The spruce tip harvest was early this year; green buds started appearing at the ends of
spruce branches around mid-May in Whitehorse and continued being harvestable well into the first week of June – on higher ground at least. Best-laid plans notwithstanding, I never did make it out for a concentrated session of picking, but managed to skim some from the trees here and there, and ended up with a good few cups of the youngest buds, those that resemble the tip of a paintbrush — close-packed, tender and held together with a sticky brown husk at the end.
Generally I’ve rejected tips whose husks had already fallen off on the grounds; they are too bitter. But I didn’t really get enough for a whole year of cooking, so for the first time, I conceded what others had been telling me: that even when the buds are as long as an inch, they’re still sweet enough for tea and syrup, as long as they’re still soft and not spiky.
Of all the different items you can make with spruce tips, syrup is my favourite. And I want lots this year. So I went out and picked a few bagsful of bigger tips, and made a batch of syrup in early June. It’s great! There’s no discernible difference in flavour. So, if it’s mid-June when you’re reading this, and you’re going to be up in the alpine, keep an eye out: there’s a chance you’ll still be able to find some soft tips.
This year I infused gin with spruce tips for the first time, too — normally I’d use vodka. But once again I’ve been influenced by others — in this case, bartenders.
There are many, many bartenders in drinking establishments across North America who still use vodka as a base spirit in their cocktail making, but there are a number who avoid vodka altogether, because of its lack of depth and flavour. I like a shot of vodka, right from the freezer, with some salty Coho roe and chopped onion, just like a real northerner, but after a few years of infusing vodka with different botanicals and being unhappy with the results, I, too, have turned to gin.
When I suggested the spruce tip idea (attempting, in the home kitchen, to recreate the great, sprucy flavour of 50 Fathoms Gin from Chilkoot Distillery in Haines) there was debate in the household about which gin to use—one already chock-full of botanicals like Bombay Sapphire or The Botanist, or a simpler gin like Tanqueray, whose four botanicals are juniper, coriander, angelica root and licorice?
I went with Bombay Sapphire for the simple reason that I like the complexity of the flavour and it seemed a good idea to start with a base spirit you like. Good choice! The spruce tips didn’t overwhelm the base flavour, but interacted nicely with the juniper and citrus already present.
I used the whole pint in a batch of French 75 cocktails for a crowd, pouring about 1½ inches in the bottom of each champagne flute before topping up with Prosecco. A lot of us found that we couldn’t taste the spruce in the cocktail, but we could smell it.
On my next attempt I used lime juice instead of lemon, and there it was, that unmistakeable spruce flavour, right in the cocktail. In the end, that’s what I love best about spruce tips — the flavour changes according to the environment, and it’s always a surprise.
Sprucy French 75
1 ½ oz spruce-infused Bombay Sapphire Gin
¾ oz lemon juice *substitute lime juice
½ oz spruce tip syrup
Shake gin, lemon juice and syrup over ice and strain into a champagne flute. Top with Prosecco and garnish with lemon twist.
Spruce Tip-Infused Bombay Sapphire Gin
1 pint (500 mL) Bombay Sapphire Gin
½ cup fresh or frozen spruce tips
Place spruce tips in a clean, dry pint jar and pour gin over top. Cover and infuse for 3 to 5 days, upending the jar once or twice a day. Strain into a clean pint jar and store in a cool dark place. Use within a year.
Spruce Tip Syrup
At this time of year there’s no harm in posting a reminder on how to make spruce tip syrup.
1 cup (250 mL) fresh or frozen spruce tips
1 cups (250 mL) water
1/3 cup (80 mL) sugar
1½ tsp (7.5 mL) fresh lemon juice
Bring water and spruce tips to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to steep anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. Strain through cheesecloth into a clean pot. Stir in sugar and lemon juice, bring to the boil, reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Pour into sterilized jar, cool and refrigerate. Will keep for up to four months.
Makes about 1 cup (250 ml), enough for 16 cocktails.