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Interview: Urban foraging and whiskey cocktail making with John Rensten

Bushmills cocktail foraged ingredients

John Rensten is one of the UK’s best known foragers, specialising in gathering wild feasts from urban locations. He’s currently teaming up with ace Irish whiskey makers Bushmills to explore using foraged ingredients in whiskey-based cocktails. We were eager to find out more…

What is the main appeal of foraging? 

I’d probably start by talking about nutrition. All wild food is superfood, and by this I mean its packed full of healthy minerals, vitamins and antioxidants. Take nettles for example, these are over 30 per cent plant protein, and rich in iron and calcium, whilst rose hips, weight for weight, offer twenty times the vitamin C of oranges. The fibre you can get from just one teaspoon of ribwort plantain seeds equates to a full bowl of porridge! But foraging has many benefits, it’s good for mental and physical wellbeing and can also make you more ecologically aware. 

Most people think about the countryside when it comes to foraging, but you specialise in urban locations. Are there different challenges to finding edibles among streets and buildings and does pollution have an impact on what you can use? 

It’s true foraging is often associated with the countryside, however, if you look in the right places, you’ll quickly discover that cities offer a vast array of free, edible treats, coming and going throughout the seasons. In my local park alone I have collected and eaten nearly 200 different edible plants. However, when foraging in built up areas it’s important to think about the potential effects of pollution, so I’d recommend staying clear of overly industrialised areas and busy roads.

You’re taking part in a Bushmills foraging and whiskey tasting event around London on June 25th. Can you tell us a bit about what you’ll be getting up to.

The masterclass will see participants taken on a guided foraging tour in East London, by me, before learning how to create delicious whiskey cocktails using foraged ingredients and Bushmills Black Bush Whiskey. It’s part of Bushmills’ ‘Black Bush Stories’ series of events which celebrate different crafts across the UK, in this instance: the craft of foraging. The evening will be co-hosted by the award winning drinks writer and TV presenter, Neil Ridley, alongside Bushmills’ whiskey ambassador Donal McLynn. 

What ingredients can attendees expect to find during the evening? 

The city has so much to offer this time of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we stumbled upon some elderflower, lime blossom, dandelions, yarrow or hogweed, all of which can be used to make delicious cocktails. Take hogweed bitters for example, these taste like bitter orange and numerous other dried spices rolled into one. They work especially well in place of Angostura when making an Old Fashioned. 

Finally, what’s your favourite foraged cocktail?

If it’s a whiskey cocktail, you’re spoilt for choice. You can make an Irish coffee with roasted dandelion root, or a whiskey sour with quince or sorrel, but I’d probably have to say my favourite would be an Old Fashioned made with hogweed bitters and garnished with dried crab apple.

John Rensten, urban forager

Bushmills Black Bush Whiskey is hosting an exclusive foraging and cocktail making masterclass on Thursday 20th June, where you can learn how to forage in London and create cocktails using natural, foraged ingredients. Tickets are available here

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