I’ve been brainstorming my There Plant Eyes Ultraviolet cocktail for over a year. Interviewing writer and booktail mixologist , Lindsay Merbaum, for Aromatica Poetica plus the paperback release of There Plant Eyes on Aug 30, finally pushed me over the creative edge…
The Ultraviolet Inspiration
Ordinarily, debut authors don’t have a lot of say in the design process behind their book covers. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I got an email from my editor with a fully formed There Plant Eyes cover design. The cool part was that the title, subtitle, and byline would be doubled in Braille. The first iteration was a bit big and I insisted it should be standard-size and contracted. But basically, I said “Yes Please!” to the Braille.
As for the image design, I recall that Alabaster described it as a wide vertical strip of green from the top to the bottom edge with fuzzed edges from a speckled spray paint effect. I think the designer saw the word “plant” and hence the green. We’d imagined a more illustrative cover (which Alabaster designed and turned into our TPE t-shirt), and so were a bit disappointed and thrown off balance.
We quickly recovered and understood that a figurative cover for a fairly intellectual book didn’t make sense, but neither did the color green.
I said, “Well if we’re going to have bands of color, I want ultraviolet—something that evokes colors that are unseen by the naked human eye.”
Alabaster found a good image of that portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and we sent it off to my editor to be passed on to the designer.
The result is an award-winning cover!
Butterfly Pea Flower is Nature’s Colorist
During my last visit to San Francisco, I had a delightful late-afternoon lunch with blind writer friends, Haben Girma, author and human rights lawyer, and Caitlin Hernandez, teacher and YA novelist, at a fantastic vegan restaurant called Wildseed. Several wonderful things have come out of that lunch including a New York Times op ed, and an important piece of my Ultraviolet cocktail puzzle.
As many proactive blind people do, I checked out the Wildseed online menu ahead of our visit, and of course went straight to their cocktails. Right at the top I found their signature cocktail, the Wildseed G&T, with the following ingredients:
“ butterfly pea tea infused gin, cucumber, aloe, tonic.”
I was sold, but I was also like: what the hell is Butterfly Pea Tea? Well, for my fellow amateur botanists out there, Butterfly Pea’s sexy binomial is: Clitoria ternatea, and yes, the first word refers to the flower’s supposed resemblance to female genitals. More innocently, the flower is also known as: fairy tea, blue tea, and Asian pigeonwings.
When a few of these flowers are dropped into a steaming cup of water or jigger of gin, they turn the liquid blue. But the really exciting thing is that when the pH of the liquid is changed by adding tonic or citrus, the hue changes to pink or purple.
If you are not a drinker, I highly recommend the flowers for a tisane. You can buy butterfly pea tea wherever you buy bulk herbs. Mine is from the beautiful Flower Power in NYC’s East Village. Just brew it like you would any herbal tea, add honey and lemon for that violet color… et voila: you have the TPE Ultraviolet cup of tea, which is high in antioxidants and good for the brain and eyes, too!
The Violet in the Ultraviolet
The ingredient that’s been in my theoretical TPE Ultraviolet Cocktail from the beginning is the Violet Chef’s Essence by Mandy Aftel. The first time I tried it was in a raspberry violet chocolate bar that I bought during a visit to The Aftel Archive of Curious Scents. The instant I tasted it, the violet flavor triggered a vivid taste memory.
A long, long time ago in Tijuana with my family, a child in the street, probably about the same age as I was, sold me via my mother’s indulgence, violet Chiclets. I have had that distinctive taste in my mind’s nose ever since.
Violet is not available as an essential oil as the flowers are too delicate, but that distinctive violet smell/taste is a constituent in raspberries and other berries, as alpha ionone, which is what flavored the chocolate bar as well, I’m guessing, those distant Chiclets.
The only way to succeed is to fail a bunch of times, right? In full disclosure, I thought I’d had my TPE Ultraviolet recipe set over a year ago, just in time for the hardcover release of There Plant Eyes. I’d been flavoring my vodka with a mix of violet Chef’s Essence, Black Pepper Chef’s Essence, and pure organic vanilla extract for some time. I thought (still think) these three flavors a marvelous combination. As Mandy mentioned in our Aromatica Poetica interview, black pepper essential oil has the flavor of black pepper without the heat and goes great with vanilla.
Now, I have a large tolerance for flowery tastes without the sugar, but not everyone does, also I was just using vodka and soda, so for many palates this drink was too perfumy without any kind of balance of sugar or acid. Also, it was perfectly clear, so not very attractive in photographs. First iteration pretty much a bust.
The Botanist and the Elderflower
It could be said that The Botanist gin is one of the cornerstones of Aromatica Poetica. Ditto for elderflower. I wrote about both these ingredients for my Quail Bell column, Distill My Heart, which was the forerunner of Aromatica Poetica, my online magazine dedicated to taste and smell.
In my fairy-dusted review of The Botanist, I mention that elderflower is one of its botanicals and I also mention violet in my idiosyncratic tasting notes:
I take a sip of The Botanist, and the first thing to fill my mouth is a violet icing of soft flowers spiked with juniper’s pinecone. Then there is a complicated herbal intensity, which gives rise to a lingering tingling, as if my tongue were dusted with iridescent fairy dust.
Which makes it the perfect gin for the TPE Ultraviolet, but, of course, you can use whatever gin you like. However I’m thinking that a London Dry would not be as tasty as some of the more floral-forward gins like Hendricks or St. George Botanivore. And if you don’t want to deal with the flower infusion, There are a bunch of tantalizing color-changing gins, most of which include the butterfly pea in their distillation baskets.
The T in the G&T
I must admit that I was never much of a gin and tonic person. Tonics tended to be too sweet for my taste and distracted me from my fancy gins. That all changed when I discovered Fever Tree Elderflower Tonic at The Half Pint in the West Village, where they have a mix and match gin bar. (My fave combo is the elderflower tonic, The Botanist gin, and the Rose Hibiscus bitters. Discovering that combo was another key piece of the puzzle. Because elderflower are associated with fairy folk, it’s the perfect mixer for my TPE Ultraviolet Cocktail, which is all about unseen and magical things.
The TPE Ultraviolet G&T Recipe
1 tablespoon Butterfly Pea Flowers
1.5 ounces of The Botanist, or your fave, gin
Squeeze of lime
4 ounces of Fever Tree Elderflower tonic (or enough to top off the glass)
1 spritz violet Chef’s Essence
Pour your gin into a glass and add the butterfly pea tea. (1 tablespoon is probably overkill, but it turned a dark blue in less than an hour, and I’m impatient!)
Strain the gin and pour into a clean glass.
Squeeze a bit of lime and watch the liquid turn from blue to purple.
Add ice and tonic .
Top with a spritz of Violet Chef’s Essence, hang a slender lime wheel on the side of the glass, and you’re ready to sip.
Pick up your ingredients for the TPE Ultraviolet G&T, pre-order your paperback copy of There Plant Eyes, and enjoy! I look forward to hearing what you think in the comments below…