No doubt this season, fun and unusual cocktails are “in,” and home gardeners are thinking about the challenge of growing plants, herbs and spices that, with a little imagination and some homework, can become delightfully tasty and attractive adult beverages to share with friends and family.
Those of us who have grape vines, or healthy apple and pear trees in the garden, may have tried our hand at making wine and hard ciders. Some with access to barley and hops make beer, often from commercially available kits. UC Davis Extension offers lots of videos online and programs about wine and beer making, but for those really serious about brewing and distilling, there is a rigorous master brewers program that prepares students for the IBD DBE — the Institute of Brewing and Distilling, London, diploma in brewing examination.
Perhaps the challenge of growing barley to distill scotch, corn to make bourbon, potatoes and grains for vodka and gin, sugarcane for rum and agave for tequila is a bit impractical for the average home gardener, not to mention the legal and safety issues of distilling at home.
But, put on the hat of the mixologist instead of the brewer and distiller and the list of edible herbs and flowers that you can grow to garnish cocktails, flavor syrups to add sweetness and interest, or use to infuse additional flavors into distilled beverages, is almost endless. Your creativity — and knowledge of what is edible or not — are your only limitations.
Try some of these herbs, easily grown in your garden — angelica, anise hyssop, basil, cilantro, dill, fennel, lemongrass, lemon verbena, mint, pineapple sage, rosemary, sage, savory, scented geraniums or pelargoniums and thyme. To release the essential oils of those plants in the mint family, such as spearmint, basil, sage and anise hyssop, don’t muddle them. Place leaves in the palm of your hand and slap your hand once or twice. You’ll release the aromatics without bruising the leaves, and look like you know what you are doing in front of your friends!
Some flowers safe to add color and flavor to your cocktails and infusions are borage, calendula, elderflower, honeysuckle, jasmine, lavender, marigold, nasturtium, roses, viola and violets. Try freezing some of these in ice cubes as well.
Of course, there are the trees — apple, apricot, cherry, fig, lemon, lime, lychee (cold-sensitive), olive, orange, peach, plum, pear and pomegranate (for a great homemade grenadine). Don’t forget vines and berries — blackberry, blueberry, currant, hops, raspberry and sloe berry, nor fruits and vegetables, such as asparagus, green beans, celery, cucumber, melon, miracle fruit, peppers, pineapple, rhubarb (stalks only), strawberry, tomatillo, cherry tomatoes and watermelon.
Gin is a favorite spirit of mine. It is basically a vodka made from barley, rye (and perhaps a little wheat or corn) and flavored with juniper berries. Other ingredients common in gin are lavender, cardamom, ginger, coriander, citrus peel; you might want to add some flavors of your own — it just takes imagination!
Speaking of which, I went in search of a gin that I had heard was intended to capture Mount Tamalpais in a bottle. Lance Winters, master distiller at St. George Spirits in Alameda, wanted to make a line of terroir-inspired gins. His Mt. Tam gin incorporates the aromas and tastes of Douglas fir, coastal sage, bay laurel, wild coastal California juniper berries and coyote mint.
Hopefully, this has inspired you to consider planting your own cocktail garden. According to the book “The Drunken Botanist,” by horticulturist Amy Stewart and speaker at California statewide Master Gardener conferences, “every great drink begins with a plant.”