A Bloom in the Air
One of the things I love about Montecito this time of year is the incredible scents that start filling the air. Each week something new is wafting in the breeze. Today, as I walk out the door, a wall of jasmine greets me. Next, it will soon give way to the intoxicating aroma of orange blossoms that are now starting to appear.
My dream is to develop a space honed to the movement of the seasons. Planting it in such a way that each time you visit, there is some flower blooming and filling the air with a beautiful aroma. Making the setting something dreamlike, those warm evenings filled with soft light, the bubbling of conversation with friends, eating and drinking into the night. Someplace to lose yourself in, even for a short time.
Aroma is sometimes neglected in a cocktail yet, the impact, when well executed, cannot be overstated. In any situation, the more senses we bring into play, the more potential it has, and the stronger the ending impression will be. It’s the details that can elevate merely a nice sip into a memorable experience. Think of when you catch the first hint of freshly baking bread, your favorite food, or the perfume of someone you love. It instantly affects us and can bring forth emotion or memories.
Smells process through the limbic system, which is also tied to emotion and memory. That is why certain scents often evoke such strong reactions. By actively utilizing scent in cocktails, the experience is elevated and helps create memories. These memories are tied to time and place, sitting with good friends, sharing a sip, and laughing late into the night.
The scent of orange blossom is pure magic and immediately puts a smile on my face. It reminds me of spring, of bright days and warm evenings, yet also of traveling to far-off places. With the weather currently teasing us, mixing in some of these early, beautiful, warm days, I often lean towards food and drink that are a little lighter. I like to utilize fresh herbs, bright citrus, and effervescence. I have a lovely local amaro from Ventura Spirits called Amaro Angeleno made from Valencia oranges and gentian. It is full of beautiful orange flavor, bittersweet bite, and light floral notes, perfect for a spritz or a fizz. Combining it with tangerine, fresh thyme, a bit of sparkling water, and a dash or three of orange flower water yields a beautifully refreshing, highly aromatic, and effervescent sip.
There are many ways to bring an aroma forward in a cocktail. I often use them in conjunction to layer different scents and create depth. Scent is also a big part of taste. We want to make sure that it plays well with the rest of the ingredients, that it isn’t overpowering, and, if possible, that it layers and adds depth, not just one dimension. Several techniques to utilize are using aromatic bitters, muddling, garnishing with a purpose, and the use of carbonation.
The simplest way to add scent is by using aromatic bitters. There are myriad craft bitters that are available with various aromas and flavors. I consider them a part of a flavor or scent library. Using a dash of bitters or layering multiple bitters is one of the quickest and easiest ways to add depth and aroma to a cocktail.
Muddling is a technique whereby you gently mash an ingredient with the spirits you are using before shaking, stirring, or building your cocktail. This technique allows you to quickly infuse bright, fresh flavors and layers of aroma into a cocktail. You can muddle fresh herbs, citrus peels, fresh fruit, whole spices, etc. To muddle, you use a tool aptly named a muddler. It is a blunt instrument, often wood, to press against your ingredient to release its flavor components. It is very similar to the pestle in a mortar and pestle. It has one end that is rounded and the other that is flatter but has little square teeth on the bottom.
To muddle, first, add your spirits to the shaking tin, then add your muddling ingredient. Next, before you add ice, use the muddler to repeatedly press and twist the ingredients against the bottom of the shaking tin to release those fresh oils or juice. Fresh herbs or citrus peels require a light touch, bruising them gently, not mashing them until they are in pieces. Muddling fresh fruit or whole spice requires more pressure to crush the spices or release the fruit juice.
Garnish can be purely decorative, but I find it is much more effective if it has an active role. This role includes tying the ingredients together, adding beauty, and adding aroma. Fresh herbs can add a light herbaceous layer to the sip. Often I will muddle and garnish with the same herb in a given cocktail. The best way to release those beautiful oils and increase the aroma of fresh herbs is to lightly bruise them before using them as garnish. This can be done by gently smacking them on the back of your hand or a quick slap between your hands. A citrus twist gently expressed over the top of the cocktail brings those bright oils to the front. The fresher the citrus is and zesting the peel immediately before expressing it helps get the most from them. The peel can also be gently rubbed around the rim of the glass to get more of the oil into each sip. Edible flowers are another of my favorite garnishes and a way to exquisitely perfume a cocktail.
Finally, carbonated ingredients can also be used to elevate the aromas of a cocktail. When the bubbles from carbonation break the surface of the cocktail it sends tiny sprays into the air. This, combined with any aromatic compounds you have, will project the beautiful scent into the air to tickle your nose and make it stand out just that little bit more as you sip.
A Bloom in the Air
2 oz Amaro Angeleno
3/4 oz fresh tangerine juice
1/4 oz fresh lemon juice
2 dashes of orange flower water (Fee Brothers – see note below about others)
1/2 dash Angostura bitters (4 – 5 drops)
A fresh sprig of thyme
Top with 2 – 3 oz of sparkling water and another dash of orange flower water.
Garnish: Lightly bruised sprig of thyme
Add the Amaro, tangerine juice, lemon juice, bitters, and sprig of thyme to a shaking tin. Gently muddle the thyme and then add ice to the shaker. Shake until chilled and lightly diluted, about five to 10 seconds. Double strain the cocktail into a highball with ice and top with sparkling water. Add an extra dash of orange flower water directly to the glass. Gently bruise the sprig of thyme and garnish. Note: Some orange flower water, especially for baking, can be much stronger and only a few drops are needed.