Cooking and Cocktailing with Hydrosol: Rose Geranium Martini, Bay Laurel Marinade, Clary Sage Punch

When we were nineteen, my best friend and I backpacked through Europe from Germany to Greece, ending our epic adventure in Athens. In the final days before returning to the US, we found a bottle of rose–not rosé–wine and took it to the rooftop hostel where we drank with bats swooping over our heads. The dark floral richness, like theatrical curtains opening on my tongue, stuck in my imagination as a pallet-expanding experience that busted through the confinement of the American flavors I’d grown up tasting. Likewise, when I discovered hydrosols and their myriad exotic new flavors from the botanical world, I found I could not get enough. Rose geranium hydrosol, distilled from the leaves and flowers of Pelargonium graveolens, is a perfect example.

With its complex, luscious flavor and aroma that is both green and floral, rose geranium is stunning in desserts and makes a super martini! The following delightful feast for the senses, which comes from Suzanne Catty’s Book “Hydrosols,” nestles the essences of approximately two dozen botanicals, from the rose geranium of the hydrosol to the many barks, berries, roots, citrus, flowers and more infused into the vermouth and gin, to the lemon peel twisted to release   its essential oils.

*Miriam’s Martini*

2 ounces Bombay gin per martini

1 teaspoon rose geranium hydrosol per martini

1 ounce dry vermouth per martini

Chill all ingredients, shake with crushed ice and strain into chilled martini glasses. Garnish with a lemon twist.

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A martini made with rose geranium hydrosol packs not only a kaleidoscope of flavors and aromas, but also the history of distillation itself. Although many of us our most familiar with the idea of distillation for the purpose of obtaining alcoholic spirits, the process of distilling likely started as a non-alcoholic endeavor.

There is some archaeological evidence that primitive stills existed in very ancient times. In “Harvest to Hydrosol” Ann Harman writes:

The oldest alembic still that has been discovered, to date, is almost 4000 years old. It was discovered by Dr. Maria Rosaria Belgiorno on the island of Cyprus in 2005 and was found during the excavation of ‘The World’s Oldest Perfume Factory.’

Ancient sailors used a primitive method of distilling salt water into drinking water, as mentioned by Aristotle in his “Meteorologica,” but it was the alchemists of the late classical and medieval periods who perfected the art of distillation.

By the 11th century, wine and other fermented liquids were thrown into the still and spirits were born. These spirits were called aqua vitae or waters of life and were often used as medicines, because they were invulnerable to putrefaction and capable of preserving the healing power of herbs. The gin and vermouth of the martini are both holdovers from the use of medicinal herb macerations. Gin is named for the Dutch word for juniper and vermouth for the German word for wormwood. Tinctures and bitters also come from this tradition of preserving the healing powers of herbs in alcohol. But what, you may ask, is a hydrosol?

The word hydrosol simply smashes together hydro, as in water, and sol, as in solution. In other words, hydrosol is not a very precise term. For our purposes, it refers to the aromatic waters produced when botanicals are distilled.

The distillation of botanicals produces both hydrosols and essential oils. Plant material may be placed in the water or above it and the water gently heated to create steam. The heat burst the cells asunder and the steam carries with it the aromatic molecules, which rise with the steam. The steam is then cooled by means of a condenser, and the majority of the resulting liquid holds the water-soluble molecules, while the essential oils float on the top and contain the lipophilic (oil-loving) portions of the aromatic chemical constituents. For much of the twentieth century in the West, the waters were tossed out as useless byproducts in the manufacturing of the more potent and more expensive essential oils.


Recently however, hydrosols have experienced a renaissance. There are a growing number of small-scale distillers who produce hydrosols as well as essential oils. Though these beautiful aromatic waters are not yet widely available in stores, many small companies, often family-run, often specializing in distillates of their region, can be found online.

PhiBee Aromatics is a wife and husband operation that distills plants native to and naturalized in the Southwest. I have also purchased wonderful hydrosols from Stillpoint Aromatics, and Aromatics International, from whom I ordered the rose geranium hydrosol that went into my martini, as well as the bay laurel in my marinade recipe you can find below.

Flower waters have found continuous use in baklava and other Middle Eastern desserts, as witnessed by Maureen Abood’s delicious Lebanese blog and cookbook “Rose Water and Orange Blossoms,” but in the West, we mostly let go their use over the course of the nineteenth century. Before that, as Cathy Skipper writes in her course on hydrosols at the School for Aromatic Studies, hydrosols were widely used in Europe:

They were not only used in medicine but in cooking, the main ones being rose, orange blossom and geranium, used in desserts: tarts, cakes, fruit salads, sorbets.., milk products such as yogurt and goat cheese, as well as in drinks such as cocktails and herbal teas.

Catty tells us that clary sage is traditional in Germany in “May Wine,” and features it in her “White Wine Punch,” which makes my mouth water, and my mind’s eye sparkle.

*White Wine Punch*

1 bottle dry white wine

3 tablespoons clary sage hydrosol

2 tablespoons melissa or lemon verbena hydrosol

2 tablespoons orange mint or elderflower hydrosol

1 liter soda water or sparkling mineral water

Small bunch fresh melissa leaves, chopped

10 borage leaves, finely chopped

borage flowers or rose petals to garnish

Combine wine and hydrosols and chill well. Pour into a serving jug or punch bowl and add soda or sparkling water. Garnish with flowers, or place one borage flower or one rose petal in each compartment of an ice-cube tray and make floral ice cubes, or fill a tube-cake pan with flowers and a blend of hydrosols and water and freeze, so that you have a floral ice ring to float in the punch bowl.

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As mentioned in this review of The Botanist Gin, the first hydrosol I fell in love with was elderflower from Stillpoint, which tastes less like flowers than like chocolate, if chocolate were indigo velvet. Elder has a long history in European food, medicine and folklore.

In her “Modern Herbal” Mrs. M. Grieve writes: “In Denmark we come across the old belief that he who stood under an Elder tree on Midsummer Eve would see the King of Fairyland ride by, attended by all his retinue.” Hence, when you sip a bit of elderflower hydrosol, you may commune with fairies!

One of the joys of indulging in hydrosols is learning about the botanicals in all their multitudinous variety. It seems to me that a desire for homogeneity in the mid twentieth century led to a squashing of natural complexities. Chemistry perhaps moved too quickly from investigating and naming to fractioning and synthesizing, which is why we’ve become almost desensitized to the label “natural and artificial flavors.

I believe that sad state is changing, and I offer the inclusion of rose hydrosol in this upscale cocktail from Super Nova Times Square as evidence: The Dakota Cocktail – Templeton Rye, Makers Mark Bourbon, Cognac, Apple Brandy, Antica Formula, Cherry, Sweet Grass and Rose Hydrosol, Stirred Up.”

Hydrosols offer us naturally dynamic flavors that take our taste buds travelling to exotic locales. Cardamom, coriander, melissa, and so many more of these relatively inexpensive aromatics can be added to drinking water for a no-calorie boost, or to spark our inner mixologist. They can also be used in cooking. They add a wonderful complexity to soups and are a great boon for the vegetarian, though they are equally delicious added to gravies and marinades for the omnivore. The traditional culinary herbs such as rosemary, sage and bay laurel, seem a good place to start.

Bay laurel hydrosol is so gorgeous smelling and tasting–sweet, spicy and warm–that it hardly resembles the dried leaves you purchase in the grocery store. In laurel’s monograph Catty writes: “”Indispensable in the kitchen, bay can be added to every savory dish. Sprinkle it on cooked pasta, and add it to sauces or soups with fish or meat, salad dressings, and juices.”

Inspired, I decided to take my partner Alabaster (who’s the one with the super cooking skills in our house) to visit a local fish shop, which smells delightfully of clean sea water in the middle of dirty Manhattan, to buy a bit of bass to try out my first hydrosol marinade.

*Bay Laurel Sea Bass Marinade*

1 cup white wine

2 tablespoons dry vermouth

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon bay laurel hydrosol

Sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper

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We marinated nearly a pound and a half of bass for over an hour and then pan-fried it. The sweet spicy greenness of the laurel permeated each bite without overwhelming it. The possibilities for hydrosols in cooking and cocktailing are limitless. I wish you many happy botanically inspired experiments!