For mixologist and adventurer Michelle Shea Stohlgren, quality cocktails and the backcountry have always gone hand and hand — and for good reason. Most of the ingredients she uses to craft her syrups, vermouths, bitters and tonics have been foraged from the Sierra Nevada.
While taking a medicinal and edible wild plant course in Tahoe, Shea Stohlgren learned that the mountains had everything she needed to create well-balanced cocktails. Juniper berries (the dominant flavor in gin) and wormwood (of the absinthe fame) can be sustainably harvested then mixed with a high-proof alcohol like Everclear to create tinctures. The tiny dark clusters of elderberries and raspberry-like thimbleberries can be boiled with water and mixed with honey and alcohol to create a cordial.
After years of blogging about her backcountry culinary and cocktail creations, Shea Stohlgren launched Garden to Glass Mixology in Incline Village, a mobile bar service that uses her local, organic and foraged ingredients to prepare unique cocktails like an Elderflower Ginger Kentucky Mule or an Old Fashioned with Smoked Cedar Syrup.
“What sparked my interest was sustainability and lightweight backpacking. I wanted to find ways to utilize things that were around me when I was in the wilderness,” says Shea Stohlgren. “I realized when I was bartending that there’s a lot of products that say they’re local but aren’t, and so many of the syrups were packed with sugar. I wanted to find ingredients that had health and wellness benefits, and I realized that our Sierra Nevada wilderness is just packed with all these amazing plants.”
One of Shea Stohlgren’s favorite plants to utilize in the backcountry is the small white flowers of the elderberry bush. It’s sweet, honey-like flavor can be turned into cordials and liqueurs, including the well-known St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur produced in France.
“It’s really popular and people drink it with vodkas and gins,” says Shea Stohlgren. “If people aren’t into spirits, you can make elderflower tea, add some sugar to create a simple syrup then add it to white wine. It will add this really nice florality to it.”
While on backpacking trips, Shea Stohlgren has also steeped fir and cedar needles to make a tea to use as a base for a toddy-like drink spiked with bourbon.
As for using elderberries, thimbleberries and gooseberries while in the backcountry, Shea Stohlgren says the easiest way to use them is by making a syrup.
“In your backcountry stove, crush the fresh berries then mix with sugar and water. Boil the mixture down to a syrup which you can add to whatever spirit you brought with you,” she explains.
In order to sustainably harvest these wild edibles, Shea Stohlgren says to make sure that you’re harvesting from “big cities” of plants and leaving the “small towns” alone.
For those who are not keen on the idea of foraging but still want to enjoy a quality cocktail on their next backpacking trip, Shea Stohlgren recommends batching cocktails at home to limit the number of ingredients you’re putting in your pack.
“If you want to do a spirit-forward cocktail like a Manhattan, that’s something you can batch at home and bring onto the trail with you and you don’t have to worry about mixing things,” says Shea Stohlgren. “Negronis and Boulevardiers are also good options for batching for your whole group.”
But skip the sugary cocktails which will continue to sweeten over time when left unrefrigerated in your Nalgene or drink bladder.