There’s nothing better in summertime than a meal harvested from your own backyard. As every food lover knows, fresh ingredients in dishes make a world of difference. But there’s one component of a meal that many gardeners overlook when plucking ingredients from the vegetable patch: the drinks. Just as a pinch of fresh basil can take a stir-fry to the next level, herbs can add depth and dimension to your beverage, whether it be a pitcher of infused water or a gin and tonic elevated by a handful of garden-fresh favorites. From syrups and shrubs to bartender-approved techniques, these tips will help you craft a collection of delicious and refreshing drinks straight from your herb garden.
Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, has worked with herbs in cocktails for years. While writing her book, she kept a cocktail garden at her home in California, which included an impressive array of nearly 40 species of herbs — even some specifically developed for use in drinks: “There’s a particular kind of mint that’s really well-suited for Mojitos called ‘Mojito mint,’ but we also had ‘Kentucky Colonel’ mint, which is better for mint juleps.”
Needless to say, Stewart has picked up a few pointers on crafting herbal drinks. First and foremost, she says, it’s important to work with what you already know you like. She also recommends seeking out herbs that are fragrant but don’t lend themselves well to food dishes. Pineapple sage and lemon verbena are wonderful examples, as are scented geraniums, which can add a variety of aromas to your drink, from rose to cinnamon. Some herbs can even replace other ingredients. “I’m not a big fan of cocktails that have tremendous amounts of lemon or lime juice in them; I hate margaritas,” Stewart says. “But lemon verbena is citrusy without this element of acid. It adds that citrus flavor without adding a lot of citrus juice.”
Adam Morgan, bar manager at acclaimed restaurant Husk, in Nashville, also enjoys working with common herbs in cocktails. He suggests that beginning home bartenders should start out experimenting with basics like basil, parsley, and mint. One of his favorites is sage, which has an earthy and warm flavor that pairs well with everything from gin and bourbon to tequila and mezcal.
Don’t forget that while herbs are the perfect starting point to take nearly any drink from bland to complex and refreshing, other garden-fresh ingredients, such as flowers, fruits, and vegetables, can work wonders as well. If you’re looking to expand your cocktail garden, delicate honeysuckle, bright lavender, or refreshing cucamelons can add delicious flavors and a pop of color to any garden or drink.
“The whole idea is to get balance with what you’re using,” says Morgan, who incorporates herbs from the restaurant’s own garden into the drink menu. “I would say just have fun experimenting with different things to find what fits you best.”
After you have your lineup of herbs covered, it’s time to start putting them to work. There are a number of ways to get the most out of your herb garden, but it doesn’t have to be a one-and-done deal. Don’t be shy when trying out new combinations — if one option doesn’t work, you’ll find another that will.
While garnishing with fresh herbs is a great way to add bursts of color, flavor, and aroma to drinks, doing it too often will quickly deplete your garden supply. To stretch your bounty out as long as possible, you can instead preserve a more subtle herbal flavor in simple syrups.
All you have to do is bring equal parts water and white sugar to a boil, stirring until the sugar is fully dissolved, then remove the mixture from the heat and steep a bundle of fresh herbs in the liquid until it cools completely. “You want to put [the herbs] in when the heat’s off and it’s already starting to cool a little, otherwise the heat will destroy the flavor molecules that you like so much in fresh herbs,” Amy Stewart says. Once strained, these syrups will stay fresh in the fridge for up to two weeks. Stewart likes to extend the life of hers by adding a touch of vodka and then popping it in the freezer in a mason jar. The vodka ensures that it won’t freeze solid, and you can then grab a spoonful to add to cocktails, seltzer, lemonades or limeades, or any other beverage.
While garnishes may often be showy and unnecessary when it comes to food, anything from a simple lemonade to a complex cocktail can be greatly improved by the addition of an herbal garnish. “Fresh leaves over a drink add complexity in aroma and taste,” Adam Morgan says. Because herbs are aromatic without needing heat, they’ll do the heavy lifting for you: Simply add a small bundle of your chosen herbs, and with each sip of the drink you’ll get a whiff of the aromatic oils encased in the leaves, effectively altering the aroma and flavor of the drink.
Before adding a garnish, Morgan suggests gently slapping the herbs against your palm a couple of times to “awaken the oils” and release an even more intense aroma.
After you’ve mastered simpler techniques, you may try your hand at spirit infusions and tinctures, but know that using herbs in this manner can be tricky, especially with delicate herbs, such as basil. For a simple infusion, leave a bundle of herbs in your choice of spirit or liqueur for a few days, tasting each day to test the potency. When it reaches the flavor that you like, strain and use the spirit in any cocktail as you normally would. Lemon verbena-infused gin makes a fantastic gin and tonic, just as a dill-infused vodka adds a pop of bright flavor to a Bloody Mary. Even whiskey is beautifully altered when infused with chamomile or sage and then made into an old fashioned. “That’s the cool thing about herbs — they’re all so dynamic and versatile,” Morgan says. “And they’re all around you.”
An acidic beverage that’s often preserved with vinegar and is meant to be sipped slowly, a “shrub” is a great way to preserve the flavor of everything from cucumbers and berries to snap peas and beets. Why not use it to trap delicious herbal flavors, too? Though the traditional cold-processed way of making shrubs involves fermentation and plenty of patience, you can cheat the process by starting off with an herbal syrup. After you’ve allowed your syrup to steep with herbs, “incorporate vinegar little by little — don’t add a bunch at once,” Morgan says. “Just keep doing it until you get the right balance of acidity and let that sit. It really transforms and develops a more complex flavor.” If you also want to add a fruit or vegetable to give the shrub a rounder, more intense flavor, then boil the produce with the syrup for about 15 minutes to extract the flavor before removing it from the heat, steeping with herbs, and then straining.”
After you’ve achieved a satisfying balance, try the shrub with equal parts seltzer water plus an ounce of your favorite spirit (if desired). Garnish with a sprig of fresh herb for a refreshing summer sip.
Another fantastic way to use any fresh herb in a beverage is to gently crush a small handful at the bottom of a glass using a muddler or the back of a spoon before adding any liquid ingredients. This will release the herb’s oils to fully infuse whatever you’re drinking. But Morgan warns to go easy — overdoing it can “overbruise” the herbs and release an unpleasant bitter flavor. “All it takes is a little bit of friction,” he says. “You want to massage the oils out; you don’t want to crush or pulverize the plant.”
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