If your herbs are too sassy, do you know how to slap them?
Seriously, a good whack releases or activates the aroma in an herb.
You can rub them and crush them and muddle them, too -- along with spices.
The sheer emphasis on quality, garden-to-glass ingredients has elevated mixology from “merely” bar tending to the art of using homegrown, hard-to-find and hand-crafted fixings to create innovative, sophisticated cocktails, as well as artful and reimagined takes on classic cocktails.
Here I am sharing some tips, recommendations, and informed guidance from my Art of the Garnish book to help you grow, cultivate, harvest; and hopefully expand your repertoire of garden-to-glass cocktail garnishes to make your happy hours, well, happier!
Charring rosemary expresses the oils so the garnish lends a piney smokiness to a cocktail, especially when botanical spirits are being mixed.
Juniper berries as garnish “kiss” the juniper taste in gin.
Herbs (savory and aromatic plant leaves) and spices (flowers or flower buds) work especially well as a garnish, adorning the glass and the tablescape presentation, especially when paired with crafted, artisanal, and natural spirits, amaros, aperitifs, and digestifs.
In many European cultures, a region’s commonly-grown ingredients were sourced from local plants such as cascarilla, cassia, ginger, gentian, orange, and cinchona bark.
Aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and fruit have long been used for their medicinal properties. That’s why tonics and bitters were either brewed up at home or gotten from the apothecary.
If there’s any single category of garnishes that’s propelled the mixologist’s swooning passion for craft cocktails, herbs and spices surely take the crown.
Or laurel wreath…
That mint leaf floating in your mojito isn’t just there to look pretty; think of it as a fragrant sensual “foreplay,” reaching your nose and taste buds before your first sip.
These ingredients complement cocktails because the essence of all spirits is plants.
These earthly ingredients add aromatic, musky, and sweet or bitter complex notes that amplify an endless variety of exciting tastes and flavors to seasonal cocktail concoctions.
While the array of herbs and spices may seem dizzying, if you simply use the very best ingredients and do as little as possible to them, your drink will taste and look great.
Overview of Herbs & Spices
The best herbs and spices are fresh -- from your garden or from the farmers market.
If you grow a cocktail herb garden, foraging for fresh ingredients is as close as your garden, or on windowsill.
You can even cultivate cocktail-themed growing areas: think old cocktail shakers and old-fashioned or rock glasses as pots; use swizzle sticks as stakes, and wine corks as mulch.
Herbs are perhaps the easiest plants to grow. You can start with seeds or ready-to-pot plants.
There are as many herbs as there are drink variations, from Achiote and Annatto - tastes that are nutty, sweet, and earthy or musky - to Wormwood - a savory bitter flavor used in absinthe and love potions.
On the easy to grow and get side, mint is a classic; long used as a soothing aid to digestion or upset stomach, mint was the garnish and key ingredient in one of the premiere historical and enduring mixed drinks: the julep.
But there is more than just peppermint or spearmint - orange, rose, pineapple, chocolate, or apple mints add panache to your “Pain Killer.”
Further, when marrying garnishes and cocktail flavors, a tasty and fun way to add a finishing touch is to look at herbs and fruits that - strange as it may appear - have something in common; and can be naturally wed.
For example, cucumber, apple, cherry, watermelon, and strawberry are a natural pairing with rose-infused spirits, by and large, because they are all in the same plant family (rosacea).
Not such a curious surprise then that their flavor combinations pair up like nature’s siblings playing peek-a-boo or tag in a cocktail composition.
Other go-to herbs and spices are cardamom and ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, or thyme. And that granddaddy of them all: mint.
Consider these herbal stalwarts as well: rosemary,
lavender, tarragon, sage, and basil. And there are plenty of unusual options at the vanguard of the herbal craft renaissance.
Angelica - “herb of the angels” is a member of the parsley family once thought to be a remedy against witchcraft, poison, and plague; it has an earthy flavor of anise and juniper and the flowers are honey-like.
Bergamot’s leaves possess a citrusy taste with spicy notes, the same as its delicate flowers.
are all herbs to consider as garnish for their fragrance and taste – and good looks.
The perennial heirloom herb, Lovage, has a more robust, zingy celery flavor and aroma - used to treat prevention of kidney stones and more “irrigation therapy” (always good when drinking is at hand!); it goes great in a Bloody Mary.
And who wouldn’t applaud a little “Love” in their glass?
Along with Lovage, Anise Hyssop, rosemary, tarragon, and cilantro/coriander are herbs I grow and use not only in cocktails but also in brewing homegrown teas and syrups that in turn, can be used in creating cocktails.
Cinnamon is, in fact, the bark of a tree commonly grown in tropical regions, such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, or Brazil.
You can grow cinnamon trees, too. Indoors or out - depending on your growing zone. The aromatic leaves and bark possess that sweet fragrance that when crushed is the stuff of so many warming food and drink recipes.
Used as a drink garnish for hot and cold beverages, you can use the cinnamon stick as a swizzle stick and a kind of straw. You can readily muddle or grind the cinnamon to a powder and sprinkle it on top of the finished cocktail.
Cinnamon pairs well with orange wheels or chocolate bars as companion garnishes.
Taking it up a sprig or two is the Dutch-based, now international “architecture aromatique,” Koppert Cress -- a resource to top-tier chefs and mixologists and a James Beard House purveyor, offering a stunning kaleidoscope of exquisite flowers, herbs, and microgreens as condiments and garnishes. Their Dulce Buttons, for example, are pretty green and white flowers that are very sweet, with notes of mint and perfume. Koppert Cress claims their Sechuan Button flower is like an electric shock: the taste starts with “a champagne-like sensation at the top of the tongue, moving on around the mouth in a kind of ‘Pop Rocks’ sensation.”
Harvest the Garnish
Just as you create recipes to eat with a market-driven strategy, you can design your garnishes by the season.
Elaborate on the time of the year, locale, and celebration. Don’t just mix up a drink; mix up your garnishes!
Remember Chef Claudia Fleming’s rule: “If it’s never going to grow in your garden” -- think black pepper, cardamom, star anise, sazon, or turmeric for folks in the northern hemisphere -- “then purchase.” From the best growers and country of origin.
Otherwise, use the herb and spice in season, harvested straight from the garden.
Fresh is best - Look to harvest your herbs as close to serving time as possible.
Harvest early in the morning for the best flavor, before the sun begins to cook the herb’s essential oils.
Cutting an herb’s leaves and stems is a fun, easy, and elegant way to harvest the garnish.
In fact, cutting or pruning is healthier for the plant. The “haircut” or frequent pruning helps ensure the plant grows bushier and more vigorous. This way, you’ll be sure to have plenty of happy garnish leaves for lots of happy hours.
For basil, mint, tarragon, or shiso, the best way to prune is to snip the stem above where two leaves are growing. Cut the entire stalk for parsley, lavender, chives, or rosemary.
When cutting sage, dill, or cilantro, start from the top down.
Pick the leaves or run your fingers like a zipper along the stalk to remove the leaves.
To bring out the full, robust herbal flavor, slap the herbs to release their aromatic oils.
How to Store
Wash and drain the fresh herbs or spices on a damp paper towel or wax paper and store in an airtight container in the refrigerator or cool place till cocktail hour.
You can freeze fresh herbs and spices in ice cubes for frozen, iced, or “out-of-season” drinks. (Mojitos in March!)
You can also dry the herbs to use in myriad ways. After washing and drying off, hang the herbs in tidy bundles tied at the root end. Hang them in a well-lit area for a week or until dry and crumbly to the touch. Store in airtight containers in a dry place.
This overview is from my book, Art of the Garnish.
It’s a great read with oodles of delicious cocktail recipes, detailed instructions on how to create garnishes, along with barscape and entertaining ideas.
Next up here: How to use your herbs as garden-to-glass garnishes, how to muddle, and more.
Orange stirrer/straw with ground carrot for glass rim.