When you walk into a taqueria and are presented with a multicolor lineup of aguas frescas in bulbous, ribbed jugs, which one do you choose? I always pick the agua de jamaica. I’m a fan of horchata, but the alluring ruby color of agua de jamaica wins me over every time.
Agua de jamaica is a sweetened tea made from hibiscus flowers. It has a tart flavor that can be especially refreshing on a hot day. The beverage is enjoyed in many parts of the world—from Mexico to Egypt—and can be served hot or iced. The Hibiscus sabdariffa plant traces its origin to West Africa and today goes by many names, including ‘rosella’ in Australia and ‘sorrel’ throughout the Caribbean. Like the flowers, the leaves of the plant are edible. They are widely used in Burmese cuisine.
Making agua de jamaica at home is no more challenging than making tea. The process is as simple as steeping dried hibiscus flowers in hot water and then sweetening the strained brew to your liking. You can use regular granulated sugar, honey, or even agave, but you’ll want to stir in something sweet to balance the intense natural tartness of hibiscus. I usually opt for brown sugar because I enjoy the caramel notes it contributes and I like the idea that brown sugar approximates piloncillo, the unrefined cane sugar popular in Latin America. Some people choose to add other seasonings such as a cinnamon stick, a few slices of fresh ginger, or allspice berries.
To celebrate the start of summer, I wanted to come up with a hibiscus flower cocktail, a drink that I imagined could be low in alcohol, all the better for gulping glass after glass all season long. In other words, I was looking for the ideal picnic beverage.
I began by brewing a concentrated hibiscus tea and added lime zest to highlight the bright, crisp flavors. Then, it was just a matter of pouring in something bubbly—affordable prosecco or cava both work beautifully. There’s no need to use fancy champagne with a complex, subtle taste that will only be drowned out by the punchy hibiscus. If you didn’t want to include alcohol, simple sparkling water would work just as well.
You could easily make a double or triple batch of the hibiscus tea and keep it in the refrigerator for at least a week. Once all your friends gather, open a bottle of something sparkling and raise your glasses to summer.
Hibiscus Flower Spritz
Look for dried hibiscus flowers in Mexican markets, specialty grocery stores, or health food shops. Aside from being a delicious thirst-quencher, hibiscus tea is a natural diuretic and may help to lower blood pressure. It’s also a remarkable source of vitamin C and antioxidants.
2 cups cold water
½ cup dried hibiscus flowers
¼ cup brown sugar
Lime wheels, for garnish
Thyme sprigs, for garnish
1 cup prosecco, cava, or sparkling water
Combine the water, hibiscus flowers, and sugar in a small saucepan. Hold the lime over the pot and use a vegetable peeler to remove the lime peel in wide strips, letting them drop into the pot. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Once the water boils, remove the saucepan from the heat. Let the flowers steep in the hot water for 10 minutes.
Strain through a fine-mesh strainer or a piece of cheesecloth, pressing on the flowers to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Place in the refrigerator to cool until completely chilled, at least 2 hours or up to 1 week.
Make the garnish for the spritz by skewering the lime wheels with the thyme sprigs.
To serve, fill 6 chilled glasses with ice cubes. Pour about ¼ cup of the chilled hibiscus tea into each glass, then pour in about ¼ cup of prosecco, or enough to fill the glass. Stir and add the garnish.