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
Perennial Rosmarinus officinalis has many varieties—some better for large pots ('Miss Jessup's Upright'), others for smaller ones ('Blue Boy')—but all varieties offer a piney, pungent, rich, warm flavor that adds zest to berries, citrus, pears, and apples, especially when paired with vodka, sparkling wine, and gin. I love adding it to gin-and-tonics both in syrup form and as a playful stirrer.
Perennial Aloysia triphylla lends a lightly floral, bold citrus flavor to drinks with, say, apricots, peaches, bananas, berries, and tropical fruit; used in fruity cocktails and sangrias, vodka lemonades, or lemon drop martinis.
Perennial Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender) has the fullest, sweetest flavor, with lemon and citrus notes that add verve to lemony drinks (especially limoncello) and sparkling wine when used primarily as a syrup. Garnish a champagne flute with a single flowering stem and wait for the wows to follow.
Cilantro. The grassy, earthy, slightly soapy flavor of annual Coriandrum sativum complements drinks with tomato or tropical fruit bases. Rim a margarita or bloody Mary glass with finely chopped leaves mixed with sea salt and garnish each glass with a few sprigs. Some taste buds are averse to the flavor, so know your audience.
Anethum graveolens offers a slightly sweet, delicately tangy, grassy flavor that commingles excellently with vodka- and gin-based drinks, especially ones with cucumber garnishes. Technically an annual, dill self-seeds generously to become a permanent garden presence. Try it as both a syrup and wispy garnish.
Infusing an herb's flavor into a drink is best done by adding it as a simple syrup or using a muddler—an 8-to-10-inch baseball-bat-shaped tool designed to help gently mash or "bruise" the herbs to release their oil and fragrance. I prefer the look and feel of old-fashioned handmade wooden ones, but newer stainless-steel ones are easier to clean and offer "teeth" at the bottom that allow for some serious mashing—a plus for blending fruit alongside herbs in, say, a mojito. Inevitably, though, this question will arise: Which side to use for muddling—flat or round? The answer is easy to remember: The flat end works best for a flat-bottomed glass (most cocktail glasses) and the round for a round-bottomed glass (think flute or pilsner). In lieu of a muddler (ranging from $2 to $25), a simple bar spoon will work fairly well.
Any cocktail-perfect herb can be made into simple syrup, which adds flavor with ease and speed. Here's how I make my mint syrup: Add about 12 to 14 fresh mint sprigs or a cup of loose leaves to 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water that's come to a boil. Remove the pot from heat, cover it with a lid, and let the syrup cool to room temperature before straining it into a clean container (usually a squeeze bottle) that can be refrigerated for a couple of weeks. The same can be done with other herbs. When working with more delicate-flavored herbs, use twice the amount of leaves to capture as much of the flavor essence as possible.