Herbal cocktails have evolved beyond the mojito. Why should the garden be any different? All across town, smart bartenders are mixing sophisticated summer elixirs with leaves, flowers, berries and buds of locally grown flora. Since you, savvy gardener/drinker, already have the mint-and-basil basics mastered, we thought we’d help you diversify your imbibe-able herb portfolio. Muddle 'em. Steep 'em. Soak 'em in gin or freeze 'em in ice. These 18 plants will keep you (and your drink) refreshed all summer long.
Without ever turning to the baker’s rack, you can push drinks in dessert-y directions with certain naturally sweet and highly scented species. Take Himalayan honeysuckle, a vigorous viner—trellis it—whose inky purple, burnt-caramel-flavored berries compensate for odorless (albeit striking) burgundy blooms. Strong sweet birch, cinnamon and anise notes give Bourbon-friendly hoja santa, a “holy leaf” indigenous to the tropics, its nickname: root beer plant. The downy white-rimmed leaves of pineapple sage add that fruit’s essence to any cocktail—try it in a rum punch—without adding any actual fruit. Showy sweet woodruff is a must for its vanilla fragrance, best known for its use in Germany (and at South Street’s Brauhaus Schmitz), where syrup made from the star-shaped leaves (waldmeister sirup) takes the tart edge off Berliner-weisse. Skip the sugar jar and grow stevia, sun-dried and buzzed through a coffee mill.
Want a drink you can chew on? Infuse tequila with a few branches of barbecue rosemary (named for its skewer-worthy branches that can double as swizzle sticks) to reinforce the smokiness of, say, a nice reposado. Long-stemmed chives, with their fuschia pompom blooms, add an onion-y accent (and appealing garnish) to a Bloody Mary, while muddled bronze fennel, an heirloom that shoots mascara-wand stalks all summer and fall, works well in bitter Italian aperitivi and—bonus!—is a free source of pricey fennel pollen. Pizza player Greek oregano is also surprisingly versatile in cocktails; Barbuzzo (110 S. 13th St.) bar manager Terence Lewis uses the fuzzy Lancaster-grown leaves to give the sprightly Gin & Sin (below) some woodsy gravitas.
Even the most strident locavore must concede defeat to the climate restrictions that prevent citrus, cocktails’ crucial equalizer, from thriving in the DelVal. When weather refuses to hand you local lemons, grow lemongrass—the supermodel stalks lend American lemonade (spiked or non) an exotic whiff—or citrus-toned herb varieties like pungent lime basil, hardy lemon thyme and low-maintenance grapefruit mint, equally invigorating in Gin Rickeys. Lightly crushed, the sandpapery, light-green leaves of lemon verbena release a beguiling lemon-candy aroma that makes Zahav’s Israeli riff on the mint julep (Jewlep?), the Lemonanna, an essential in the discriminating drinker’s black book.
More than just a pretty face, flowers are one of the most versatile crops in a green-thumbed bartender’s garden. Sturdy Texas tarragon takes its name from the anise-y flavor of its deep-green leaves, but it’s actually an equatorial marigold whose edible buttercup-colored blooms are stunning suspended in ice cubes. Periwinkle-blue and perfect with gin, borage flowers have a cool cucumber flavor, while hauntingly fragrant violets, steeped in simple syrup, make a quick substitute for hard-to-procure Crème Yvette in classic cocktails like the Aviation. Bartender-about-town Phoebe Esmon, currently behind the bar at The Farmers’ Cabinet (1113 Walnut St.), uses the same approach with chamomile, lending an unusual, musky chord to her Big Fella Punch, below.
Gin & Sin
Terence Lewis, Barbuzzo
2 slices peeled cucumber
6 leaves fresh Greek oregano
1 1/4 oz. Thatcher’s Organic Cucumber Liqueur
1 drop dry vermouth
3 oz. Hendricks gin
- In a shaker, muddle cucumber and oregano. Add cucumber liqueur, dry vermouth, gin and ice.
- Shake and serve with ice in cocktail glass.
- Top with soda and garnish with an additional slice of cucumber
Big Fella Punch
Phoebe Esmon, The Farmers’ Cabinet
1.5 oz. Michael Collins Irish whiskey
.75 oz. chamomile syrup*
.75 oz. lemon juice
.75 oz. ginger beer
2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters No. 6
Steep .75 oz chamomile tea in 3 cups water. Strain out flowers and combine hot tea with 3 cups sugar. Stir until dissolved. Store in refrigerator.
- Place whiskey, syrup, bitters and lemon in tin and shake. Strain over new rocks. Top with ginger beer and garnish with lemon wheels.