As part of our Cocktails and Mayonnaise series, we decided to explore what a locally-foraged sweet tea could be using an herb called Bee Balm, otherwise known as Wild Bergamot. Although you can technically grow a tea plant (Camellia sinensis) in North Carolina, they are not exactly widespread and prefer a slightly warmer climate.
Bee Balm, on the other hand, is native all across the United States and can therefore be foraged in meadows, clearings, and farmland across North Carolina (or if you are me – in your neighbor’s front yard!). If you see it growing in your neighbor’s yard in the next month or so, ask them if they would mind if you gave it a little haircut for them. It’s probably getting a little leggy by now anyway, and it won’t last past the quickly-approaching first frost anyway!
Wild Bergamot has a revolutionary past…
Bee Balm was collected and used by Native Americans as a seasoning and for its medicinal value. It began its subversive hay day during the American Revolution. Due to its common flavor with the ingredient Bergamot found in Earl Grey tea, Wild Bergamot was often used as a tea replacement as colonists began to boycott the tea coming from England.
This fun fact inspired us to see if we could recreate a more modern Southern favorite – sweet tea vodka – using this readily available wild ingredient rather than the imported tea variety.
Making Wild Sweet Tea Vodka
To make Wild Sweet Tea Vodka, you can use either fresh or dried leaves and blossoms from a Bee Balm (Wild Bergamot) plant.
To dry your leaves for later use, a particularly energy-friendly technique during the warmer days of North Carolina summer, is this super simplified “solar dehydrator.” When I say super-simplified, I mean it:
Lay out your leaves on a metal rack on a tray. Cover this with something breathable that doesn’t let in a lot of light (light is the enemy of flavor for your dried herbs). I used a paper bag. Set the tray somewhere hot until the leaves/blossoms are dry and crispy. My front brick walk works wonders!
To infuse the leaves and blossoms in vodka, you can again make use of the sun. Think sun tea, but boozy. Fill a jar with leaves and blossoms (dry or fresh). Cover them with vodka so that all the plant matter is completely submerged under the liquid. Set in the warm sun for 1-3 days. Feel free to taste as you go until you get the desired flavor! You can do the same thing with water if you prefer the non-alcoholic version.
Once the vodka is infused to your liking, drain the leaves and blossoms from the vodka. Add enough simple syrup to make it the desired sweetness for sipping or leave unsweetened if you prefer to sweeten later on a per-cocktail basis. [To make simple syrup, heat equal parts sugar and water until the sugar dissolves. Allow to cool.]
Enjoy mixed with lemonade (perhaps Wood Sorrel Lemonade?) over ice for an easy cocktail or on its own as a digestif chilled ice-cold with a wedge of lemon. After all, bee balm was used by Native Americans to aid digestion…
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