In mixology, as in love, a rose can accomplish magnificent things. But while love can require the brilliant-colored flowers by the dozens, the use of roses in cocktails necessitates a delicate touch.
To harness the heady aroma and flavor of roses, bartenders often turn to rosewater, a nonalcoholic ingredient distilled from rose petals and frequently utilized in perfumes and cosmetics. Rosewater also has a long culinary heritage in South Asia and the Middle East, where it is used to flavor sweets, ice cream and drinks, such as the yogurt-based lassi in India and the milk-based bandung in Malaysia and Singapore.
With a powerful fragrance, rosewater brings a distinctive floral character to a drink. It can give a cocktail’s “bouquet” a literal meaning. “Rosewater contributes aromatics,” says Keith Waldbauer, a bartender in Seattle, who uses rosewater as an ingredient in the restaurant’s namesake cocktail. Waldbauer was celebrating his recent engagement at the time he created the drink, so he reached for the rosewater to give the Union a romantic aura. Mixed with Hendricks gin (itself made with rose petals), fresh mint and prosecco, and with a touch of crème de cassis to lend the cocktail a rosy tint, the Union receives a gracefully redolent coup de grâce from a single drop of rosewater.
Gin is a natural partner for rosewater, as is sparkling wine. Just blocks from Union, Vessel bar manager Jamie Boudreau brûlées brandied cherries in a flaming burst of Angostura bitters and overproof rum, then adds gin, rosewater, lime juice and soda water to produce his Rosewater Rickey. In San Francisco, Alembic bar manager Daniel Hyatt adds cardamom pods to a combo of gin, rosewater and lemon, and tops it with prosecco in his Mediterranean Homesick Blues, while at The Front Porch, bartenders convert the classic Champagne Cocktail into a Ramblin’ Rose by saturating a sugar cube with rosewater and placing it in a saucer of Cremant d’Alsace sparkling rosé.
Taking a somewhat different though no less delicious tack, bartenders at San Francisco’s Absinthe Brasserie & Bar concoct a Rosebud by coating a glass with rosewater then filling it with a mixture of silver tequila, Campari and Carpano Antica vermouth.
While rosewater is a featured ingredient in each of these drinks, it is used in very small doses. In greater quantities, rosewater gives a cocktail a peculiar tang, and its no-longer-delicate fragrance becomes cloyingly evocative of your grandmother’s decorative soaps. These recipes employ just a few drops for a distinctive floral character.