Early-morning light dapples the Victoria Embankment Gardens off the Strand, the scent of roses perfuming the urban hideaway, which is overlooked by an imposing statue of Robert Burns. Erik Lorincz, head bartender of the American Bar at The Savoy, weaves along a path framed by young saplings until he comes to a circular flowerbed. There, neat rows of thyme, basil, rosemary, chives and sage grow side by side in a plot, where the hotel is permitted to grow its own herbs. Lorincz picks some basil leaves and rubs them between his fingers, the sweet aroma filling the air. The herb is the latest addition to his cocktail list.
“Some guests at the bar were saying that they couldn’t get to Green Park during their trip, as it had been raining,” he says. “So I thought I would bring Green Park to The Savoy.” He went to gather some basil and used it, along with celery bitters, egg white and Jensen’s Bermondsey gin, to concoct a drink. The resulting cocktail, aptly named the Green Park (£16), sang of its surroundings.
Lorincz is one of the many bartenders rustling up “locavore” cocktails, employing ingredients that are grown or foraged locally, and often using spirits made locally, too. Although you are not normally allowed to forage for commercial purposes, you can do so if it’s on private land and you have permission, or you employ a registered forager. The Savoy created its small herb garden in partnership with the management team of Westminster’s Victoria Embankment Gardens, and Lorincz’s creations include vodka infused with parsley and a Bloody Mary (£15) made with bay leaves. “I love the fact that the herbs are not growing under a lamp,” he says. “They are very natural. I also go to the garden when I need to switch off and meditate.”
His colleague Chris Moore, head bartender at the Beaufort Bar at The Savoy, also enjoys the garden’s bounties. One day, he was walking through it when he noticed some fig trees, so he picked a few leaves. He then created the Embankment Gardens (£15), which combines a syrup made from the leaves with Oxley gin and spiced Martini Bianco.
The locavore-gastronomy and slow-food movements, whereby ingredients are foraged from within a certain radius, have long been popular, and now bartenders are becoming increasingly interested in provenance, too.
Lottie Muir, a botanical mixologist, also known as the Cocktail Gardener, presides over the garden at the Brunel Thames Tunnel in Rotherhithe, where she holds her Midnight Apothecary foraged-cocktail evenings at the weekend. She also runs pop-ups, including one currently at the Rib Room at the Jumeirah Carlton Tower in Knightsbridge. Here, drinks include One (£7, pictured on previous page), which is made with gin, vermouth, wild-radish leaves, ginger and beetroot juice, and a Raspberry and Geranium Sour (£7), consisting of vodka, rum, homemade raspberry and lemon-verbena syrup, Angostura bitters and egg white, all garnished with geranium leaves and rosemary flowers.
“There’s a simple primitive pleasure in knowing you can find, identify, gather and eat your own food in the middle of the city,” explains Muir. “It also keeps you alive to the joys and drama of nature on your doorstep. You get to know an area’s plant life intimately over a few seasons and pay closer attention to its rhythms and life cycle. Foraging is the ultimate in going local and seasonal.
“In addition, your carbon footprint is negligible – there are no air miles and the food has not had to be stored, so its nutrients and taste are firing on all cylinders. Also, the delayed gratification of waiting for certain leaves, flowers or seeds leads to a greater pleasure on their arrival than if you were able to have them all year round. Our palate is used to quite a narrow range of well-known flavours. But if you taste gorse flowers, meadowsweet syrup or beech-leaf noyau, you’ll be enjoying new and exciting ones.”
Paul Graham is the bar manager at London House in Battersea; his Hundred Year Fizz (£9) combines a juice made with sea-buckthorn berries – picked with a licensed forager – with Ketel One vodka, honey, and English sparkling wine. For him, it’s not only about making the most of nature’s bounties – it’s about being aware of their origins. “Knowing where your ingredients come from is important. When they are foraged, you know their journey from being picked to being served, and you have access to produce you might not ordinarily be able to source.”
Some prefer to literally do it on their own doorstep. Alessandro Palazzi, head barman at Dukes in Mayfair, uses lemon verbena grown in his father-in-law’s garden in Dulwich in his signature infused cocktail (£18). Others are taking it a step further by only using spirits made locally, too. The Four Seasons group has created its own 100-mile-radius cocktail initiative at a number of its hotels, bringing the farm-to-table concept into the bar. At the Four Seasons Hampshire, Twenty Two (£14) is made from gin perked up with estate-harvested honeycomb and elderflowers. In the summer, the bartenders gather herbs, spices, fruit and vegetables to use in their recipes – for example, blackcurrants in a crème de cassis. Meanwhile, at the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles, the Whiskey Noir ($15) is made from Slow Hand Organic Whiskey, organic orange liqueur, Meliora Pinot Noir, fresh lime and orange juice, and a dash of syrup – all from within the 100-mile locality.
Alongside the yearning for locally sourced ingredients has been the boom in London of new distilleries producing craft spirits, all inside the M25. Sipsmith gin has long been a barman’s favourite and, like Jensen’s, it is made in the capital and is being used in many of the locavore cocktails. The East London Liquor Company, which launched in May, makes gin and vodka (from £14) at its plant in Bow Wharf near Hackney. It also has plans to produce whisky.
The foraging process has an almost romantic element with its use of poetically named ancient flora. Dino Koletsas, group bar manager for the Bourne & Hollingsworth group, which includes the Reverend JW Simpson bar in Goodge Street, has been working with a forager in Chatham in Kent, whose hoard has included Douglas fir, yarrow and hogweed. Fir Douglas Rathbone Esq (£9) is an aromatic sour consisting of gin shaken with homemade Douglas fir liqueur and lemon juice, balanced with a touch of maple syrup and finished with a spray of bergamot oil, while Rumbullion Bay (£9) is a twist on a classic daiquiri, containing white rum, lime juice, bay-laurel syrup and bitters.
Locavore cocktails also connect us to the land of our childhood. While rooting around one day, Koletsas and his fellow barmen came across something whose scent reminded them of Hendrick’s gin. They searched around until they spotted a patch of delicate little meadowsweet blossoms – which, it turns out, are used as a botanical in the gin. “They had a very strong aroma of rural Britain,” says Koletsas. “It reminded me of springtime trips to the country, the sort of thing that doesn’t necessarily crop up in everyday drinking culture.” And so meadowsweet became the basis of a gin martini (£12).
The barmen also stumbled on some yellow tansy flowers and, in another nod to history, they discovered that Jack Daniels used to mix a tansy cordial into his whiskey for breakfast because of its revitalising properties. This inspired a Tansy Collins (£9) with tansy tincture, American whiskey, citrus, pineapple and soda.
The freestyle nature of locavore cocktails means you never know what you are going to find and where. And so inevitably, discovering these long-lost and little‑known plants involves a certain amount of trial and error. Koletsas and his team were foraging with permission not far from Faversham one day when they came across some black nightshade at the edge of a field. The tiny little berries, which have a strong flavour of tomato and liquorice, turned out to be extremely hard to mix, and the juice was an unappealing shade of green. So instead, they focused on the berries’ aromatic nature, adding them to absinthe, water and sugar.
Perhaps more than anything, the idea behind locavore cocktails is about connecting back to our roots while enjoying a tasty tipple.
“You can get oranges from the other side of the world in the blink of an eye,” says Koletsas, “but we can overlook what’s under our noses. Also, these interesting flavours have a really long history. Making cocktails with them gives people an opportunity to get to know them either again or for the first time.”