Sweet Gale and Blossom Bitters


Drive around the island just now and there are two plants that catch the eye. The full green of spring hasn’t quite arrived, but the bare branches of the blackthorn are flecked with creamy blossom and there is an orange haze at a driver’s eye level, caused by the fruiting cones of the bog myrtle – called sweet gale because of the scent it gives to the winds. 

Blackthorn is in the rose family. Some of its blossoms will mature in time to the fruit we know as sloes, those dark purple berries very often co-opted into the creation of sweetened autumn gins. Its close sister tree Hawthorn is a donor to The Botanist recipe. Curly, dried, aromatic sweet gale leaves also feature in our gin, another of the 22 local botanical ingredients.

Our quest to make easy seasonal cocktails often revolves around flavouring simple syrups and finding foraged garnishes. Now, for the sake of variety, and because those fragrant sweet gale cones are about as bitter as things come, we gave making cocktail bitters a try, with a particular nod to our transatlantic friend Ellen Zachos as our inspiration and guide. See here.

On this occasion, it was a three step process, just because I was on the way to a picnic with a wee jar of honey about my person when the experiment began… I gathered about 24 bog myrtle cones and chopped and crushed them, added them to the honey and left them to think about it. (This step is the improvisation.)

Sweet Gale Cones – big on bitter

Next, we collected blackthorn blossom – a combination of carefully pinching out each clump of flowers individually, and selecting about a dozen twigs – the new growth twigs with the smoother bark – that were particularly well-endowed with the flowers. The blossoms and the cones in honey went into a kilner jar with enough gin to cover them. We chopped that all through with some kitchen scissors in the neck of the jar. This step is the tincturing.

Three days later, we strained off the gin, measured it and reserved it. It had gained some colour. Then we took twice as much water as there was alcohol, and put that in a pan with all the used plant matter out of the sieve, brought it to the boil and sweetened it with a little more honey. This step is the decoction.

Strained cones and blossom

Use it twice and thank it for its service

There’s a satisfying economy at work here, when, as Ellen says, you use your foraged plant twice then thank it for its service. When the sweetened water was cool we combined it with the flavoured gin and had a taste. Raymond got almond off it (almond is also in the rose family); for me it had that distinctive moorland smell from the sweet gale.

Next was the real taste test. On a Botanist tour later that day at the distillery, our clutch of esteemed real live visitors had the option of adding a spoon of home-made bitters into a gin and tonic, which some of them went for and all of them liked.

So you can add a sprinkle of bitters to just about any drink you are making to give it a different spin. We’re the proof that it’s easy.

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