The word "perfumey" doesn't conjure up thoughts of a pleasant drinking experience—as much as it does flashbacks of Mom washing your mouth out with soap—but the elderflower cocktail breaks the mold. Its aroma and flavor are equally intoxicating, and when you take a sip, its sweet, nectary notes sing and tickle your nose like a bouquet of flowers.
Varieties of elderflower grow all over the world, but the most commonly used liqueur, St. Germain, is distilled in France, where the delicate flowers bloom for four to six weeks in the Alps and are handpicked before making their way into cocktails. Lychee fruit, grapefruit zest, pears, passion fruit, and honey are some of the references people use to describe its taste, but elderflower really is in a flavor league of its own.
When St. Germain debuted its artisanal liqueur in 2007, bartenders in the craft era of drink slingin' bought in. It's become so popular and so widely used that the stuff's practically synonymous with elderflower. Previous syrups are often looked down upon, because the flowers are freeze-dried in batches, versus individually picked and pressed shortly after, as St. Germain boasts. Some argue that St. Germain's quirky marketing—which involves a charming tale of old men on spring bike-rides in the French Alps, stopping only to pick the coveted flowers one by one before they're processed and beautifully packaged—is to thank for its popularity. Judge for yourself by reading the company's website in your most regal British accent.
The best way to enjoy elderflower for the first time is in a classic champagne cocktail. White sparkling wine, including Cava, is also used, along with bitters in some cases, a sugar cube in others. It's also used in more complex cocktails, because it pairs well with just about any spirit, from gin to tequila. Lucky for us, these cocktails aren't hard to find, especially as summer approaches. Take Harbor Town Pub bartender Darlene's word for it: "Once someone tastes it, they're hooked. I never hear anyone say they dislike it."
Here are four places for a good elderflower cocktail:
Harbor Town Pub (1125 Rosecrans St., Point Loma): The Point Loma craft-beer and burger bar uses St. Germain, sparkling wine and soda water for one of its most popular drinks, The Train. Bonus: It comes in three sizes. There's a pint glass for $7, a mid-size carafe with roughly one-and-a-half servings for $10, and a four- to five-drink fishbowl version for $30 that's ideal for sharing—or enjoying by your lonesome on an extended-day drinking session.
Currant American Brasserie (140 W. Broadway, Downtown): Don't shy away from hotel bars if you're looking for a good drink; the Sofia Hotel's bar and lounge pours many examples. The Hibiscus Hendrix ($12) combines Hendrick's Gin, hibiscus, St. Germain, bitters and prosecco for a bubbly, extra-floral drink made with the French spirit. Side note: Currant is best known for its Absinthe drinks.
Cowboy Star (640 10th Ave., East Village): This sexy steakhouse and meat market pours some seriously eye-catching drinks, and the Painted Lady ($11), served straight up in a martini glass and sprinkled with a mix of colorful, edible flowers tastes as good as it looks. Tea-infused vodka, muddled cucumber, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, plus simple and Elderflower syrups make for a not-too-sweet, bright and smooth cocktail.
Alchemy (1503 30th St., South Park): Give Alchemy's craft cocktails a go the next time you're in South Park. The Bone Shaker Sour ($8) starts off with Bison Vodka—which tastes as earthy and green as it sounds—and is followed by St. Germain, lemon and simple syrups, plus an egg white for foam and froth that comes with vigorous shaking. The fluffy, floral cloud is poured over crushed ice and served in a pint glass.