Fireberry (a smoky non-alcoholic mezcal and raspberry cocktail)
In which I struggle to be creative through my least favorite month, and oh, yeah, COVID
Whooo, friends, it has been a week.
And by that, I mean it has been a week since I was formally diagnosed with COVID.
I’m not sure if the symptoms that I’ve had on and off for 3 weeks mean, as my doctor thinks, that I’ve had it all along and my other tests were false negatives, or if I have COVID and a weird lingering cold with all the same symptoms as omicron, but either way, it’s been a crummy, feverish, achy, fatigued week. While I’m feeling a lot better, and my froggy throat has finally resolved, doing just about anything for a few hours knocks me out for the rest of the day. Which is one of the reasons you’re getting this on Monday instead of yesterday; just setting up and taking the photos for this week’s drink made my temperature tick back up to 99º and made me collapse on the sofa unable to do another other than watch the most recent episode of Yellowjackets. (More on that later.)
The other reason is that coming up with a drink this week was unusually difficult. I started the week by completely screwing up a homemade ingredient that I was excited to play with, which was disheartening. Then I decided I was tired of whiskey or brown rum zero proof cocktails, the staples of winter-time drinks, because all of my photos lately had been of brown drinks. I felt like I didn’t have enough variation in glassware to keep making drinks that are roughly the same color, so I was working with some frozen red berries, then clear mixers, and then just clear non-alcoholic spirits, to no avail. All the drinks I tried to make tasted unrefined and closer to a smoothie or soft drink, or worse, insipid. Lifeless. I felt like everything was another ingredient away from being just right, but that I didn’t have the ingredients on hand to fix it. I sulked and pouted, convinced that if only I’d had white grapefruit juice, or celery bitters, or something I couldn’t exactly take my COVID positive self to get, it would have been right.
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But the real problem is that this is the time of year when I always find creativity hard to tap. January is perhaps the least inspiring month, and trying to find seasonally specific inspiration is rather difficult after autumn’s abundant harvest of potential ingredients, and December’s multiple holidays with a host of culturally associated flavors. January is dry, and I don’t just mean from booze. I mean from everything. The only big United States recognized holiday is Martin Luther King, Jr. day, which is not until mid-month and doesn’t exactly seem like the appropriate time for me to whip up a thematically linked cocktail. In any case, with the exception of December, I’m more interested in using seasonal ingredients than I am making holiday-linked recipes, anyway. It’s the flavors that get me excited about a drink, not how it necessarily fits within the calendar. So while I have a little book full of recipes to share, for most of them, the ingredients are out of season, and I couldn’t even go get them if they weren’t.
So I let myself off the hook about making yet another brown cocktail, and started to play around with zero proof riffs on the old-fashioned, a simple whiskey cocktail where the only other ingredients are sugar (or syrup), bitters, and orange peel. And I was bored. It’s too easy. There’s nothing to talk about. There are thousands of permutations, and you can make any in your kitchen, and they’ll probably taste good. Fig syrup and orange bitters. Pineapple syrup and lime bitters. Coconut syrup and cardamom bitters. Frankly, my Capricorn Mars or my Protestant work ethic, take your supernatural pick, would have made me feel guilty sending one out and calling it a recipe.
Finally, after I felt like just giving up, I decided to just make a cocktail for myself, because I was stressed, it was already Sunday afternoon, and I was on my self-imposed deadline to get something out to all of you. This drink was for me to take a time out and relax, to experience the ritual of cocktail hour, a little 5PM Eternal of my own at 2:00 on a Sunday. Maybe clearing my mind by whipping up something that I had no intention of sharing, that didn’t have to be impressive, would make it easier to put together something suitable for all of you, dear readers.
I’ve had a bottle of Harmony Smoked Apéritif, a phenomenal zero-proof mezcal alternative, for a couple of weeks, and while it’s delicious and frankly extraordinary among non-alcoholic spirits, as Harmony’s Alpine Digestif is, I hadn’t thought of using it just yet for 5PM Eternal. Silly me, I had fallen into the trap of associating mezcal with a hot climate and thus walling it off for use only in hot weather, which is especially absurd given Harmony Smoked’s enveloping savory campfire flavor. But I hadn’t done much other than sip a few tasting samples straight, and it was time to break it out, since, you know, this drink was going to be just for me.
I’d also wanted to incorporate Liber & Co. Raspberry Gum Syrup into something for awhile, but everything I’d thought of so far was very summery. But this was my comfort cocktail, and I was curious as to what raspberry would taste like with a rich, smoky non-alcoholic mezcal with a distinct umami note. Turns out, they work beautifully together and the blend creates an entirely new flavor indistinguishable from its separate parts, that is something like fruity sun-dried tomato jam. I added a touch of lime juice to brighten it up and cut through the heavy stickiness, and put in several drops of sea salt solution (also known as saline solution, but please note this is something you’re going to make at home— please do not put anything you squeeze out of a Visine bottle in your cocktails!). It was on the right track, but something was still missing. The aromatics were not quite there; it needed a touch of something herbal with a balancing bitterness to make it just right. And I didn’t have any fresh herbs on hand.
I went to my newly built bar and scanning the shelves, landed on a bottle of Optimist Botanicals Smokey that I have for an upcoming review, but for which I never thought I would find the proper use. Optimist Botanicals Smokey has a strong amount of oregano that is so medicinal it gives it an almost tire rubber finish, and I’d thought that it was something I’d review and never drink again. But here I was with a savory, sour, smoky cocktail crying out for a strong, herbal bitter to balance it. Just goes to show you that you never know when the ingredient you think is unusable becomes the very flavor on which an entire drink will hinge. Optimist Botanicals is the difference that makes this cocktail work.
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And work it does. It tastes like the memory (or the promise) of late summer nights that keeps you going through the brutal chill of winter. Those evenings when sunset happens earlier and you start throwing everything on the grill while you still can, with a rich mouthfeel and an unusually umami flavor that’s still mysteriously fruity, like meaty fire roasted tomatoes and peaches spiced with a tiny bit of cayenne to bring warmth to your chest. The smoky flavor is not overwhelming, more of an aroma of woodsmoke than a full on taste of it, but a little fire is certainly seasonally appropriate for a bitter, grey January. And yes, it’s still kind of brown, but it’s got quite a bit of red in it, too! You can make it with chili flakes, if you want it to be extra warming, but treat yourself and use some fancy ones like Burlap & Barrel’s Cobanero Chili Flakes that have a fruity, mango or peach fragrance in addition to being spicy. If you’re not opposed to a dash or two of alcoholic bitters (which would not increase the alcohol content significantly enough to make this any more alcoholic than your average glass of orange juice or slice of bread), Scrappy’s Black Lemon Bitters will give it a little extra zing, though neither the bitters nor the chili flakes are absolutely necessary.
I can’t promise that the Fireberry will fix everything about January, but it will make you feel warm and cozy while you drink it.
RECIPE: Fireberry (a warming non-alcoholic winter mezcal cocktail)
3 ounces Harmony Smoked Apéritif
1 ounce Optimist Botanicals Smokey
1 ounce Liber & Co. Raspberry Gum Syrup
½ ounce lime juice
6-8 drops saline solution (recipe below)
¼ tsp Burlap & Barrel Cobanero Chili Flakes, or other cayenne colored chili (optional)
1-2 dashes of Scrappy’s Black Lemon Bitters (optional)
Lime slice to garnish
Combine all ingredients except lime slice in a double old-fashioned glass over ice, and stir to combine.
Garnish with a slice of lime.
Combine ½ ounce of sea salt with 2 ounces of water in a tightly lidded jar and shake until the salt has completely dissolved. Apply to drinks using an eye-dropper. A VERY little goes a long way!
William Golding is credited (or accused, depending on your perspective) of saying that The Lord of the Flies had to be about boys, because girls were too civilized to resort to the kind of violence in his book, a statement that anyone who is or once a teenage girl probably finds hilarious.
The writers and producers of Yellowjackets know better, and in its first season, through flashbacks, the show is teasing something much more frightening than Golding imagined even for his boys. The show is the story of a girls’ champion soccer team from New Jersey, who go missing in a plane crash on their way to nationals in 1996 and are lost in the Canadian wilderness for 19 months, resorting to some kind of ritualized cannibalism (though the audience is not entirely sure what that is, yet, at least as of episode 9). Interlaced with a murder mystery involving the survivors 25 years later, the show is a blend of Now and Then, Alive, and Lost. I’m tempted not to include Lost here, because I hated it so much that, 7 episodes and one cold open into the first season of The Leftovers when I finally saw Damon Lindelof’s name in opening credits, I turned it off and never turned it back on, but not mentioning it in reference to a show about plane crash survivalism with possible supernatural elements that also flashes forward to a post-rescue timeline would seem weird.
But this is not a Lindelof mystery box, it’s feminine focused horror and drama executive produced by Karyn Kusama, and like Jennifer’s Body, which she directed, is funny, sad, scary, and gory in ways that are distinctly feminine, and all the more terrifying for coming from a gender we expect to be docile, reserved, weak, and cute. Sorry, Golding, but your boys have nothing on the brutality of the Yellowjackets girls’ soccer team of 1996.
Until next week, hunker down, stay inside, avoid omicron if you can, keep your drinks zero-proof and your 5:00s eternal!
Libba Bray wrote a YA novel-in-answer to Lord of the Flies called Beauty Queens, which I read in one gloriously lonely/lazy day in Vermont, moving from sofa to chair to other sofa to other chair while it rained. I believe I had an egg on toast for both breakfast AND lunch. It's pretty cheerful and nonviolent (perfect for a softy like me). Hope you fell well soon.