As you spend more time around wildfire, you get to know certain things about it which can seem a bit magical to the untrained. Reading smoke is a very important part of assessing wildfire from a distance, so this is an area that we all learn early on. Mostly smoke is analyzed for quantity, color, and drift pattern, but another important thing to keep track of is scent.
It turns out you can tell a lot about a fire with your nose as well. Each fuel type and each fuel source has its own smell. Often before you can actually lay eyes on a fire you can sense it with your nose. And a well-trained nose can easily tell the fuel type from a mild whiff of smoke.
I recall one time that I was way out in the backcountry doing some vegetation sampling in Dinosaur National Monument. We were driving a truck on old, overgrown roads with dry grass on either side. Sitting in the cab, eating lunch, we got a whiff of grass smoke. Panicking, we hopped out of the truck expecting to see a fire spreading out from the muffler.
To our immense relief, we hadn’t started the fire. In fact, we couldn’t locate a fire anywhere. It wasn’t until we got back to the cache that we were told there had been a small grass fire that afternoon a number of miles away from our location. It is pretty wild what the nose is capable of.
So, that’s the inspiration for this drink. I took a classic cocktail, the Paloma, and flipped it on its head a bit with the addition of a sage syrup and an aroma of grass smoke. I hope you enjoy it.
The Sage Syrup
Before you can begin to make this cocktail, you will need to make the sage syrup. Some species of sage are edible and others are not, so make sure you get the right one. You could use culinary sage, but I will be using Artemisia frigida, a common herb around the front range of Colorado, and one that has a long history of medicinal use.
Common names: fringed sage, prairie sagebrush, prairie sagewort, pasture sage
Artemisia frigida, henceforth referred to as fringed sage, is not technically a true sage, of the Salvia genus. It is actually in the aster family. That said, the common names all call it a sage, and its flavor is similar.
Description: It is a perennial with a woody base and deep aromatic qualities. The stems grow outward from a single base, forming a clump. The plant grows to around 15 inches in height, with a collection of stems covered in deeply lobed, grey-green, glaucous leaves. The inflorescence contains many small, spherical flower heads.
Habitat: Fringed sage is native to a majority of the United States and Canada, the exclusion being primarily the American Southeast as well as California and Oregon. As suggested by some of its common names, it can be found in open, high plains and alpine areas. Though it does well in many dry and disturbed areas. It is sometimes considered to be a weed as it can grow aggressively, particularly in over-grazed areas.
Medicinal Uses: This plant is traditionally used to treat a variety of complaints ranging from coughs and colds to heartburn, indigestion, and women’s complaints (as it is typically put). It is also commonly used as a poultice.
Culinary Uses: The leaves of the plant are used by the Hopi as a flavoring for sweet corn.
Other Uses: Artemisia frigida can be used in smudging, its smoke serves as a disinfectant. It also serves as an effective insect repellent. The plant can be applied to the skin or a few boughs can be tossed on a fire to repel mosquitoes.
Identification: I’ve given you a brief description of the plant, but always be certain of your identification before you put anything in your mouth. To that end, you can find good additional resources on identification of Artemisia frigida here and here.
Other than the grass and sage, all the ingredients for this cocktail can be bought at the store. So, go forage yourself a bit of sage, stop at the store on the way home, and impress your friends with this fancy cocktail.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 tbsp Artemisia frigida (or culinary sage)
2 oz. tequila
1.5 tsp sage syrup
2 oz. fresh grapefruit juice
0.5 oz. fresh lime juice
2 oz. club soda
Begin by boiling 1 cup of water. When boiling, remove from heat and steep 2 tbsp of sage in the water for 5-10 minutes. Use a coffee filter or a tea holder to keep the liquid free of plant material.
Once steeped, dissolve 1 cup of sugar in the water a half cup at a time. If you cannot get all the sugar to dissolve, you can heat the mixture very gently. But be careful, if you heat it too much, the sage can take on a bitter flavor. Once all sugar is dissolved, you can put this in a jar in the fridge and store it for quite a while.
Add the tequila, syrup, juices, and soda to a large glass with ice and stir. Leave this while you prepare the presentation.
Light a small wad of dried grass on fire on a plate. Allow the grass to catch flame and then extinguish it by placing a glass over the fire. Allow it to sit a moment and gather the aroma of the smoke. Turn the glass upright, and pour in the cocktail. Garnish with a thin slice of lime.