Shake Up Your Holidays with Herbal Cocktails

Create holiday buzz about your secret ingredients with chef David Burns’ uncommon libations.

| December/January 2005

  • Photos courtesy of Le Meridien Hotel

Cocktail Mixtures:

• White Chocolate Mintini
• Le Cilantro Rouge
• Citrus Lavender Martini
• Raspberry Lavender Margarita 

From the fifth floor terrace of Chicago’s Le Meridien Hotel, you can stare forever at the panoramic view of the Windy City’s remarkable skyline. Unless, of course, you get distracted when you realize that the lavender, thyme, purple basil, chocolate mint and other herbs climbing up trellises and spilling out of faded terra cotta pots and planters seem familiar: they were delicious enhancements to the dinner you just finished, and are featured in the after-dinner cocktail you hold in your hand.

The brainchild of Executive Chef David Burns, the terrace herb garden serves a variety of purposes. First, it adds a pastoral touch to the downtown hotel’s drinking and dining spot. “It’s especially pretty when the plants put out their flowers,” Burns says. The herbs also tie nicely into the menu at Cerise, the hotel’s dining room. Named for the French word for “cherry,” Cerise is a European-style bistro operated by Levy Restaurants. “Our menu features traditional French food prepared with ingredients from American markets,” he says. “We create simple, clean dishes. Herbs fit right in.”

Although the herbs grown on the terrace represent only a fraction of the quantity needed in Cerise’s kitchen, they all are herbs Burns likes to have in the kitchen. In addition to the herbs already mentioned, Italian parsley, lemon thyme, anise, mint, sage and chives all grow just a short walk from the kitchen. “I use them for marinating, finishing sauces and as garnishes.” Thyme is his favorite. “I just love the fragrance and its versatility. You can use it in a lot of dishes,” he says.

Herbs also play a role in the hotel’s unique cocktail menu. To promote the terrace and the hotel’s Le Rendez-Vous Bar, and to take advantage of the popularity of martinis, Burns and the bartending staff created a repertoire of about a dozen “Herbacious Libations.” Their creations like the Herbtini — made from vodka infused with sage, rosemary and thyme — the Citrus Lavender Martini and the White Chocolate Mintini, put a fresh herb twist on the traditional vodka martini.

Infused or flavored vodkas are big sellers with the cocktail set right now, but they’re hardly new. Distillers in Russia, Poland and Sweden have been adding herbs, fruits and spices to vodka for centuries. At first, the botanicals were added to make the spirit more palatable. Later, flavor variety was the goal. Gin, the spirit of choice for some martini drinkers, is a distillation of white grain spirit and juniper berries, which provide its distinctive flavor.

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