Over 37 percent of Americans will buy flowers for Valentine’s Day this year, according to the National Retail Federation. That’s mums for Mom, roses for the sweetie or perhaps (taking a page from much-mourned Walter White) a pot of delicate, deadly lily of the valley for a colleague they’re hoping to see no more of.
Just ask the Victorians, if you can stop them tittering into their lacy handkerchiefs: If there’s a sentiment lurking in the human heart, there’s a flower that can convey it.
For those looking to up their seduction game or simply wanting to avoid the crowded restaurant-and-bar scene on one of its busiest evenings of the year, it might be a perfect night to head home and bring the glories of the garden with you — not just in that bouquet from the florist, but also in an equally lovely arrangement in the glass.
Flowers flavor a great variety of bar ingredients: delicate liqueurs, complex botanical gins, bitters and tinctures, a whole hothouse of garnishes. Set a pink blossom afloat on a drink tinted with crème de violette, and you can offer your beloved what looks like a drinkable Monet.
Just recall the wisdom of the Bard: “To paint the lily, To throw a perfume on the violet . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess.”
In other words, don’t overdo it. An excess of flowers makes for a lousy drink.
A while back, I was in a middling restaurant (an awful lot of flavored vodkas lurked on the back bar) where I should have known better than to order a drink called the Briar Rose. The pink cocktail that emerged had a petal drifting on its surface. It was a pretty little thing, something Barbie might suck down after an angry blowup with Ken. Sipping it was like being sprayed in the mouth by one of those perfume snipers who lurk in the cosmetics section at Macy’s.
I thought of that drink when I recently asked Owen Thomson — bartender at Cafe St. Ex, Bar Pilar and Rose’s Luxury — about floral cocktails, and he told me about a time when he was working as a brand rep for St-Germain — the golden elderflower liqueur that’s so popular in cocktails, it’s referred to as “bartender’s ketchup” — when a newbie bartender proudly presented him with a cocktail that was equal parts St-Germain and Grand Marnier. (I like to imagine it was called the Dentist’s Little Friend.)
Floral liqueurs and ingredients tend to skew sweet, Thomson points out, and “I’m always a bit wary of straight floral ingredients, as you run the risk of your drink tasting like a Yankee Candle store.” He steers away from things like rose water for exactly that reason but had recently used a rose hip-infused rye and litchi juice steeped with rose petals in a drink competition that required the use of roses.
It’s not just the sweetness that’s a danger; it’s the fragrance. “When you get too perfumey, too floral in a drink, the memory that it triggers for me is my grandmother,” says Charlotte, N.C., bartender Bob Peters. “It’s very vivid in my head — that moment as a small child when you haven’t seen your grandmother in a while and you hug her? Your drink suddenly goes from a pleasant cocktail experience to somewhere you did not expect to be.” Solid advice; no one wants to start on a bar stool and end up on Freud’s couch.
I’ve been following Peters on Instagram the way I follow artists and photographers. He decks his concoctions with pops of color — a floating orange nasturtium, a cluster of wasabi arugula flowers — that make them a pleasure to ogle. On Valentine’s Day, Peters will start as head bartender at the new Punch Room at the Ritz-Carlton in Charlotte, a gig for which the chain sought him out.
With flowers, “it’s about editing: Less is more,” says Peters. “It should remind you of something pleasant, sweet and romantic. Sweet the emotion, not necessarily the flavor.”
When you’re infusing or garnishing with fresh flowers, sourcing is critical. “There’s a difference between edible flowers and commercial flowers,” Peters says. “You can eat roses, but the roses you buy at the flower shop probably aren’t grown organically. So you have to be careful you’re not giving people a flower that was sprayed a few hours before with something to keep pests off or keep it fresher.” Peters has worked with a local farmer, Jamie Swofford, who gives him a heads-up about what’s coming soon, be it organic violets or honeysuckle.
“Just like with food, you drink with your eyes first,” he says.
With that in mind, I saw red, and followed the baa-ing herd toward that Valentine’s staple, red roses. I wanted to tempt fate and use rose water, risking perfumed ruination. Many cocktails call for “dashes” of bitters and tinctures, but bottles can dispense their “dashes” at slightly different volumes, and a “dash” of rose water can result in a drink of Chanel. If you’re working with the stuff, I strongly advise using an eyedropper. That’s what I did with the Amarose; I took Thomson’s idea to use rose hip tea, adding gin and Aperol to complement those few drops of rose water. If you make this rosy highball, you should smell the flowers without feeling as if you’re choking on them.
But if you’re one of those last-minute types who forgets about Valentine’s Day till you’re rushing home? Do what I’ll probably do for my husband, and seek the help of Humulus lupulus, one of the most treasured flowers of all time: the hop. Just pour your beloved a good IPA.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.