Posted on May 13th, 2011
I’m sure I always found the smell of lilacs to be pleasant, but it didn’t really hit home for me until I got a My Little Pony that was somehow infused with the scent. She was one of the tall, slender Ponies and she had a lilac sprig tramp stamp on one of her purple flanks. I would bring her into the bathtub with the rest of my colorful herd, and our frolicking would kick up steam that enveloped me in the warm floral odor. Our frolicking also resulted in clumps of rainbow hair being removed from the clogged drain months later, much to my mother’s disgust. She called my Little Ponies “the hairy toys” and didn’t like them at all, especially the ones that smelled. She knew the lilac fragrance was as synthetic as the hair in their ridiculous nylon manes, but for me it was as good as the real deal.
My naivete regarding lilacs continued until just this week. The air is heavy with the scent of blooming lilacs, and it conjured up my odoriferous purple Pony in rubber spirit animal form. Remembering the fragrant bathtub steam, I made the assumption that extracting lilac essence for cocktail purposes was going to be easy. “If St. Germain can do it, so can you!” my Spirit Pony encouraged as I headed outside to grab some flowers.
“Sometimes primitive is best” Spirit Pony said as I pulled lilac flowers off the stem and tossed them into my shaker along with cracked ice, powdered sugar, and a lime wedge. I pounded it with a muddler, added gin to taste, shook well and strained over ice. It was a a pretty drink, with purple flecks of crushed petal distributed throughout, but the gin was mightier than the muddler and it ended up tasting like a gin caipirinha.
LILAC SIMPLE SYRUP
“Well, even cave people eventually used fire” S. P. conceded, but I was already way ahead of her. I had put a small pot of sugar and water on the stove and the simple syrup was just coming to boil. I turned off the heat and stirred in another generous handful of lilac flowers. Having successfully made elderflower cordial in a similar manner, I was feeling confident that the warm sugar solution would be able to draw out some kind of essence. Sadly, the only thing I drew out was a lovely pinkish-purple color. I added a bit of citric acid for some tartness and S. P. seemed pleased, but any of the distinctive floral notes were nowhere to be smelled.
LILAC AND VODKA IN A BLENDER
“Bring out the machines!” yelled S. P., and I couldn’t help but agree. It works so well for wheatgrass and basil, and I was beginning to think that the heat was damaging the lilac smell molecules. So in went yet another handful of flowers, along with vodka and some of the lilac simple syrup. The blades whirred at purée speed and produced a truly gorgeous, faintly sweet-smelling liquid. I strained it over ice and topped it with some soda water (although sparkling wine would be ideal). It was tasty and unmistakably floral, but I don’t think I’d be able to specify “lilac.” My superficial S. P. was ready to settle, having been sold on the color alone, but I wasn’t going to let her lower my standards again– I’m not 6 years old sitting in a bathtub anymore, I’m almost 30 and now I require drinks with painstakingly-acquired natural ingredients! And who needs a Spirit Pony when you have the Internet, anyway?
Spirit Pony bailed, leaving a trail of glitter and synthetic lilac compounds. The Internet showed me a few recipes for lilac simple syrup, but no liqueurs or cocktails. And gradually, it confirmed what I had come to realize: it’s not easy to extract lilac compounds. It turns out a small family of lilac aldehyde isomers (and a whole bunch of other compounds ) contribute to the flower’s fragrance, and all these people had to do to get at them was some simple headspace solid-phase microextraction! Clearly these are fragile molecules, easily maimed by crude extraction techniques. Maybe it would be easier just to run some synthesis reactions to whip up some lilac aldehydes instead of trying to harvest Nature’s bounty. But if you do try, you might just have to settle for subtlety.
Ultimately, all of this left me feeling more in touch with My [Little] Spirit Pony– I just wish I’d thought to stuff her in a jar of vodka before she ditched me.