If you keep noticing saffron on drink menus, you’re not alone. Whether it’s Stanley Tucci sipping a black saffron Martini on “Searching for Italy” or saffron-infused spirits being incorporated into elegant cocktails like the Ghee Whiz at New York Indian spot Dhamaka, boozy saffron is having a moment — and for good reason.
“Saffron adds a really beautiful note to cocktails,” says Jeff Russell, a bartender at Yves in TriBeCa, who’s been working on New York City’s cocktail scene since 2006. “It can make things that feel old and boring new again with just a tiny addition.”
If you ran out and bought saffron for a paella dinner party and now don’t know how to use the rest, incorporating some into your next drink is delicious and easy. And even if you’re specifically buying saffron for your bar cart, it doesn’t have to break the bank.
“Saffron is like truffle,” Russell says. “It’s very distinctive, and a little goes a long way.”
Make a Simple Syrup
The most budget-friendly approach to incorporating saffron into your at-home cocktails, says Russell, is a simple syrup. Take equal parts water and sugar, heat to combine, then throw in a pinch of saffron to steep. After a couple hours, taste it and see if you want to keep steeping. Depending on what Russell is making, he’ll sometimes let it steep overnight, taking it to a rich amber color.
That said, don’t worry about oversteeping here. “You want it to hit you in the face,” Russell says. Most cocktails, he explains, don’t call for a huge amount of simple syrup and you want the saffron to be on the stronger side to avoid over-sweetening the cocktail.
Russell’s favorite application of a saffron simple syrup is a Ramos Gin Fizz, with the same amount of rosewater swapped out for the orange blossom water. “But, it really could work as an additive to most cocktails,” he says. “I really like it because it’s something that lends itself to a broad spectrum, from savory-spicy to dessert cocktails.”
Infuse Your Favorite Spirit
Russell’s go-to spirits for infusing with saffron are vodka and bourbon, but he also likes rum or tequila. He’ll sometimes infuse a classic English-dry-style gin. “I also love a homemade amaro or vermouth using saffron,” he says.
Of course, the latter will take more experimentation and planning. The former, though, is fairly straightforward. Put a few pinches (3 to 5 grams) of saffron in a disposable tea bag. You can infuse an entire bottle of your favorite booze, or you can start with a smaller amount set aside in a mason jar. Either way, drop the tea bag in and let it steep overnight. The next day, taste it and see if you like where it’s at. Russell usually finds it ready at that point.
Russell’s saffron honeycomb milkshake recipe, below, uses a saffron-infused bourbon. He also recommends making an Old Fashioned with the saffron bourbon. Or, if you prefer something more savory, try a Martini.
“Blue cheese and saffron go together really well,” Russell says. “Whether you’re using vodka or a classic English dry gin, I love a steakhouse Martini with blue-cheese-stuffed olives and a saffron-infused spirit.”
Make a Saffron Sugar Rim
If you’re really seeking a saffron theme (or you have a lot of threads to use up), you could also make a saffron sugar to use on the rim of your drinks. It would, of course, go well with most of the saffron cocktails mentioned above, or Russell says it could be a nice addition to a flavored Margarita.
“In that case, you’d take as much saffron as you want to sacrifice and dehydrate it,” he says. If you have a dehydrator, feel free to use that, or you can just leave the saffron out in a warm, dry place for a few days. Then you’d crush it, add it to your sugar, and add a pinch of salt to taste.
Or, Just Experiment
Most of all, Russell recommends testing saffron with cocktails and flavors that you already know you like. You may be surprised at what you find.
Russell’s favorite boozy application for saffron? The milkshake below. “I made this for a Saturday morning cartoon brunch at my apartment,” he says.
Saffron Defender of The Universe
3 cups vanilla ice cream
1 cup Saffron Cereal Milk
1 cup whole milk
5-7 saffron threads
¼ cup Honeycomb cereal
4 ounces Saffron Bourbon
4 ounces bourbon
10-15 saffron threads
Extra Handful Honeycomb Cereal
Two clean Mason jars or small Tupperware.
Reusable tea bag
For the saffron cereal milk:
Combine whole milk, saffron threads, and honeycomb cereal. Let sit for 1–2 hours, then strain.
For the saffron bourbon:
Place saffron threads in a reusable tea bag and seal carefully. Let steep in bourbon overnight, then discard the tea bag.
For the milkshake:
Blend everything together to create a thick shake. Top with whipped cream and a cereal piece. Serve immediately.