Herb gardens dedicated to cocktails may be trendy, but where I was raised, cocktail gardens were called mint beds, which are still as common in the South as kudzu. Today, cocktail enthusiasts such as I have gotten creative in what we grow and how we present our herbs. But first, an appreciative toast: To mint, the mother of all cocktail herbs.
Large urns of glistening mint have always stood near our family's front porches in Mississippi, and now my own home in Dallas. They serve as a sweet aromatic welcome for visitors, and as a go-to spot for grabbing a handful of sprigs for drinks. Spearmint is always our mint of choice; we subscribe to what one bartender legendarily said about pungent, medicinal peppermint: that adding it to a cocktail was akin to putting a scorpion in a baby's bed. Beyond mint's aid to digestive health and help for breath, it is the yin to bourbon's yang, especially in juleps.
I also keep a set of various-sized vintage pots of cocktail-perfect herbs with staked labels to let onlookers know what's what. Container gardening is really a must to keep the herbs from going invasive; they also allow for portability indoors during colder temperatures; and, on a shallower note, they can just look pretty as a grouping. Spring's last frost is my cue to begin planning my summer cocktail garden, using either seeds saved from last year's incarnation or new small plants nabbed as soon as they're available. Throughout summer, I do what I can to keep them happy and healthy (that means organic). But as for growing advice for the list that follows, since we all live in different parts of the country, investigate what will work for your neck of the woods.
Allow me to simply provide the inspiration to create a cocktail garden. Even without alcohol, all of these herbs jazz up practically any beverage or dish. At parties, I guarantee guests will be delighted not only by the clever presentation of herbs, but also by the fun elixirs resulting from your creative and hospitable efforts.
Perennial spearmint Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel' is the king of cocktail mints, being soft, creamy, and sweet with a hint of lemon. Branch out on occasion with chocolate, lavender (with a floral accent), and lemon (more citrusy) mints. Lightly "bruise" the delicate leaves into juleps and mojitos to release their flavorful oils (see "Muddling Through") and play around with pairing mint with melons, berries, peaches, and ginger. Added as a syrup (see "Simple Pleasure"), it gives any drink a sweet and sprightly kick. Just don't skimp on garnishing glasses with it.
Annual sweet basil Ocimum basilicum has the fullest, sweetest, most complex earthy flavor, and lemon basil has strong lemon undertones. Use it in drinks that normally feature mint (a basil julep can be a pleasant surprise), but also try it in such tequila- and rum-based drinks as margaritas, daiquiris, planter's punch, fruity martinis, and gin or vodka gimlets.
The green form of annual Perilla frutescens tastes like the love child of mint and basil, maybe with a hint of fennel. It also has a large nettle-like leaf that looks stunning floating in a martini glass. It goes well with anything mint and basil go well with, but it will give a drink a more peppery edge.
Photo: Robert Peacock