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 have gotten creative in what we grow and how we present our herbs.
Container gardening is really a must to keep the herbs from going invasive. Pots 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.
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.
‘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 and play around with pairing mint with melons, berries, peaches, and ginger. Added as a syrup (syrup recipe at the end of the slideshow), mint gives any drink a sweet and sprightly kick. Just don’t skimp on garnishing glasses with it.
Grow it: Mint thrives in containers. Buy some seedlings at your local nursery, and in spring, plant them in a container that you can place in a partially shaded or sunny spot.
Learn More: Mint Growing Guide
Sweet basil 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 tequila- and rum-based drinks, like margaritas, daiquiris, planter’s punch, fruity martinis, and gin or vodka gimlets.
Grow it: Aim to have about three pots of basil, since you’ll use a lot. Buy a packet of seeds and plant eight each in three 4-inch pots. Put your pots on a sunny windowsill or outside where they’ll get lots of sun.
More: 17 Basil Varieties
Photo: (cc) Rachel Strohm/Flickr
Japanes basil 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.
Grow it: No special instructions needed here; plant Japanese basil just as you would other varieties.
Photo: (cc) Rieh H./Flickr
Rosemary 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.
Grow it: Rosemary is a hardy, drought-tolerant (read: forgiving for when you forget to water it) herb. Buy seedlings or a small pot of rosemary, and keep it in a spot that’s sunny all day long.
Learn More: Windowsill Herb Garden
Photo: Rodale Images
This herb 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. (You can even use it to make your own homemade bitters.)
Grow it: Look for seedlings around late spring and plant them in containers you can place in sunny, sheltered spaces.
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Photo: (cc) Gisela Francisco/Flickr
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.
Grow it: Lavender does well in hot temps and ceramic pots, which breathe. It does need good drainage, though. Cover the bottom of your pot with gravel, fill with a good potting mix, and place the container in full sun, or someplace that gets at least 3 to 4 hours of sunlight a day.
Learn More: Luscious Lavender
Photo: (cc) Allan Henderson/Flickr
The grassy, earthy, slightly soapy flavor of cilatro 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.
Grow it: Cilantro grows best in cooler temperatures, so planting time is best in early spring and late summer. Find a wide, bowl-shaped container at least 18 inches wide and 8 to 10 inches deep, and place your seedlings in full sun if you live up north and in partial shade if you live in a warmer climate.
Photo: Rodale Images
Dill offers a slightly sweet, delicately tangy, grassy flavor that commingles excellently with vodka- and gin-based drinks, especially ones with cucumber garnishes. Try it as both a syrup and wispy garnish.
Grow it: Dill does well as soon as temperatures get above freezing, but it needs lots of sunlight. Plant some dill in containers that will get at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight daily.
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. The flat end of muddlers works best for a flat-bottomed glass and the round for a round-bottomed glass. 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.
Additional reporting by Emily Main
Keep Reading: How to Make Pickles.
Photo: (cc) Carl E. Lewis/Flickr