There are dozens of flavors for vodkas on the liquor shelves, some fruity, some floral. As delightful as a toasted marshmallow vodka can make your cocktail, I have found a new favorite. And it's one you WON'T find on any store shelf (unless you have a special boutique and botanical liquor store, lucky you!).
I was admiring the red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) in my yard, the very rich fuchsia flowers in a grape-like cluster of small stars are just gorgeous in our PNW springs. They are an early flower and make small round currants fruits later but these are more popular with wildlife. I have never noticed them in my large shrub and I walk right past it every time I come to or from my parked car in the drive way. And you KNOW I'm the kind of person to notice plants. I suspect they are eaten quickly. The fruits are in a loose cluster of grape-sized dark purplish-blue fruits with sticky short hairs and several seeds making them a true berry. Unlike commonly known currants (those you'd see in jams), these are fairly flavorless and not usually sought by people to eat but have been a food source for local indigenous tribes.
But guess what I'm hot after on these plants since my first experimental infusion???
Those bright red flowers!
The Latin species name of sanguineum comes from the word for blood in fact- "sanguis". Heard of 'exsanguination' or being 'sanguine'? Actual blood is much darker red, but maybe the Romans had prettier blood? Bet they thought so. Some R. sanguineum can be very dark vibrant red but it's not as common at least around the PNW that I've seen. Anywho... those richly red flowers are edible and infuse a very interesting fruity and sweetly floral flavor to foods. And I am hooked. Outright sanguine about these shrubs now! I'm on my second larger batch of infused vodka and resisted the urge to strip too many flowers from my own shrub. Those should be for the pollinators which are more in need than my occasional cocktails. So of course, I went forth and found more shrubs. Luckily the state folks plants them often in accessible natural areas and they are also a popular landscape shrub. You find them a bit less often in the wild it seems though. I can't think of any noticeable discoveries of them on any of my hikes or in work sites (mostly in the lowlands), and that's been mirrored by friends in the ecological restoration field around here too. Which makes me wonder why they aren't more common in the woods or meadows or perhaps where are they hiding??
With some digging, I found that there was a program in the 1903's to eradicate wild Ribes shrubs all over the US because they can be a host for fungus white pine blister rust which was starting to decimate pines, to the dismay of lumber companies who started a war against the rust. With little regard for what their mass removal from ecosystems would do, thousands of crewmen went into the woods to spray, dig-up, and basically massacre currants and gooseberries from the landscapes. They are still fairly rare in some areas, so maybe that's the reason around here. Despite six years of this harsh control effort, the rust remained a sever threat to all 5-leaf pines coast to coast. Perhaps it wasn't the Ribes' fault. In fact, it was later found that a few other perennial plants can also host the white pine blister rust. Let's plant more Ribes and the rust-resistant pines that we're finding!
See "Maligned Fruit"
Back to booze- The hardest part of infusing some vodka with these flowers is the wait. You really should wait three weeks or so for max extraction of flavor. The leaves also have a tasty flavor and can be used the same way or for teas yet they smell very different, go figure. They hold up better physically as well for heated infusions like making flavored syrups, which are great for the mocktails. I have no problem drinking a tasty non-alcoholic drink and encourage any fun food exploration. I bet these would make cool ice cubes you could use for fancy garden parties and they would probably give a little flavor to the water as it freezes and then add to the drink as it thaws. The vodka I've made is so tasty in fact, I wish I had thought of infusing honey or flour, or something else long-lasting (syrups will mold after a few weeks). I keep feeling tempted to make a cocktail just do drink this vodka, which is not a good step. I'm a light-weight anyway.
Progress over first few days and then finally after 3 weeks of infusion
A Little About Ribes Biology:
Red currant flowers are like so many of the purdy ones- misleading. The vibrant red petal-looking-things are showy sepals (like the tepals of many lilies) and the small pale pink or white cup in the center is where the true petals have fused into a corolla. Side note- that was my favorite car too. There's a "what's a botanist drive" joke there, I know. Of course tucked into that cup-petal corolla are the multiple stamen "boys" surrounding the fused-fem pistil like pollen-laden sentinels around their taller queen. They form pretty little soft-stars at both levels- 5 sepals & 5 stamen.
Ribes genus plants can and are divided into either currants or gooseberries, all forming juicy berries but some better than others. The main difference is the gooses will poke ya. Easy to remember- goosies are spiny, like how geese WILL peck at you. Handle with care, but not as bad as roses or blackberries. They all fall under the Grossulariaceae family (the family's only genus actually) with about 70 species of Ribes in the US, deciduous shrubs around 5-10' tall, and most Ribes species inhabit temperate forests of the northern hemisphere. We are probably most familiar with European species in foods or jars of preserves. Our Ribes sanguineum ranges from British Columbia down to California, sticking to the west coast except a strip within the western edge of Idaho. They are very valuable to wildlife both as flowers for pollinators (especially hummingbirds which will follow the range of the currants north as they migrate which is well timed with the flowers blooming) and for fruit eaten by various animals who find the red flowering currants more palatable than people do. Of course other currants and gooseberries are very tasty and I hear some species are down right gross. Taste testing across the genus would be fun.
Red flowering currant berries (aka- blood currants, mwahahaha??) are speckled with projecting sticky glands like soft spines that may help keep them safe from predation by insects, which would not help spread their seeds. Some Ribes fruits are quite spiky and look very inedible, especially when not fully ripe (lookin' at you "prickly gooseberry"). You can even see the glandular hairs on the flowers. Sticky genus apparently.
The flowers, leaves and fruit can all be used in a variety of ways even if the fruits aren't all that tasty. You can see them starting to form already in mid May even with flowers still open for pollination at the ends of the racemes (aka loose clusters). Leaves have a very different aroma to the flowers, with a slightly musky sharpness like harsh grass clippings to my nose, but I tried them in a tea anyway. Nibbling on a fresh and furry leaf (yum??) lent a whole lot of 0 flavor which was a surprise with the scent they have. All smell, no bite? The tea is slightly flavored with using only 4 small/medium fresh leaves and I am finding it oddly satisfying despite only a little taste, which I can only describe as fresh, green, tiny-bit-earthy and almost sweet with aftertaste of astringent.
What's the vodka taste like?
Not what the flowers smell like and not what I would expect. It's a bit floral (expected) but also very sweet with candy-like fruity flavor and reminds me of grape-candy flavors. You know, like a grape Skittle? So odd and very tasty for a super easy spring cocktail.
Flavoring vinegars, making mead, brightening up salads or as a floral garnish (cake, pie, cookies, oatmeal, waffles, smoothie, icecream, pancakes, French toast, pudding, iced tea, lemonade, soda, sangria, pot roast, baked fish, Alfredo pasta, mashed potatoes, hamburgers, nachos, pasta salad, anyone still reading?, this is getting silly.
Try out some Ribes in your area or just enjoy their beauty and value to wildlife after a moment of tragic history due to their interesting physiology.
Happy foraging and hummingbird migrating!!