Fruit trees? Cocktails? Of course! It’s bare root season, which is to say that you’re going to be digging around in a tub of dirt at the garden center pretty soon and pulling out gnarly masses of roots and twigs. They may not look glamorous, but trust me – bare root plants are both economical and vigorous. Just be ready to plant them as soon as you get home, and keep the roots covered in damp potting soil until they go in the ground.
Apples. Before you head to the garden center, make sure you have a reasonably sunny spot to plant a tree, and take a look around your neighborhood. Are there actually apple trees everywhere now that you’re paying attention? Check the alleys, peek over fences, scan for little red blobs still attached to bare branches. If you’ve got a lot of trees around, you might be able to get away with only planting one tree. Otherwise, apple trees need a mate in order to set fruit. But don’t panic! If you’re short on space, you can plant two trees in the same hole and they’ll grow just fine.
Ask at the garden center for help choosing the right variety. The trick with finding a mate for your apple tree is that it has to be a variety that blooms at the same time in order for the pollen to get transferred from one tree to the other. They’ll probably have a handy chart to help you figure this out.
Apples do require a little care, but less than you might think: learn a few pruning basics by taking a class at the garden center, or by picking up a book like Michael Phillips’ The Apple Grower. (okay, you can probably just Google it, too.) You can get away with just a few deep, infrequent waterings in summer, and I don’t bother with any pest control at all, but a little dormant oil in winter can knock back overwintering pests.
Now, what cocktail-ish thing are you going to do with apples? You could make your own apple cider—and for that, you really will need a book. Fortunately, Annie Proulx wrote one: it’s called Cider, and it’s still in print and easy to find.
You can also soak apple slices in vodka to make your own apple liqueur (more on this in a minute), and use fresh-squeezed juice or slices in apple-based cocktails made from applejack, calvados, or hard cider. The best use of apples in a cocktail, however, has to be the apple granita my husband made one year. He served a scoop or two of Pink Pearl granita in a Martini glass and poured Core Apple Vodka from Harvest Spirits over it. Amazing. Do that. (By the way, Harvest Spirits’ Cornelius Applejack is amazing. If you’d rather drink your apples than grow them, this is the spirit to get.)
Apricots. These trees hate cold, rainy springs, which is why you don’t see people growing them on the North Coast where I live. But there are two new varieties, Puget Gold and Harglow, that have been bred to tolerate Pacific Northwest weather, so look for those if you are longing for your own apricot tree. Most are self-fertile, so you won’t have to buy two.
Apricots soaked in brandy can be a marvelous thing, but even more marvelous is amaretto, made not from almonds but from the almond-like pits of sweet apricots. Most apricots grown in the United States are bitter-pit varieties, and you can’t eat those pits—they’re too high in cyanide. But cyanide-free sweet pit varieties like Chinese Montgamet (also called Chinese Golden) and SweetHeart are available from fruit tree nurseries. Homemade amaretto recipes involve brandy, vodka, sweet apricot pits, vanilla beans, and sugar; if you’ve got enough fruit, this would be worth investigating. Again: sweet pit apricots only! Oh, and if you’d rather skip the tree and go straight to the bottle, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur is the thing to try.
Cherries. Our neighbors to the north in Oregon have spent the last century and a half turning cherry growing into an industry. We should take advantage of their expertise and grow our own. Look for dwarf varieties that could easily be covered in bird netting if you find yourself competing for the harvest. Garden centers often sell grafted “combo” trees with three or four varieties growing from the same trunk. Sounds weird, but it’s really smart: you’ll get a longer harvest season that way. The best cocktail cherries are dark, sour varieties, also called tart or pie cherries. English Morello and Montmorency are good varieties to try.
The easiest way to make use of these in a cocktail is to clean them, pit them, and soak them in Luxardo maraschino liqueur for a couple of weeks. If you’re not going to get around to that, you’ll be pleased to know that real Luxardo maraschino cherries are available by the jar at better liquor stores.
Plums. Wild, European hedgerow plums are making a comeback in the cocktail world. Averell Damson Gin, made from a blue damson plum like Blues Jam, is a fantastic cocktail ingredient and a very good dessert liqueur all by itself. Greenhook Ginsmiths in Brooklyn is making a Beach Plum Gin using Long Island beach plums, probably Prunus maritima. In addition to damsons, Europeans make liqueur from mirabelle and gage plums, all of which are available stateside as well. Don’t expect the large, sweet plums we eat in California: these are smaller, more tart, and just perfect for soaking in booze. Oh, and if you haven’t had plum eau-de-vie, check out Clear Creek Distillery’s incredible Blue Plum Brandy, also called slivovitz. Forget whatever you once believed about slivovitz and just go drink some of this. You can thank me later.
About that fruit liqueur. The recipe for making liqueur from any of these fruits goes more or less like this: Slice clean, fresh fruit (minus the pits) into a bottle or jar. Fill the jar with vodka and perhaps a little bit of a spirit made with the fruit: apple brandy or calvados, apricot eau-de-vie, Luxardo cherry liqueur, or plum brandy. Let it sit for a week or two, and taste it regularly. Some people let theirs sit for months, but I think you get into diminishing returns after a few weeks. Strain it and mix with whatever amount of simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until the sugar melts and then cooled) you think it needs. Drink it within a few months: this is a seasonal treat, not a family heirloom.