This Appalachian Lemonade Cocktail Celebrates Our National Parks

Chef William Dissen uses the Staghorn Sumac plant to make this tequila drink.

appalachian lemonade cocktail
Appalachian Lemonade | Photo by Donnie Rex
Appalachian Lemonade | Photo by Donnie Rex

National Park Week, running April 16 to 24, is a great time to get outside, learn more about the history of what’s around you, and, if you’ve got a penchant for foraging, make some locally sourced cocktails.

For William Dissen, chef at Asheville, North Carolina’s The Market Place, this approach is second nature. The chef, who helped lead the Southeast’s farm-to-table movement in the early 2000s, learned about living off the land from his grandparents, who owned a farm in West Virginia.

“They really instilled in me the idea of sustainability before it was a trendy topic to discuss,” he says. From an early age, Dissen understood how imperative it was to take care of the land, so that it would provide for his family for years to come. He’d often join his grandfather in the forest surrounding the farm, foraging for things like mushrooms, ginseng, and ramps, but knew very well to never take more than he needed.

Nearly 15 years ago, Dissen moved to Asheville, drawn by its proximity to the Great Smoky Mountains, which is the most biodiverse park in our National Park system. There, he reignited his passion for the wild, realizing that it could be a source of inspiration for his menus.

“All of our restaurants really sit on the heritage of where I’m from in Appalachia,” he explains. “If you go back to the days of the pioneers—and even before that, to the Native Americans—they settled in the Appalachian region because it has four tempered seasons. It has extremely fertile soil. You have medicinal ingredients growing everywhere. There’s clean water, fish, and wild game in the forests. It’s really a little foodtopia.”

Dissen’s Appalachian Lemonade, which makes use of the Staghorn Sumac plant, is perhaps the best example. The plant, which is native to the Smoky Mountain region, has long been used by the Cherokee for its healing properties. The plant’s red berries are coated in malic acid, which is high in vitamin C and antioxidants. It also happens to taste like lemonade—something Dissen learned of when connecting with Cherokee locals.

Every year in the spring and summer, Dissen forages the locally grown Staghorn Sumac, dehydrates the plant, and turns it into a syrup to be used for the Appalachian Lemonade, a cocktail made with tequila and Cointreau.

“The flavor is a more potent sour, versus lemon or lime which tends to be more mellow,” Dissen explains. “I had my children out at their grandparent’s house, where there’s wild sumac growing up beside the mountain where they live, and told them, ‘Hey, grab these berries, rub them between your hands, and lick your fingers.’ You could see their mouths pucker up, but then they tried it again, because they were like, ‘Oh, it's really good.’”

While native to Southern Appalachia, Staghorn Sumac, grows in about 45% of the U.S. If you happen to live in an area where the plant is abundant, you can make the cocktail at home using the same steps you would a simple syrup. Dry out the plant, grind it up, and add that powder to a saucepan with honey and water. Bring to a simmer, and then allow the mixture to cool at room temperature.

And if you’re not a fan of alcohol, Dissen says the recipe can easily be turned into a spritzy pink lemonade. Simply pour the syrup over ice and top it off with soda water or ginger ale.

The Appalachian Lemonade is just one of the many ways Dissen likes to connect to his surroundings.

“We all live a very busy, 30-minute-meal lifestyle. But we need to take the time to slow down and understand the world around us,” he says. “Once you do, once you become a little more thoughtful about your cooking, you’ll learn that there are a lot more ingredients out there than you might think.”

Appalachian Lemonade

Ingredients:

  • 1 ounce blanco tequila (we use Espolòn)
  • 1 ounce wild sumac syrup (see below)
  • ½ ounce of fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • ½ ounce of Cointreau

Directions:
1. Mix together, and with a bar spoon of Luxardo cherry syrup.
2. Shake with ice, and fine strain up into a coupe glass.
3. Garnish with a black volcanic salt rim and a spritz of mezcal from the atomizer.

Sumac Syrup

Ingredients:

  • ½ cup honey
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon ground sumac

Directions:
1. Add all ingredients to a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Stir to dissolve the honey.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
3. Strain syrup through a fine mesh sieve into a clean container.
4. Syrup will keep refrigerated for up to 1 month.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram