Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Here's How! - Sourcing Ingredients

It’s no secret that I (and many of my fellow cocktail bloggers) am wont to toss syrups, bitters, infusions and all manner of other feats of mixoloical cleverness with almost reckless abandon into our recipes. The most frequent comments we seem to get on posts including such things are questions about ingredients: “Sounds great, but where do I find X, Y & Z?” And while the Tiki Cult™ is guiltier than most, I’m right there with them…

To be honest we’ve all been in that boat at one point or another – it’s not like we grow Gentian, Sugarcane or Allspice in our backyards after all (well, most of us), and to boot, many of the components of these ingredients can be expensive to purchase. So, what follows is a handy little guide to sourcing some of the more esoteric ingredients you may encounter here, at the Mixoloseum, or any of our member’s (or other) pages:

The Interweb
A phenomenal resource, accessible from the comfort of one’s own home no less! It bears mentioning that some of the sites you’ll find listed here fall within categories listed further down, except they also offer their products online. Here are a number of websites from which you might source all manner of interesting or rare ingredients without getting out of your bathrobe, or breaking the bank:
  • Mountain Rose Herbs - Based out of Eugene, OR, this company carries almost every herb, root or spice a cocktailian could ever need, in a number of quantities & most are organic/wild-harvested. An invaluable resource for rare or hard-to-find bitters, tincture, infusion or syrup ingredients, they also offer a variety of house tea blends. If some prices seem a touch high, it’s due to quantity – even their smaller sizes tend to be far more than the average hobbyist could use at once.
  • Spices Etc. - Based out of Savannah, GA, a good resource for standard (and some more exotic) spices and herbs, with a great selection of interesting items like dried fruits, citric acid & flavored sugars. Their best value lies in a variety of dried citrus peels - available in large strips rather than ground – which makes them a good source for bitters-making.
  • Tenzing Momo - An apothecary shop based out of the Pike Place market in Seattle, WA, this simple webpage conceals a great resource for some especially rare ingredients – one of the only vendors I know to carry Cinchona (for Tonic) or Camphor, for example. Prices will appear especially low – be warned that this is due to quantities - as near as I can tell, each herbal item is sold in 1-ounce increments.
  • Auntie Arwen’s - An apothecary & herbalist (as well a regular merchant at the Pennsic Wars), Arwen’s carries a large selection of herbs, roots, flora, spices & extracts equal to any listed above. Check out their flavored sugars while you're at it; they are incredible. Their true specialty, however, lies in crafting specialized blends of these – often on a custom/to-order basis; need a ‘mango-white pepper-grains of paradise’ blend? Arwen’s got you covered…
  • Sweet Vanilla Products USA - The wonderfully-resourceful Tiare of A Mountain of Crushed Ice discovered this little gem – an eBay store devoted almost exclusively to the sale of Vanilla beans and their byproducts. Ordinarily commanding a king’s ransom for miniscule quantities, sourcing this delicious orchid byproduct is now both easy & incredibly inexpensive.
  • Fee Brother’s - If the homemade route isn’t your thing, Fee’s, based out of Rochester, NY is a wonderful resource for commercial syrups, bitters & flavorings. The company has been operating since the early-1800’s & orders are on 60-day net, so bulk purchases are the way to go - though their products are also sold elsewhere at a slight markup.
  • - A great resource for just about everything & anything cocktail-related, both for equipment as well as commercial mixers, bitters, syrups and other interesting products. Especially useful for those of you who’d rather not take the homemade route, though some of the crazier ingredients many mixologists use just aren’t produced commercially.
  • Forgotten Flavors - A German company (with a German webpage) who commercially produces a pair of hard-to-find cocktail ingredients – Falernum syrup and Swedish Punsch. Quality seems to be their main concern, and if you’d rather not make either ingredient yourself, give theirs a go.
Cultural/Ethnic Groceries
These are among my favorite places to shop - and not just for cocktail supplies! Various world cultures often utilize flavors, whether through spices or other ingredients which are often unknown or unpopular in the more mainstream culinary culture; these stores cater to these flavors and the individuals who enjoy them. I highly recommend investigating your area for ethnic stores of all sorts – anywhere there is a significant community of immigrants or individuals with strong cultural backgrounds one can find businesses like these.

Forming ‘working’ relationships with the employees or proprietors (many times one & the same) of such establishments is also recommended – you’ll often get deals of the sort generally only offered to members of the communities they serve, not to mention it often helps to have someone who can read the foreign languages used on the packages. Even without such arrangements, one will often find ingredients at fairly unheard-of prices when compared to those at your average grocery store. Here are just a few examples of stores like this:
  • Middle Eastern - Spices, often expensive ones like Green Cardamom, Ras al Hanout or Saffron are atypically-cheap staples of places like these. Likewise, teas, coffees and interestingly-flavored beverages of all kinds are often easy to find. As many Middle Eastern cultures utilize complex & unusual sweeteners or flavorings in aspects of their cuisine – especially beverages - one can find commercially-bottled syrups (Almond with Orange-flower water (i.e. Orgeat), Tamarind, Date, Rose & Honey to name a few). High-quality Rose or Orange-flower waters, as well as flavored or artisanal Vinegars are also on offer.
  • Hispanic & Caribbean - That tiny corner bodega often conceals a treasure trove of flavorful ingredients. Chiles, dried or fresh, fruit Nectars & Juices, Sodas (often sweetened with sugar; like Mexican Coke, Malta, Barritt’s, Jarritos or Ting), dried Hibiscus (called Sorrel or Jamaica). Whole spices like Allspice, Anise or Achiote seeds and produce like Passionfruit, Sugarsop, Mango, Coconut, whole Sugarcane & Ginger are available quite inexpensively.
  • Asian - Rare & often strange (from a Western standpoint) ingredients are the watchwords in these establishments. Hard-to-find ingredients like Yuzu juice, Lemongrass, (high-quality) Coconut milk, unusual waters, tinctures and extracts like Jasmine, Rose, or Ginger are common. Teas of just about every stripe – particularly high-grade green & white varieties like Macha or Gunpowder will also be fairly common. Finally, many establishments like these will either have an in-house herbalist or will be able to recommend one in your area – another helpful resource.
  • Indian - Here it’s all about the spices: items like Cardamom, Clove, Coriander, Mace, Allspice & Cinnamon are often available at unthinkably-low prices & in large quantities. Likewise, dried fruits such as Dates, Figs and Oranges, as well as dozens of varieties of nuts & seeds (whole, blanched, chopped &c.) are often offered. Similar to Middle Eastern shops, unusual flavorings and sweeteners like Gur or Jaggery (date palm sugar), commercial beverage syrups like Thandai (a spicy Orgeat variant) and hard-to-find fruit Nectars (Passionfruit or Pomegranate) abound.
Fresh/Farmer’s Markets
As anyone from California will attest, this is the best way to get fresh fruit, vegetables and often herbs too – often for fantastic prices. Once you’ve found a good farmer’ market you’ll never want to go back to the supermarket again - so be warned. Offerings at this sort of establishment vary wildly with season, location and suppliers. Look for a market which (ideally) knows exactly where & from what farm(s) their produce is harvested – even better a market run by the individuals who grow the produce themselves - and stocks particularly-seasonal items only within the appropriate period. As with the ethnic/cultural spots listed above, forming a ‘working relationship’ with the folks in charge can be extremely beneficial.

Health & Nutrition/”Alternate Lifestyle”
If you can stomach the overwhelming scent of patchouli for a bit, checking out the local ‘hippy shop’ or health-nut haven can result in some impressive finds, both equipment & ingredients-wise. Handy tools like juicers, mortar & pestles, blender balls and pollen presses can be found in locations like these. Also, extracts, whole herbs and spice/tea blends, interesting Honeys, Agave nectar and other items are often for sale; especially in “New Age”-type shops. Just be careful with extracts – be certain what you’re buying is both pure & of ‘food-grade’. Many shops like this maintain listings of their offerings & will sometimes ship via mail even if they’re not represented online, so requesting a catalog or ordering one through phone or mail can be helpful.

Have a favorite source or way of procuring for hard-to-find or unusual ingredients? Be sure to let me know about it in the Comments section.

Cheers & Enjoy!

I have no affiliation, stake or ties to any sources specifically mentioned by name or link (save as a satisfied customer). This article has been cross-posted over at the Mixoloseum - whomever authorized this has undoubtedly been sacked...


Rob Timko said...

Good post Chris,

I've found most of the ingredients I have trouble finding, mainly by asking and talking to employees, store owners, etc. If a place doesn't have it, they will usually order it.

BTW - The Marketplace Wine and Spirits place in East Brunswick, with the great selection of spirits, is VERY good at ordering things.

Tiare said...

I get almost all of my harder to find ingredients from Asian, African/Caribbean and Middle eastern shops, and sometimes i hit the health shop, especially when i need dried hibiscus flowers.

Great post!

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