Every spring morning I walk into my backyard, take a deep inhale, and wish I could bottle that smell.
This year, I did it.
The artichokes put an herby bitterness into the air, the verbena adds citrus, the bay notes of grass and menthol. It is a delicious, fleeting smell, so present in the air it feels like something I could eat or drink.
I am certain the ancients understood the power of scent. In the Bible, the holy is bound up in aroma, like breath is bound to life. How many passages are devoted to incense, how many to fragrance. In Leviticus, the Bible speaks of a scent that is “soothing to the Lord.” Think about that: not much else in the entire book seems to calm Her. I’d like to believe my backyard on a spring morning would.
Thanks to some intensive Googling and trial and error, I figured out how turn what I smell into a bittersweet aperitif, like Aperol, Campari or Cynar, but wholly natural and as local as my garden.
The Italians, it turns out, have been making a liqueur from bay leaves for centuries, Liquore Alloro. Think limoncello but green, bright green because they use the first flush of almost lime-colored leaves.
And making bitters to balance out the sweetness is as easy as making tea: just replace hot water with cold grain alcohol and steep away.
After making my sweet liquor and the bitters, I blended the two to taste, poured it over ice, added some seltzer, and took a long deep swallow of spring.
Bittersweet Backyard Aperitif
Artichoke bitters (recipe below)
Bay leaf liqueur (recipe below)
Ice and blood orange wedge
To make a bittersweet aperitif, combine 2/3 bitters with 1/3 sweet liqueur. Taste and add more of either as desired. Serve over ice with a wedge of Meyer lemon or blood orange, and a splash of soda.
5 older artichoke leaves
5 Meyer lemons
1 gallon high-proof vodka or Everclear grain alcohol
Rinse the artichoke leaves and peel the lemons. Place the leaves and peel in a gallon jar, add vodka or Everclear. Make sure the ingredients are submerged, screw on the lid, and let steep for three weeks or more. Strain into smaller bottles, squeezing liquid out of the leaves.
Bay leaf and verbena liqueur
40 fresh bay leaves
1 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves
2 cups vodka or high proof grain alcohol
3 cups water
3 cups sugar
Wash bay and verbena. Add to one gallon jar, pour in vodka. Shake and close lid. Let sit one-two months. Strain. Boil sugar and water to dissolve the sugar. Let cool. Add to vodka mix.
You can serve this as a sweet after dinner liqueur very well chilled in shot glasses, or use to make a bittersweet Backyard Aperitif.
This article was originally published on the Forward.