by Lucinda Hutson
For centuries, many Germans have heralded the merry month of May by sipping Maiwein, or May wine—an aromatic libation made from young Mosel or Riesling wines. Some fortify it with brandy, making it reminiscent of Spain’s sassy sangría, though May wine typically showcases fresh spring strawberries instead of citrus. Its intrigue and distinctive flavor come from steeping the wine with a wild herb called sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). This trailing herb with whorls of pretty emerald star-shaped leaves and tiny white flowers carpets the Bavarian forest and other woodland environments at this time of year. When fresh, its aroma and flavor are rather elusive, but once dried, sweet woodruff emanates scents of sweet hay, chamomile, nutmeg and honey.
When I first wrote “The Herb Garden Cookbook” over 30 years ago, I found several sweet woodruff plants (known as Waldmeister or “master of the forest” in German) from a local grower. I coddled the little transplants and gave them rich soil and dappled light, but this native of sylvan surroundings quickly croaked, unable to master the Texas heat. (Only rarely have I seen this herb available in local nurseries, though you may find transplants or the dried herb in mail-order catalogs.) Instead, I substituted Mexican mint marigold (Tagetes lucida, often called “Texas tarragon”) and called my version “Mexican May wine.” For years, it’s been a beloved celebratory punch served at weddings, showers and spring-to-summer fêtes—a welcome addition to my repertoire of signature punches and cocktails flavored and garnished with fresh herbs and flowers.
Recently, the handsome label of Treaty Oak Distilling Co.’s Waterloo Antique Barrel Reserve gin caught my eye. I’m clearly a white-spirits kind of gal—favoring the clean, bright botanical flavor profiles of gin and tequila blanco over aged brown spirits like bourbon, scotch and dark rum. Still, I was intrigued. A barrel-reserve gin handcrafted in a true Texas style? One that sings of fragrant lavender, pecan and resinous juniper berries, all found growing in the Texas Hill Country sunshine? I wondered if this spirit could lend its woodsy, herbaceous, sweet spice and aged-oak flavor to my May wine as a substitute for sweet woodruff. It would certainly be far more aromatic than brandy, and give May wine a decidedly Texas twist.
I soon discovered that this amber-colored gin has pronounced citrusy overtones balanced with honey-floral notes, and discernible hints of coriander, rosemary, anise and orange peel. Those are followed by a peppery, herbaceous-yet-smooth taste and a mellow finish with nuances of cinnamon, nutmeg and leather. I’d finally found a substitute for the brown spirits in classics like Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, and something new to mix with Texas ruby red grapefruit and other fruit juices! Indeed, this sippin’ gin is made for a snifter, or to splash on the rocks. But most of all, I’d discovered the secret ingredient for my new Texas May wine. (For even more flavor, I infuse the wine with sprigs of spring herbs, though you may choose to simply let the botanicals in the gin shine through.)
One sip of this May wine sends me back in time imagining a Gaelic Beltane festival (celebrated on May 1, or halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice)—a melding of druid and Roman traditions that welcomed the pastoral summer season. I think of medieval villagers reveling in pagan fertility rites of spring, with maidens twirling around a maypole laden with garlands of flowers, hoping to catch the eye of a potential mate. I imagine children scampering away from unseen witches and fairies (also known to frolic on that day), and a straw effigy of Old Man Winter (or perhaps a witch?) ablaze in a bonfire, over which some frenzied folks leap to ward away evil spirits. And I picture farmers spreading the ashes from that fire on their fields to invite fecundity.
Bring out your grandmother’s crystal punch bowl set, or pour the May wine into a tall glass pitcher or wide-mouthed jar and garnish with whole strawberries, rose petals, purple pansies and fragrant herb sprigs. Add a generous dose of chilled dry rosé bubbly right before serving and raise a glass to the season! Bring on the maypole!