Foraged Cocktails: Sumac Berry Lemonade
August is here, and in southern New Hampshire, the ripe, crimson cones of sumac trees are dotting the edges of roadways and fields everywhere you look. The Staghorn sumac, or Rhus typhina, is very easy to identify thanks to those spiky red cones coated in fuzzy fibers, reminiscent of velvety deer antlers. Sometimes confused with Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix), the staghorn, smooth, and winged sumacs that grow throughout the US are actually all edible - and quite delicious! Fortunately, there is no confusing the edible from the non-edible sumacs, as Poison sumac produces white berries, and edible varieties produce red ones.
Sumac berries have been dried, ground, and used as a spice and tea for thousands of years, most notably in Middle Eastern cuisine, and the spice blend za’atar. Their flavor is tart and lemony, making it a great seasoning, and also a pretty fun cocktail ingredient! While I would typically turn something like this into a cocktail syrup straight away, today I want to share the simplest, easiest, unsweetened option for enjoying freshly foraged sumac. The best part of this recipe is that you can adjust it to suit your own preferences. Add some simple syrup and an ounce of two of gin or vodka if you like, or just enjoy it as is for a wonderfully refreshing summer beverage.
Colloquially known as “Indian Lemonade”, this recipe for sumac lemonade, or sumac-ade, is as easy as plucking some fuzzy berries and pouring a bit of hot water over them. Let this brew sit for a couple of hours (or overnight for maximum flavor infusion), and add some fruit if you want extra flavor and color. I chose to add some freshly frozen blueberries from last week’s blueberry picking because they add a hint of berry flavor and boost the red color of the tea. As always, when foraging for wild food, be sure you know what you’re consuming, and be sure you’re harvesting from a safe, chemical-free location. It’s never advisable to forage along roadways, as the plants growing there are exposed to car exhaust and other toxins such as pesticides. If you’re not up to foraging, you can always head down to your local grocery store and purchase some powdered sumac instead! Simple scale the recipe back to about 2 tbsp dried sumac per 2 cups of water, or to your own taste.
Sumac Berry Lemonade
¼ cup fresh staghorn sumac berries
2 tbsp freshly frozen blueberries
2 cups hot water
Optional: 1/2 oz simple syrup per serving, or to taste
Optional: 1 1/2 oz gin, vodka, whiskey, or other spirit of choice per serving
To collect the sumac cones, look for those with bright red berries and taste test one drupe from each cone to make sure they’re flavorful and tart. Clip the cones from the tree and shake gently to remove any insects or debris. Pluck the fuzzy berries from the cones until you have about ¼ cup, or 4 tbsp. This was about two medium sized cones for me, which I picked over to select only the reddest berries.
Boil two cups of water. Add sumac berries to a heat-proof pitcher or jar and pour hot water over just until the berries are covered. Use a muddler or spoon to gently mash the berries. Top with the remaining hot water and stir well. Add berries or other fruit, if desired. Let steep for a couple of hours, or overnight in the fridge.
Strain using a fine mesh strainer and serve over ice. Garnish with blueberries or other fruit and enjoy!
Want a sweetened sumac-ade? Add sugar or simple syrup, to taste, or muddle fresh fruit in your glass before adding ice. A good place to start is 1/2 oz of simple syrup per glass, add more if you like it sweeter.
Want a boozy sumac-ade? Add 1 1/2oz of your spirit of choice to a glass filled with ice, add 1/2 oz simple syrup, and top with sumac berry lemonade.