop the needles into two cups of good vodka. (Nothing flavored.)

Wait two weeks. Strain.

Sip.

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