How well-known common herbs can enhance your summer cocktails
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 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 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.
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 sugar-rimmed glass. A little bit bitter, with the heady perfume of basil and a touch of sweetness from the rim, it is cocktail perfection.
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.
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