Think the origin of these cocktails’ vivid hues can’t possible be found in nature? It’s actually quite the opposite, as they all get their shocking color from the butterfly pea flower. This presto-chango ingredient initially makes a drink blue, then turns it purple when it comes in contact with an acidic ingredient—or pink when one with a high pH is added.
Equal-parts science experiment and cool parlor trick, butterfly pea has been available to bartenders as a tea or an extract. And now it has been infused into a new spirit. Empress 1908 gin was inspired by the Fairmont Empress hotel on Vancouver Island, known for its teas and botanicals.
No matter how it’s incorporated, butterfly tea flowers give libations a wow factor. “If a cocktail is visually engaging, it’s more than likely the thing that a guest will want to drink,” says Joshua Anthony Campbell, a bartender at Leyenda and Pouring Ribbons and an apprentice at The NoMad Bar. These six drinks are indeed a vision to behold.
Can't make it to any of the bars serving these great butterfly pea extract drinks? Try making the Birds & Bees from this list at home.
Bartender Lucinda Sterling says butterfly pea extract is a great alternative to blue curaçao or other artificial colorings. She admits she does field a lot of questions at the Murray Hill bar from inquisitive guests wondering if the ingredient is harmful or stain-inducing. (The answer is no, and it depends on the intensity of the color.) For this cocktail reminiscent of the American flag, she muddles fresh blueberries with Casamigos blanco tequila, lime juice and agave. The mixture is poured into a Collins glass, covered with crushed ice, topped with Wild Hibiscus b’Lure butterfly pea flower extract and garnished with a blueberry.
Head bartender Jess Lambert’s science background includes a fascination with the world of molecular mixology. Part of the Six Martini Happy Hour flight that’s a “cheeky” riff on the three-Martini lunch ubiquitous in New York during the 1960s, the Suit & Tie at the swanky library lounge in Kimpton Gray Hotel stirs Absolut Elyx vodka with Wild Hibiscus b’Lure butterfly pea flower extract. “Guests love the vintage cordial glassware and sharing and commenting on the different variations,” says Lambert. “But the blue hue always gives an unexpected element of surprise.”
Remember that limited-edition rainbow-colored Unicorn Frappuccino detested by Starbucks baristas for its labor-intensive preparation and finger-staining qualities? Bartender Joshua Anthony Campbell recreated it in cocktail form at this Latin/Mexican hot spot. Butterfly tea ice cubes are dropped into a drink shaken with Campari liqueur, Appleton Estate Reserve rum, Cinzano bianco vermouth, Cinzano 1757 vermouth, lime juice, a proprietary blend of mango, coconut, vanilla and yogurt, and a red wine float. “A little bit of this tea goes a long way,” says Campbell. “Too much can impart a vegetal flavor, [while] too little can result in a weaker color.”
At the upscale Italian restaurant in the Bellagio hotel, director of beverage Ricardo Murcia freezes butterfly pea flowers and Wild Hibiscus b’Lure butterfly pea flower extract into gorgeous, clear ice spheres. One is dropped into a coupe glass for this cocktail, made with Absolut Elyx vodka, Mancino secco vermouth and orange blossom syrup. He says you need to be mindful of the color not getting washed out because of melting ice or other conflictingly colored ingredients. Not so with this sip. “The guest is usually amazed by the the delicacy of the color and how cleanly it reflects on the drink,” he says.
Proprietor Jamie Boudreau had been experimenting with beets, cabbage and other anthocyanin-rich ingredients at his Seattle craft cocktail bar for more than 10 years but was never thrilled with their inconsistent results and taste. So he was excited to discover loose-leaf butterfly pea tea from Thailand. Here, it’s infused with gin, mixed with Lillet Rosé apéritif wine, Luxardo Bitter Bianco herbal liqueur and honey syrup and served in a bird-shaped glass topped with Champagne and a flower garnish. “People are always amazed that the colors produced are all natural and not some weird chemical that we cooked up in our lab,” he says.
On a recent trip to Southeast Asia where she was seeking unique ingredients for her Union Market falooda shop, general manager and co-owner Simone Jacobson’s Thai cousins encouraged her to taste butterfly pea flower at a local market. This refresher starts with dried butterfly pea flowers steeped in hot water until the liquid turns deep indigo. She adds fresh lime juice (which changes the color to purple) and honey, sugar or jaggery to taste, then flavors it with cucumber or mint. The limeade is served nonalcoholic but can be spiked with Cotton & Reed white rum made at the distillery next door. “People walk by our stand, point and go, ‘Oooh! What is that?’ which is exactly the reaction I had when I first saw it in Asia,” says Jacobson.