It’s a sunny morning along the Mendocino coast, and the forager for Oakland Spirits Company, based in Oakland, California, is ankle deep in seaweed—all for the sake of gin. Matt Sully, a professional forager, is responsible for collecting all the nori used in the distillery’s coastal-inspired Sea Gin. Oakland Spirits is just one of a batch of producers using wild plants in its spirits production.
“We wanted to make a gin that tasted like a place, and we chose the Mendocino coast as that place,” says Mike Pierce, the cofounder of Oakland Spirits. “We were inspired by St. George’s Terroir Gin.” The decision followed a hike that cofounder Adam Nelson took near the coast, when he breathed in the briny air and thought, “I want to make a gin that smells and tastes like this.”
Nelson had already been contemplating the move toward salinity in spirits and wondering how the distillers at Oakland Spirits might use botanicals to achieve some of that characteristic. Then the thought of combing the wild for ingredients and combining the sense of place they would contribute with the intrigue he was feeling about the notion of salinity gelled, and Nelson came up with the idea of using seaweed. Nori, he imagined, could deliver both the sense of place and the saline flavor note if it was infused into gin. While he didn’t have a chemistry background, he knew enough to understand that the glutamates, iodine, and oil present in nori would come through in the distillation of the gin.
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Working with a Professional Forager
Like many producers who use foraged ingredients, Oakland Spirits relies on a professional forager to source all its nori. Sully, who supplies local restaurants and farmers’ markets as well, harvests the nori, cleans it, then air-dries it on the beach before sending it to Oakland. Because the nori arrives mostly dry, it retains much of its natural oil. Even so, to infuse the spirit in the distillery’s 622-liter still takes about a “Hefty-size garbage bag full” of nori, says Pierce. Oakland Spirits produces a little more than 9,000 750-milliliter bottles of Sea Gin annually, and seasonality matters. In summer the nori tends to be headier, more stinky, with more sea funk than in winter, so the distillers have to make adjustments to the recipe. Sometimes the nori is put in a brewers bag and placed in the bain-marie right above the heated spirit; at other times it’s broken up and thrown right into the base.
High Wire Distilling in Charleston, South Carolina, also relies on outside foragers to do the gathering, although not at the beginning. The company makes an amaro with yaupon holly, an evergreen shrub native to the southeastern U.S. from Virginia to Texas, and commonly found along the coastal plains. Originally, High Wire founders Scott Blackwell and Ann Marshall harvested the plant leaves themselves, including from a bush in their front yard. But as their production scaled up, they realized they’d need 20 pounds of fresh leaves—which dries down to only five to six pounds—just to make a batch of 600 to 700 bottles of amaro, so they began outsourcing the foraging.
Producers Doing Their Own Foraging
Other spirits producers keep their foraging in-house. Uncouth Vermouth founder Bianca Miraglia forages all the botanicals for her vermouths from near her farm in Saugerties, New York. Miraglia has been foraging her whole life, so when she began making vermouth several years ago, she realized that harvesting her own ingredients would provide her the chance to give her vermouth her own expression. Today she harvests year-round. In the early morning, before the heat comes on, she’s able to get work done on the farm. Then, after about 9, she goes into the surrounding forest and forages for wild botanicals. In total, she’s making about 600 cases of vermouth every year. As to exactly which botanicals make it into that vermouth, she’s not willing to disclose. “Vermouth,” says Miraglia, “respectfully, is built around the technique of keeping secrets.”
Like Miraglia—but on a larger scale—Crater Lake Spirits in Bend, Oregon, forages all the juniper that goes into its single-botanical Crater Lake Gin. It’s fairly easy, however, given that Bend sits within the largest Western juniper woodland in the United States. Juniper grows so prolifically in the area that most of the time the company’s employees don’t need to leave the city limits to harvest its supply. The distillery pays employees for whatever juniper they pick by the gallon. Once harvested, the berries are placed in Ziploc bags and frozen until needed. This means Crater Lake is able to produce the gin year-round, without concerns about supply or consistency. Still, every batch is tasted and adjusted as needed. Also—a little juniper goes a long way.
“It’s a palate wrecker—it’s very potent,” says James Padilla, Crater Lake’s national sales manager. A few gallons of juniper berries make a few thousand gallons of gin, he says, and the company produced roughly 10,000 cases in 2017.
Crater Lake’s very existence is based on foraging juniper berries. Watching the craft beer movement take off in the Pacific Northwest, and realizing the vast supply of juniper in the region, the distillery’s founder, Jim Bendis, wondered why no one was making gin. He started playing around with the spirit and launched Crater Lake in 1996. At the time of its founding, it was the state’s third microdistillery.
Crater Lake is among a handful of U.S. gin producers that harvest their own botanicals. In Duluth, on the northeast edge of Minnesota, Vikre Distillery produces three distinctive gins with foraged products. One is based on spruce tips, which are wild-harvested, one on wild black currants and staghorn sumac, and one on the rhubarb that grows in the distillery’s backyard. Vikre also harvests some wild juniper, but not enough is available to satisfy all of Vikre’s needs.
The distillery’s cofounder, Emily Vikre, says that the choice to harvest many of their own ingredients is a nod to heritage—to the history of foraging as a means of food acquisition—and to place. “I was raised picking wild berries, herbs, and things,” she says. “So when we were coming up with our gin profiles, I was interested in the idea of terroir and using some of the ingredients that really feel like flavors of this area. One of the ways of doing that was to choose some of the ingredients that grow wild or in our backyard and then use them to complement the more traditional gin botanicals.”
Today the company makes a batch or two of its gin every week and uses several pounds of wild ingredients for each batch. Roughly 50 to 70 pounds of any given ingredient are harvested annually. Seasonality demands extra planning for a distillery that does everything by weight and relies on very precise measurements.
“The ingredients we pick all pretty much have a season,” says Vikre, “so we have to calculate how much we’ll use and pick all of that—everything we’ll need for the year—then mix it together and batch it out.”
Where to Forage Wild Botanicals
While the Crater Lake folks have practically an endless supply of juniper—some ranchers in the area are even being paid by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service to tear it out, and the Oregon Legislature’s 2015 Western Juniper Industry Fund offers loans to businesses harvesting juniper—not all spirits foragers are so lucky. Practicing ethical foraging is critical, says Miraglia. Take only what you need—or a third of what’s there, she recommends—and leave the rest. She also stays away from public lands and seeks permission to forage private property not her own. “Foragers have a code,” she says. “We’re thieves, but we’re ethical thieves. If there’s a door to knock on, you knock. You don’t just harvest someone else’s property.”
While not all foragers have the good fortune of access to private lands, many public lands allow foraging for private and commercial use. For the most part, foraging is allowed in national forests, although some plant species may be off-limits or restricted during certain seasons. A permit—typically $20—may also be required.
Foraging is also allowed in many—but not all—national parks, although it’s often restricted to personal use, not commercial. Permits may be required in some. This is also true for state parks and forests.
Harvesting enough fruits, botanicals, or even seaweed to make the spirit without wiping out the source is also critical. If Sully, for example, finds a patch of nori that’s not fully developed, “he’ll literally pick it up and shake it out to spread the spores,” says Pierce, “then come back a couple of weeks later and harvest it.” It’s important to be a good steward of the land—and to protect that botanical source for gallons and gallons of future spirits.
When she’s not writing about beverage, travel, or weird science, Julie H. Case can be found deep in America’s forests, foraging for mushrooms.