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Drink what you grow: Make the most of Southern summer with these three herbaceous cocktails

Photo Credit: Chris Hunt


Drink what you grow: Make the most of Southern summer with these three herbaceous cocktails

Summer is the best season for DIY cocktails. Herbs and flowers — grown in your own backyard — can be used to infuse syrups, become the base of bitters and shrubs, and create unique cordials. From there, many different drinks are possible. 

Southern gardeners enjoy a long growing season. From March until early November, fresh vegetables, fruits and herbs can be grown in backyard gardens or in pots along decks and terraces for use in the kitchen. But consider the cocktail. Bartenders around the South are at the forefront of the culinary cocktail movement — mixing drinks using fresh ingredients grown next door to the bar or in a restaurant garden. You can do the same. In fact, besides the base spirit, most everything you need to create simple cocktails at home is likely growing in your garden or yard right now.  

A member of the mint family, lavender has for centuries been used medicinally for its soothing properties that calm nerves or aid in sleep. But it also has the ability to create potent infusions, tinctures and simple syrups for cocktails. 

To make an easy lavender simple syrup, combine equal parts water and sugar in a saucepan. Add a handful of lavender flowers and bring the whole mixture to a simmer. Once the sugar has dissolved, remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool. Finally, strain the syrup to remove the lavender and store in the refridgerator in a Mason jar. (This technique was adapted from The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart.)

Get the full recipe for lavender simple syrup

Once the syrup is made, try using it in a floral twist on a Tom Collins. All you need to do is combine gin, lemon juice and the lavender syrup in a Collins glass. Add ice, soda water, and a couple of garnishes — that's it.

Get the full recipe for Lavender Collins

And simple syrups aren't only for cocktails — any herbal syrup makes a great substitute for granulated sugar in lemonade, sweet tea or for adding pep to your seltzer water for a refreshing summer soda.

Another lavender tip? Try muddling a few sprigs of fresh lavender from the garden into gin before adding dry vermouth. Stir, strain and pour into a chilled martini glass with a lemon twist.

Southerners take pride in growing ancient rose bushes from cuttings passed down from generation to generation. Beautiful and fragrant, rose can lend soft complexity to cocktails through infused vermouths and cordials.  

Non-alcoholic or low in alcohol, cordials have long been mixed into punches and cocktails to bring a touch of sweetness. To make your own, make a basic simple syrup with water and sugar and let it cool. Next, stir in a few handfuls of rose petals, along with sliced oranges and lemons, plus a few tablespoons of citric acid. Let the mixture sit for a full 24 hours before straining it and storing in the refrigerator. (Again, we've adapted this technique from The Drunken Botanist.)

Get the full recipe for rose cordial

The cordial is best served simply. Add a bar spoon-ful to a glass of sparkling wine or dry Champagne. Spruce up your Campari and soda with a splash or two. Or try replacing the tonic in a gin and tonic with the cordial. 

Lemon thyme 
If you’re growing this aromatic herb in your garden, it’s not simply for adding a touch of savory lemon flavor to your pork roast or a piece of fish. It also makes an excellent base for cocktail bitters. 

Mark Bitterman’s herbal bitters master recipe from his book, 
Field Guide to Bitters and Amari, can easily be adapted to use whatever herbs you may be growing in your garden.

Along with the lemon thyme, combine high-proof alcohol, such as Everclear 151, with botanical gin, lemon, glycerin, dried hops, quassia chips and gentian root in a big jar. Give the jar a good shake and then let it sit for about five days. Give the concotion a taste. If it has strong, well-developed flavor, it's ready. If you're finding the mixture bland, let it rest for another day or two and taste again. When you're satisfied, strain the bitters through a coffee filter and then bottle them up in small dropper bottles.

A side note: Yes, quassia and gentian may sound like ingredients for a magic potion, but they're crucial to bringing the characteristic bitterness to this bar staple. Seek them out.

Get the full recipe for lemon thyme bitters

We like to use the lemon thyme bitters in a variation on the martini cocktail called the Puritan. The drink dates back to around the very end of the 19th century when dry gin was making a huge impact on American cocktail culture, and it first appeared in print around 1900. The Puritan usually calls for orange bitters, but using lemon thyme bitters brings a bit of an herbaceous, slightly savory edge to it that lets the gin shine and rounds out the sweetness of the yellow Chartreuse.

To make the drink, simply stir together ice cubes, dry gin, dry vermouth, yellow Chartreuse and a dash or lemon thyme bitters. Strain the drink into a small coupe or Nick and Nora glass and garnish with a sprig of lemon thyme. Bonus points if you smack the thyme between your hands to release its essential oils.

Get the full recipe for The Puritan cocktail

Photo Credit (roses): Manny Crisostomo/Sacramento Bee
Photo Credit (herbs): Joanne Rathe/The Boston Globe

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Beth McKibben is an Atlanta-based cocktail and spirits writer and historian as well as the editor of Eater Atlanta. She is a regular contributor to Liquor.com and has written for such publications as Atlanta Magazine, Paste Magazine and Tales of the Cocktail. Beth was the former bar scene columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She enjoys heavy research, sipping whiskey and martinis, collecting antique glassware and throwing cocktail parties.