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Plant an herb garden fit for a cocktail

Muddled, snipped for garnish, or used in a syrup, fresh herbs made a wonderful addition to summertime cocktails. get started now.
Muddled, snipped for garnish, or used in a syrup, fresh herbs made a wonderful addition to summertime cocktails. get started now.

Credit: Angela Hansberger

Credit: Angela Hansberger

These easy-to-grow plants are perfect for a warm weather drink

Cultivating and harvesting offers a therapeutic feeling of connecting with the generations that tended the land before us, as well as the promise of tomorrow.

Herbs are some of the easiest plants to cultivate, and they are key ingredients in many classic cocktails, such as the mint julep and mojito. They also can punch up just about any drink. Sow some seeds or cuttings or tiny sprouts today, so they’ll be ready for a summertime drink.

It doesn’t have to be difficult. Growing something to harvest its leaves or flowers requires way less watchfulness than taking care of a plant for its fruit or roots. Herbs thrive in just about any soil, usually are not bothered by pests, and produce all summer. Some, like sage, fennel and tarragon, reseed themselves. Perennials, like thyme, sage and rosemary, grow all year long.

Also, herbs don’t require the space that vegetables do. A tiny plot in the yard works, or a space next to your doorway. They can be grown in containers on the porch, or in pots around the house. You can grow an herb garden in Mason jars placed on or near a windowsill. All you need is a pot with drainage holes, and sunshine. For those Mason jars, add a 2-inch layer of rocks on the bottom to protect roots from excess water.

It’s easiest to purchase young plants at a nursery or local farm, but you can sow directly from seeds or cuttings. Outside, use a potting mix, or mix together compost and topsoil. Water enough to keep the ground moist. Loosen the plant from its pot and place in the soil, with the plant’s base even with the ground. Gently tamp down. For seeds, scatter at the recommended spacing, cover with a layer of soil, and water gently. This is “don’t overthink it” gardening.

Some herbs to consider:

Mint goes well with virtually any spirit, brightening and lifting a cocktail. All it takes is lightly crushing the leaves to release the aromatic oils. Gently muddle it into a mint julep or a mojito, or make a nonalcoholic minty lemonade. Shake things up by growing a variety, such as chocolate mint or pineapple mint.

Thyme has a woodsy bite to it, and is slightly savory. Lemon thyme also has a citrus kick. It can add an herbaceous twist to a Manhattan when simply placed in the glass as a garnish. Replacing the simple syrup in a gimlet with thyme syrup adds just the right amount of woodsy sophistication. For a thyme gimlet, combine ¼ cup of gin, 1½ tablespoons of fresh lime juice, and 1½ tablespoons of thyme simple syrup with ice, and shake vigorously for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a sprig of thyme.

(To make an herb-infused simple syrup, add 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of water to a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat. Add a half-cup of loosely packed herbs, cover, and let it steep for 30 minutes. Strain, and discard the herbs. Store airtight in the fridge.)

Lavender, a cousin of thyme, is known for its calming qualities and its intoxicating scent. Because of this, it’s one of the most-used essential oils. Much of what we taste is heightened by our sense of smell. A fragrance can impact a drink dramatically. A little goes a long way with lavender, but it balances with bitter, sweet and citrusy concoctions. Make a syrup with it, or add it as a garnish to a Negroni or Tom Collins.

For an easy pot of rosemary, take a cutting from a mature plant, trim bottom leaves, and place in well-drained soil.
For an easy pot of rosemary, take a cutting from a mature plant, trim bottom leaves, and place in well-drained soil.

Rosemary, juniper’s cousin, is warming in a cocktail. It adds depth to bourbon and makes a gin and tonic more savory. Placed simply as a garnish, it adds foresty flavor. It can handle vigorous shaking in a cocktail shaker more than delicate herbs, like basil or mint. It stands up to drought, and is propagated easily from a cutting. To do this, take a 3-inch cutting from a mature plant, remove the bottom leaves, and place in well-drained potting soil.

Sage is sweet, a little bitter, and has notes similar to eucalyptus. The hearty, gray-green leaves often are used directly in a drink, for beauty and aromatics, or infused in syrups. Shake a bee’s knees with sage to add piney richness with subtle citrus notes.

Basil adds a bright, peppery flavor to light spirits, like gin and tequila. Slap a basil leaf over a martini. Just one leaf dramatically alters it, with an herbal boost that flavors each sip. The slight licorice flavor and verdant color burst in a basil smash, where the leaves are gently muddled. To make a basil smash, combine a handful of basil leaves (12-15) and ¾ ounce of fresh lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Gently muddle. Add ⅓ ounce of simple syrup and 2 ounces of gin. Top with ice and shake. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with basil leaves.

Why do bartenders slap herbal garnishes between their hands? It is not for show. Smacking the herb releases the oils, increasing the aroma. The more delicate the herb, the lighter the touch needed. Basil can take a friendly smack. Rosemary can take a whack. Mint bruises easily. Muddling mint is more like a gentle stir in the bottom of a glass.

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