See how fresh-picked flowers from a nearby grower are used to infuse gin in this brilliant purple cocktail.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Eamon Queeney
Off Athens Drive in Raleigh, rows of dainty, vibrantly colored local Sorbet variety violets—not to be confused with their cousins, pansies—contrast with rows of more typical leafy greens. Starting in November and through early summer (heat permitting), these violets, hundreds of them, are harvested by Tami Purdue of Sweet Peas Urban Gardens in collaboration with The Well Fed Community Garden and delivered to downtown Raleigh bar and dessert stop Bittersweet.
There, the flowers are delicately placed into a vessel in the middle of a three tiered glass-and-steel infusion tower that looks like something out of a chemistry lab. For five hours, these local blooms are steeped in Botanist Gin, a Scottish-made liquor known for its use of botanicals (the brand also designed the infusion tower). The gin slowly trickles through the velvet-soft petals until it lands in a glass beaker below, transformed into a brilliant purple, aromatic gin.
The process is both a drink and a show—and the secret to one of Bittersweet’s most popular craft cocktails, The Bittersweet Aviation. Enjoy a slow, mindful sip; this drink worked hard to get to you, and that’s part of its appeal.
A classic Aviation contains lemon juice, maraschino cherry, gin and crème de violette. Its name comes from the effect when the acid of the lemon meets the lavender-hued liqueur: It produces a sky-blue color.
But the Bittersweet Aviation is brought down to earth, literally. Bar manager Lewis Norton skips the crème de violette and uses the infused gin to create a bright-purple drink that looks and tastes like the row of flowers where it all started: crisp, floral and fresh. “It’s a seasonal bouquet at your nose and this total olfactory sensation,” says Norton. “The Aviation is a good cocktail to begin with, but there’s a huge difference between something that sits on a shelf and something that’s legitimately fresh. Once we made our version and people saw the color, everyone wanted one.”
The infusion tower was a gift from the folks at Botanist Gin, who challenged Bittersweet to conjure up a unique cocktail with it. “Botanist is a botanical gin already, so I thought, why not infuse it with a local flower?” says Norton. Bittersweet patrons are often enthralled by the sight of the entire process, asking questions as they watch the gin drip through the flowers to produce the vibrant liquor. “The point of the machine is to take the infusion process and do it in a way that’s beautiful,” says Norton.
This patch-to-pour mindset is second nature for Bittersweet. Bar owner Kim Hammer got her start in the food and beverage industry as a pastry chef, selling items at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. During that time, she formed relationships with local growers and food purveyors and became committed to supporting area agriculture (Hammer also owns North Carolina food purveyor Raleigh Provisions). Now, at every opportunity, Bittersweet sources local vegetation and food products for their craft cocktails, like fresh rosemary from the North Carolina State Farmers Market for the bar’s Rosemary Gimlet or Two Chicks Farm pepper jelly for the Gin & Jam.
At home, take Norton’s lead to infuse your own drinks with local flavor, whether that means plucking a mint garnish from the garden to complete a julep or tossing berries from the market into a glass of prosecco. You can even make your own infusions, says Norton. The basic premise is to start with an alcohol (usually vodka or gin), add fruits, vegetables or herbs, then wait until you get a flavor you like. “Fresh flowers and herbs from the Farmers Market are a great starting point and have a pretty short infusion time, versus fruits and barks which can take weeks or months,” says Norton. “It’s fairly easy—you just need a lot of patience and regular testing.”
HOW TO MAKE A CLASSIC AVIATION
2 ounces Botanist Gin
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce Luxardo or other maraschino cherry liqueur
2 bar spoonfuls of crème de violette
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake, then strain into a chilled martini glass. Optional: garnish with fresh edible violets.