By Kim Campbell Thornton
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just a few of the fresh and flavorful cocktail ingredients you can grow in your garden, on your deck, or in a kitchen window.
Herbs, fruits, and flowers straight from the earth add color and zing to gin drinks, margaritas, martinis, bubbly and more. Your garden can also be the source for homemade liqueurs, bitters, syrups, shrubs and infusions. Just thinking of all the possibilities is enough to make your mouth water.
I have been intrigued by the idea of a cocktail garden ever since I read Amy Stewart’s intoxicating book The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks.
Basil, cucumber, lavender, parsley, rhubarb, strawberries and watermelon are just a few of the herbs, fruits and vegetables that can go from garden-to-glass for a refreshing and distinctive drink.
Besides the pleasure of their flavor and freshness, homegrown ingredients have other advantages. “The biggest advantage is cost, as herbs can get pricey during certain parts of the year,” says Chris Milligan, bar manager and mixologist at Secreto Lounge in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Also, by growing your own, you have control over water quality and fertilization. My favorite thing, though, is the pride in growing and then creating.” Milligan loves lots of herbs, but points to basil, rosemary and sage as his favorites. “Basil is easily approachable by almost any guest,” he says. “Rosemary goes with so many other flavors, and it is versatile in how it can be used. Sage is especially fun as it is a huge part of the New Mexico culture. Our smoked sage margarita was created to reflect the blessing and purifying aspects of burning sage.”
A cocktail garden also gives you access to ingredients that you might otherwise have difficulty finding. Thai basil? Cuban mojito mint? (Yes, there are specialty mints out there, and this one is native to Cuba, home of the mojito.)
Looking for something off the beaten path, how about Salad burnet? This herbaceous perennial’s tender young leaves have a light cucumber flavor and can also be substituted for mint in some recipes. It’s a favorite of gardener and cocktail aficionado Lucinda Hutson of Austin, Texas, who appreciates its beautiful serrated leaves. “It’s delicious in a gin and tonic with slices of cucumbers, rose petals, and some good Fever Tree or Q Tonic,” she says. “It’s good in all sorts of cooler cocktails.”
Hutson, author of Viva Tequila! Cocktails, Cooking and Other Agave Adventures, says one of the easiest ways to use herbs is to flavor a glass of bubbly. At cocktail parties she hosts in her garden, she pours guests a glass of Champagne, cava, prosecco or other sparkling wine and then sends them off to pick a sprig of an aromatic herb to flavor it. Lavender is a good choice, as are lemon-scented herbs such as lemon verbena, lemon thyme, lemon balm and lemongrass.
Not sure what to plant? Choose a theme based on your favorite spirits or types of cocktails. Bourbon and rum cozy up to blackberries, mint, rhubarb, cardamom and any citrus. Tequila takes to kiwifruit, strawberries, watermelon and Thai basil. Gin goes well with basil, cucumber, lemon and strawberries. While vodka, with its neutral flavor, can pair with just about anything. For example, you could plant a Bloody Mary garden with cherry tomatoes, celery, jalapeños, chives and lemon.
Other interesting and unusual choices include borage, chocolate mint, elderflower, hyssop, Kentucky Colonel mint, lime basil, pineapple mint and pineapple sage. Don’t forget floral garnishes such as nasturtiums, pansies and roses. Anything you plan to use in cocktails should be grown organically.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your garden’s yield, “Be open and playful,” Milligan says. “I have done drinks with herbs and spirits that I thought might not work, but lo’ and behold, they did!”
Make It at Home
Thai Basil Gimlet
Chris Milligan of the Secreto Lounge in Santa Fe, New Mexico, shares a recipe for a fresh and refreshing summer sipper.
2 ozs Nolet’s Silver Gin
¾ oz lime cordial
2 leaves Thai basil
6 drops Bitter End Thai Bitters
In a mixing glass, muddle lime cordial and basil. Add gin and bitters and shake with ice. Double strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish with Thai basil leaf.
Summer in Provence
Troy Smith, beverage director at The Montage in Laguna Beach, shared the following recipe.
2 oz Nolet’s silver gin
½ oz Cherry Heering
½ oz Montenegro Amaro
¾ oz fresh lemon juice
5 to 6 blueberries
½ oz simple syrup
3 fresh lavender buds
In a mixing tin, muddle blueberries and add all liquors, lemon juice and simple syrup. Add ice and the lavender buds and shake. Fine strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a sprig of lavender and fresh blueberries.
Buddha’s Hand Liqueur
One of the more unusual citrus fruits is Buddha’s Hand (also known as fingered citron). It has a fragrant odor and strange appearance. Dan Townley and Nancy Mueller, members of the California Rare Fruit Growers, make liqueur with it. Here’s how:
1 Buddha’s Hand
4 large oranges
1.5-2 cups sugar
2 cups Ketel One Vodka
Peel the Buddha’s Hand, making sure to remove only the yellow skin and not the bitter white pith. Mueller says it can be awkward to peel and suggests cutting the “fingers” off and then working around the outside of the main part of the fruit (the “hand” portion).
Juice the oranges, then add the juice and water to a simmer pot with 1.5 to 2 cups sugar. Simmer for 10 to 12 minutes, then let cool.
After the syrup has cooled, add the Buddha’s hand skin, two cups of Ketel One vodka and stir well. Store in a swing-top bale jar and age in a cool, dark place for 1 to 3 months. Strain, rebottle and continue to age for up to three more months; however, you don’t need to wait the entire time before drinking it or making cocktails with it.
Let Someone Else Make It
If you have a black thumb or no garden space, don’t despair. Plenty of craft cocktail bars are famous for their concoctions containing fresh ingredients. Some have their own gardens on site, while others make regular trips to the local farmer’s market, basing their drinks on what’s in season. Some to try:
Lobby Lounge, Montage
Laguna Beach, California.
The Desperado combines Avion Silver Tequila, Mezcal, fresh lime, fresh grapefruit and lavender syrup.
Santa Ana, California.
The menu changes frequently, but a current offering is the Purple Rain with St. George Botanivore Gin, lavender, lemon and honey.
New Orleans, Louisiana.
Cocktails include the Cloud Piercer, a kiwi and rosemary-infused shrub paired with Champagne.
Chianti Restaurantat Mission Point Resort
Mackinac Island, Michigan.
A large hillside cocktail garden yields lemon sage, fennel, five types of mint and more for the cocktail menu. Robinson’s Folly features Bulleit bourbon, grapefruit, simple syrup and basil leaves.
Secreto Lounge at Hotel St. Francis
Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Look for the Agave Way, with black grapes, green chile, Espolon Reposado tequila, lime juice and agave nectar.
Blue Hill at Stone Bar
Pocantico Hills, New York.
Depending on the season, you might see on the menu an Herbal Elixir that blends gin and Chartreuse with green apple, lime juice, celery juice, tarragon syrup and celery bitters.