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Through foraging and science, Twin Cities distilleries and breweries are using botany

by Jared Kaufman - Pioneer Press

February 7 2023

Behind Dashfire, a distillery and bitters producer in Northeast Minneapolis, a pair of railroad tracks runs along a wooden fence. Right in between lies a patch of wild grape.

Earlier, this tasty windfall might’ve gone unrecognized by spirits producers. But at Dashfire, on-staff botanist and forager Patrick Maun has his eye out for the unsung botanicals that, with some creativity, could transform into flavorful and place-based cocktails.

Across the Twin Cities, beverage producers like Dashfire’s new botanical-driven cocktail room, called Elusive; Earl Giles distillery and its Drinks Apothecary consulting service; and Wandering Leaf Brewing Co. are taking a closer look at the power of plants.

Greenery comes into play in the physical spaces themselves: At Wandering Leaf, soon to open in Highland Park, longtime friends Matt Holton and Rob Reisdorf are planning a succulent wall and trailing vines around the taproom. The extraordinarily high ceilings inside Earl Giles, in Northeast Minneapolis, also leave plenty of space for hundreds of plants to create nooks around individual tables.

But the focus on botany is translating into more unique drinks, too.

At Dashfire and Elusive, Maun and the team are growing seedlings that are used in beverage production. And by foraging locally, Maun, who lives in West St. Paul, is also able to work with botanicals that other companies might have difficulty purchasing or creating in extract form

Mulberries, for example, are generally too fragile to harvest commercially, he said; flavors that come from unripe black walnut shells or magnolia leaves may be too niche for larger producers to invest in. One crop he’s particularly excited about, prickly-ash — a shrub whose berries have a potent citrus taste and tongue-tingle sensation like Sichuan pepper — is particularly thorny and commonly overlooked. Wild strawberries have an essence that he said industrial ones simply do not.

“You’re tasting things that no one else is tasting,” Maun said. “You’re experiencing something that the only way you’re going to experience it is either someone has foraged it for you, or you’ve gone out and gathered it yourself. You can’t buy that anywhere.”

Engaging directly with the plants that transform into beverages is truly rewarding, Wandering Leaf’s Holton said. He holds a degree in horticulture, and earlier in his career, he worked as a vineyard manager for a winery. There, he not only was in charge of planting and pruning grapevines and leading the harvest, but also was involved in producing the wine itself and sharing it with customers in the tasting room.

Although he’s not growing his own grains or fruit at Wandering Leaf, he hopes to share this experience in the taproom.

“There was a real cathartic, almost romantic, experience of being able to pour something for somebody and go, ‘What you’re drinking, I grew,’” Holton said.

Full-circle moments like these help solidify a sense of place and groundedness, Maun said, in addition to creating more unique and personal food and beverage experiences. In embracing seasonality, foraging for botanicals lets you quite literally drink up the spontaneity of the natural world.

“You might go out and say, OK, I want to look for this particular thing today, but you have to keep your eyes open for what else you might find,” he said. “Really, just pay attention to your surroundings, because you’re going to find different things every time you go out.

Beyond the botanical?

Whereas Maun is letting the natural world guide him, Nick Kosevich has the entire world of nature at his fingertips.

Kosevich runs Drinks Apothecary, a beverage development and consulting service that’s now part of Earl Giles. He launched the apothecary a couple of years ago after he split off from the drinks company Bittercube, which he’d founded with Ira Koplowitz in 2009.

In true apothecary style, his balcony space at Earl Giles is stocked with custom-built wooden shelves and hundreds of small dropper bottles arranged in neat rows. And each contains a botanical flavor, or the essence of one.

“What we’re trying to have up here is the end result of concentrated flavor,” he said

In other words: Instead of just “lemon,” Kosevich has extracts from eight different lemon varietals from around the globe. Maybe you prefer Primofiore lemon from Northern Italy, or maybe you prefer a blend of two lemon varietals that do not coexist in the natural world but that Kosevich knows taste good together.

The Nick Kosevich of 10 years ago wouldn’t have let this fly. At Bittercube, much like Maun’s approach to foraging, Kosevich and Koplowitz were staunch in working only with natural, raw botanicals and avoiding extracts.

After the two parted ways in 2021, Kosevich asked himself: Why?

By turning to extracts, Kosevich said he can achieve a significantly expanded palette of flavors that customers and bar beverage directors can access much more efficiently and consistently. Thanks in part to the Drinks Apothecary, the syrups and tonics and even spirits Earl Giles can produce for its own bar or other clients are all completely customizable.

You can’t go into the woods and forage bubblegum, Kosevich pointed out, but he can create it at the Drinks Apothecary with vanilla, cherry, strawberry, lemon, orange, cinnamon, and banana. When he was helping design the drinks menu at Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul, he created a cotton candy piña colada.

“When we talk about green apple, are we talking about an actual Granny Smith apple, or are we talking about a Jolly Rancher?” he said. “We live in a world where both those things exist. I think, at some point, we were very anti-Jolly Rancher. But what we are doing is trying to be very open to creating any flavor profile.”

And as he further deconstructs the idea of the raw botanical, his next evolution of flavor-making lies in the molecular compounds that undergird flavor. Can he source these isolated terpenes and polyphenols themselves and simply create flavors from the ground up?

For Kosevich, this mad-science approach — what he called “ethereal,” like floating above the flavor — is wherein lies the joy of botanicals. If he wants to add a bit of woodsy, citrus-flower flavor, why not skip coriander seed and go straight for linalool, its predominant flavor molecule?

During a recent gin-making workshop at Elusive, Maun, too, deftly explained the science behind the flavors of the plants he forages. But for him, a focus on botanicals necessitates interacting with the leaves, the roots, their connection to the soil. Yes, bottles of vapor-distilled juniper and angelica root were on the lab-style tables to construct the gin — but so were trays of berries and bark.

For Maun, the joy is in discovering and connecting with the land you live on. The joy is in the coriander.

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