By Ellen Oltman Kellner
Summer in Vermont is filled with the scent of fresh herbs. You find them growing in gardens and windowsills, in every yard and in flowerpots. Everything I love about breathing clean Vermont air is instilled in these herbs. Restaurant chefs and good home cooks know that using fresh herbs elevates a fine dish to a sublime one. The same is true of cocktails – almost every herb we enjoy in cooking can be mixed with spirits or wine to produce an exceptional drink. Mint is the standby, the go-to herb, and has been for decades – now bartenders are expanding to other culinary plants. What follows is a primer on using fresh herbs and spirits to make craft cocktails – for best results, use the freshest herbs available. Herbs grown in pots in your kitchen or purchased in grocery stores bring a reminiscence of summer even to your midwinter beverages.
Mint: Mint is an essential herb for springtime juleps and summer mojitos. Mojitos in the continental U.S. are made with fresh spearmint or peppermint leaves; in Cuba and Puerto Rico they are made with a different although similar aromatic called yerba buena (literally, good herb). Shake a handful of mint leaves with sugar syrup and add almost any fruit to complement almost any spirit: vodka, bourbon, rum, white wine, or tequila.
Basil: Every kitchen garden grows basil, and with good reason – it is versatile in both cooking and bartending. Sweet and savory cocktails are enhanced with the scent and flavor of basil. Muddle basil and a slice of lime and shake with Silo cucumber vodka for a cool summer martini. Almost any cocktail that uses mint can be made with basil for a spicy twist. Dane at The Copper Grouse serves a cocktail with vodka, lemon juice, muddled basil, and Aperol, shaken with ice and strained into a demerara sugarrimmed glass. A little bit bitter, with the heady perfume of basil and a touch of sweetness from the rim, it is cocktail perfection.
Rosemary: When I walk past a rosemary plant, I always run my fingers along it to capture some of its essence in my hand. I love its scent, and its flavor in food and in drinks. Gin and rosemary are a perfect match, the rosemary intensifying gin’s aromatics. Mix a few sprigs of rosemary with lime for a fresh, unique enhancement of a perfect Tanq & Tonic. Muddle rosemary with a slice of lemon and top with ice, a splash of simple syrup, and a jigger of Barr Hill’s Tom Cat gin for drink that is piney and smoky. Rosemary also adds its perfume beautifully to Bloody Marys.
Lavender and Thyme: Two less common herbs to use in drinks are lavender and thyme, one flowery, the other savory. When making a cocktail with lavender, first use the flowers to make a lavender simple syrup: combine ½ cup granulated sugar and ½ cup water in a saucepan. Add ¼ cup fresh lavender flowers (substitute dried if fresh are not available). Bring to a boil, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool, leaving the flowers until ready to use. This lavender syrup brings its lovely and subtle essence to cocktails, a change from the ubiquitous elderflower liqueur.
Thyme can be prepared in an infused syrup as well, but when muddling the fresh herb, the aromatic oils are released and preserved in the drink. Muddle a few sprigs of thyme with a slice of lemon, then shake with ice, Mad River bourbon, and a teaspoon of maple syrup for a savory and slightly sweet Maple Thyme cocktail.
A staple for the freshest produce, year-round, Dutton’s Farm Stand has locations in Manchester, Newfane, and Brattleboro. With 16 greenhouses, they sell their own salad mix all year, but of course in summer and fall one can find the greatest array of produce. Dutton’s offerings are locally sourced, with all their products coming from within 50 miles. They press their own cider and produce maple syrup in their own sugarhouse. For your picnic, you can find fruits, veggies, baked goods, cheeses, house-made fudge, and much more.
Route 11/30 Manchester. 802-362-3083 or www.duttonberryfarm.com
The patio at Barrows House in Dorset is second to none, with flowers and lawn games and tables shaded by big umbrellas – there is even a fire pit for cool mountain evenings. Inside, the bar at Barrows House is a sleek, contemporary space in a vintage house. There are cozy spaces inside for drinks and casual eats; in the next room is the lovely dining room with windows overlooking the gardens and greens of Dorset. The backsplash of the bar is locally quarried marble, lit from behind to create a soft glow that highlights its variegated beauty. Bartender Colleen makes a beautiful Strawberry Mint Margarita, using herbs and fruit from their house garden in season. She likes to think of her offerings as “good for you” cocktails, focusing on the freshest ingredients, agave instead of sugar, and locally distilled liquors. Barrows House hosts Trivia Night Thursdays and frequent themed dinners featuring paired beers or wines. Visit Colleen at the bar and see what else she is shaking up.
3156 Route 30, Dorset. 802-867-4455 or www.barrowshouse.com
Strawberry Basil Margarita
2 basil leaves
Juice of half a lemon
Juice of half a lime
Splash agave syrup
1 ½ oz Hornitos Reposado tequila
¼ oz Cointreau
In a shaker, muddle together the strawberry and basil. Fill the shaker halfway with ice, then add remaining ingredients. Shake for 10 seconds, then pour into a glass.
I’m a frequent diner at Verdé Restaurant in Stratton Village and I have never had less than a stellar experience. The setting, service, and cuisine are all impeccable. Warm wood and upholstery make a comfortably elegant room, with a cheerful fire in the corner hearth in winter. In summer, the wall of windows overlooking Stratton Village and the now-green slopes brighten the dining area. The bar is curved and expansive, with a second section to the side in front of the kitchen where you can watch the sous chefs at work while you eat.
Luis Pazos, Verde’s maître’d and director of operations, told me that he believes excellent service is the cornerstone of fine dining. “Imagine that service is a color,” he said, “it would be lavender. Soft, pleasing, and unobtrusive.”
Whether you choose to eat at the bar, the dining room, or a patio table, you can expect beautiful food perfectly prepared and presented.
During a recent visit, my dinner companion and I shared an artisan cheese and charcuterie plate, with crostini, marcona almonds, and local honey, followed by Verdé’s incomparable kale and apple Caesar salad. On another night we enjoyed a dozen oysters, pappardelle Bolognese, and pan-roasted salmon with bok choy and rice noodles. The Bolognese sauce was rich and meaty, and the salmon had a crispy skin and edge with a delicate flaky interior.
With an impressive wine list and an extensive cocktail and wine-by-the-glass menu, you are certain to find the right beverage to complement your dinner choices.
Stratton Mountain Village. 802-297-9200 or www.verdestratton.com
2 thin slices fresh ginger
¼ oz Chartreuse
3 oz Lillet
1 teaspoon grenadine
Run lime wedge around the edge of a coupe or martini glass. Dip in demerara sugar and set aside. In a shaker, muddle lime wedge, ginger, and three or four mint leaves. Add Chartreuse and Lillet, a scoop of ice, and shake. Strain into the prepared glass. Very slowly, pour the grenadine over a tilted spoon toward the edge of the glass so it pools in the bottom. Garnish with a few mint leaves and a wheel of caramelized lime, if desired.