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An Unlikely Flower Conjures Christmas in July

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Hunting for sorrel, a Christmas-flavored flower used in tea and cocktails.

"Do you like what you see, my love? Cocoa sticks, perfect for making cocoa tea!"

A disembodied voice calls out from behind me and—seconds later—I feel a warm hand on the small of my back.

"Cocoa tea will make you feel up!" She looks at my face, which assuredly has all the markings of a person who hasn’t slept a solid eight hours in a while. "It will give you a boost!"

I buy a couple of the thick, log-like rounds and halfheartedly imagine that they’ll empower me with Road Runner-style energy on my current quest.

I’m wandering around Castries Market in St. Lucia on a Saturday morning, dressed like Meryl Streep’s character from Out of Africa if she forgot to iron for a couple of days and had strategically dripped passionfruit juice down her shirt. In a Tetris-like labyrinth of stalls and booths, the wide swaths of spices, soft fleshed fruit and other nostril-pleasing sensations are overshadowed only by the maternal calls of women beckoning to passersby to palm their wares and examine everything from Midas-colored bags of turmeric to curlicue strands of sassafras.

My mission today, though, has sniper-like focus. I’m hot on the trail of sorrel flowers, a breed of Caribbean hibiscus plant also known as roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa) that has long been made into a refreshing tea hued a shade of rosy magenta so bold it could rouge a cheek or paint a lip.

Sorel hot toddies and Sorel in a bottle by Jack From Brooklyn.

Typically steeped with a plethora of baking spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and allspice, there’s a comfort and hominess to the drink that’s all at once novel and nostalgic. The flower is a longtime, lush staple of Caribbean drinking from dawn ‘til dusk, with cocktails whipped up from sorrel syrups dominating the night, and flower-based agua frescas providing a respite from the pounding equatorial sun. It’s also become a popular addition to locally brewed beers like Piton, which hocks a "Piton Shandy," featuring ginger ale and sorrel.

It’s not just the color or malleable floral-meets-spice flavor of the drink, though, that’s so compelling. The elixir is also praised by St. Lucians and Jamaicans alike for its calming, detoxifying properties and its role as an antioxidant. It is regarded, in many respects, as a cure all—and I’m ready for it.

There’s just one problem: I’m on the hunt for sorrel in the entirely wrong season.

Having been in something of a funk in the weeks preceding the trip, this isn’t particularly surprising. Of course, I’m desperately seeking a flower that’s not currently in bloom. Of course, I’m on a wild goose chase. Of course, I look like a complete yokel.

The elixir is also praised by St. Lucians and Jamaicans alike for its calming, detoxifying properties and its role as an antioxidant.

"You got your times topsy-turvy, mama," says a moon-faced woman chatting with her friend under a painted sign that instructs "DO NOT PISS" in bold, red letters. "You’re looking for Christmas in July!" The women slap backs and laugh together, so I nervously join in so that they’re laughing with me and not at me.

Of course I knew before coming to St. Lucia that sorrel is a drink primarily consumed around the holidays. Its ruby color practically oozes decking the halls, and its most popular (and frequently exported) form is as a rum-based punch, which is gulped up by the gallon in December and January each year. The best syrups—as my market women know—are made from fresh flowers, which quickly wither once picked and are extremely susceptible to fungal rot. Dried flowers can do in a pinch, but it’s the fresh ones that steal the show.

Still, hope springs eternal, and I had justified to myself that such a potent, attractive beverage deserves to have a year-round spotlight. I already attempt to force square pegs into round holes on a regular basis. Why not try to completely shake up the cycles of nature, too?

Soon, the consolation prizes begin to come out. "How about some periwinkle tea, my love?" Asks a woman who has joined our party, waving a small bag of delicate lavender flowers in my face. "It’s the next best thing to the sorrel for women!"

I sheepishly decline, and immediately wish that these women would all embrace me in a group hug—if not out of true motherly affection, out of "bless her heart" pity.

Above: A flowering sorrel plant by Shutterstock/wasanajai. Below: The Breslin's Daylight Savings cocktail courtesy of The Breslin.

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my desire for sorrel to find more widespread, and year-round popularity outside of its Caribbean home base.

A handful of companies in England have started manufacturing sorrel syrups for holiday punch, and several companies in the United States have attempted to commercially produce a chilled version of the tea (that, typically, is more run-of-the-mill Lipton than anything authentic).

In the United States, the grand marshal of the sorrel parade is Jack Summers, founder of Sorel liqueur company Jack From Brooklyn.

"My iteration is called ‘Sorel’ instead of ‘sorrel’ because I have a speech impediment," says Summers. "One of the things I learned [in enunciation school] is words that end in a down sound, are sad. So, sorrel is a ‘sad’ word. Sorel is ‘happy,’ and more importantly, I can pronounce it."

Since launching in 2012, the liqueur has found immense popularity as a cocktail staple nationwide, adding a touch of color and a potent depth to classic drinks like the Manhattan. In New York, it has also taking a starring role in original concoctions like The Breslin’s Daylight Savings (rum, Sorel, demerara and fresh lime).

"It’s a funny thing about what I’ve seen the cocktail people do, because there are all these flavors you can pop out depending on what you’re trying to accomplish," said Summers. "If you serve it cool, it’s fruity and floral. If you serve it warm, it’s spicy and nutty. [Sorrel] can do almost anything you want to invoke."

Sorel’s infinite malleability and "secret weapon" status has opened up the Caribbean classic to a brave new world of imbibers, primarily because it plays well with almost any other spirit one could bring to the table. At Root Squared in New Orleans, Sorel serves as a spice-laden supporting cast member to oaky bourbon, lemon, Lambrusco and a treacly drip of cane syrup in the Beretta cocktail. A Negroni-inspired combination of gin, Sorel, Campari and absinthe bitters graces the menu at Chicago’s The Whistler. The Westside Local in Kansas City uses Sorel to tropically take on a spritz, pairing it with Cava and a whirl of lemon peel. A vodka fan? Sorel can pink up your spirit of choice like in the Caribbean Cosmo from St. Louis’s Brasserie, which features chamomile-citrus vodka, Sorel, lime and Creole shrub.

These complex concoctions are a far cry from the simple—mostly homemade—sorrel creations brewed and sipped across the Caribbean, and it’s intriguing to see just how differently the liqueur’s flavors can be interpreted.

When I ask Jack about the non-alcoholic preparation methods like in St. Lucia, he laughs. "My family is Barbadian, so everything we do has a little bit of alcohol in it! Alcohol was the cure all. I like being able to say that we are the first ever commercially produced alcoholic version of sorrel. It’s like the first people who made limoncello."

"...there’s something about sorrel’s scent that reminds people of home."

While it may have found a footing as a hoity-toity addition to cocktails, the drink’s heartbeat remains its nostalgic, homey properties.

"We make a beverage that’s a reason for people to connect as human beings. People come from a half mile in every direction when I brew it because they can smell clove and cinnamon and nutmeg, and I invite them in and we have a drink. I think there’s something about sorrel’s scent that reminds people of home."

A Sorel negroni by Jack From Brooklyn.

The day after leaving the market sans sorrel (but with enough rum punch to float a small battleship), I stumbled upon a woman at a roadside stand who—through either hoarding or forgetfulness—happened to still have a thimble-sized bag of dried sorrel.

My heart quickened for the big reveal while the squatty woman, as if on a treasure hunt in her own dwelling, bent low to the ground to retrieve the buds, unfurling a stack of boxes like Russian nesting dolls until finally reaching the pouch that held the much coveted petals.

The dried flowers were brittle—almost crispy—and she held them up triumphantly as if she’d just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. Plopping the sorrel into a glass with boiling water and a sprinkling of spices, she quickly whirled the mixture with a spoon and handed the vessel to me as the bright pink hue enveloped the water.

Inhaling the blooming aroma of the tea, I felt a sense of calm return. The sensory experience was all at once tropical and Christmas-like, as if the Sugar Plum Fairy decided to vacation at an island resort. Somehow, it flipped every relaxation switch on the panel.

It’s comforting to think there will never be a way to make seasons come and go when you want them. Flowers will bloom and fade in their own rhythms. You can’t turn on summer to pick fresh grapefruit for palomas or have autumn on demand to pluck apples for cider: there are forces much bigger at work. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to keep little trinkets from each season locked away in your memory or pantry, as the case may be.

"Warm drink in warm weather, that’s good for you," she said, motioning for me to drink. "It’ll make you feel at home."

It sure did.

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