The clever people at Log House Plants have put together a collection of plants that blend oh-so-well with vodka-based cocktails. They’re a wholesale nursery, so they’re growing the plants for sale at retail garden centers and gourmet grocery stores on the West Coast. Look for them in your local indie garden center/grocery store, or order them online from the Territorial Seed Company, who has joined in this effort and put together a great collection of cocktail-friendly plants and seeds.
We called this first collection The Farmers Market Vodka Garden, because vodka can be made from just about anything a farmer might have in the field, from potatoes to corn to grain to fruit. And what blends well with vodka? Just about everything at the farmers market!
Here’s what we put in the collection:
Tomato ‘Red Currant’
Cilantro ‘Slow Bolting’
Pepper ‘Cherry Pick’
Read on for recipes, growing tips, and a video!
As with tomatoes, the trick to growing peppers for cocktails is to choose a variety that is small enough to fit in the glass as a garnish. It’s also important you actually like the pepper; there’s no point growing hot peppers if you can’t stand spicy cocktails.
A good hot pepper variety to try is ‘Peguis,’ a heavy producer of large, green jalapeño-style peppers. For sweet peppers I like ‘Cherry Pick,’ a small, round, red pepper that matures early, making it a good option for chilly summers like I have in northern California.
In any case, give peppers full sun and protection from the wind. If the summer gets off to a slow start, you might even consider giving them a little shelter behind a cold frame. Even using an old glass window as a lean-to to above the pepper plant can give it a little extra shelter and warmth. Like tomatoes, they need rich soil amended with plenty of compost, a granular organic fertilizer formulated for vegetables, and regular water. Uneven watering in temperature swings can stress the plant out and keep it from blooming or producing fruit.
I use slices of peppers in a lot of vodka, gin, and tequila drinks, and I’ve found the flavor to be pretty stable in infused vodkas. Don’t go overboard with the heat, however. Even if you love spicy drinks is much as I do, an incredibly spicy infused vodka can just be overpowering. Dial it back a little and add extra spicy pepper when you make the drink if you really want it.
The Pitchfork: Muddle 1.5 oz vodka, pepper, strawberry, blood orange, dash of agave nectar. Shake & strain. Serve over ice, top with ginger beer.
Pepper-infused vodka: Slice mild or hot peppers, seeds & ribs removed. Fill clean jar with peppers and vodka. Soak 2-5 days. Strain & refrigerate.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Tomatoes
The tomato to grow in a cocktail garden, in my opinion, is a small and flavorful cherry tomato that you can muddle into a drink and also use a garnish. Cherry tomatoes also happen to be a little bit more tolerant of cooler temperatures, and they do better in containers and hanging baskets.
You’ll be seeing more and more grafted tomatoes in garden centers this year, and if you haven’t tried one yet, I highly recommend that you do. The idea behind grafted vegetables is that a flavorful but somewhat finicky tomato can be grafted onto a sturdier tomato rootstock to help it resist disease and produce more fruit. This is the same reason that most fruit trees and rosebushes are grafted rather than grown on their own roots.
My favorites are ‘Sungold,’ which reliably produces lots of sweet, orange fruit, and the very abundant red ‘Sweet 100’ and ‘Sweet Million.’ (Here’s a grafted Sungold/Sweet Million combo plant.) ‘Red Currant’ is a variety that does exceptionally well in containers, and the small fruit really does have a powerful tomato flavor.
If you’re going to be growing them in containers, be sure to give them plenty of sun and use a potting soil that contains coco fiber to help hold in moisture. Ask at the garden center about this — they’re sure to have at least one soil made especially for containers and hanging baskets. Give them a healthy dose of an organic dry fertilizer formulated for fruits and vegetables, and plan on watering regularly. And if you decide to try a hanging basket or one of those upside down tomato planters, be sure you have a freakishly strong hook that is heavily anchored to a good support beam. The plants get incredibly heavy as the season goes on, especially when you water them, so make sure the supports are really overbuilt.
Here’s a trick with tomatoes: when you put the plant in the ground, snip off the lowest set of leaves and submerge the plant a little deeper, so the part of the stem is buried as well. The stem will take root and contribute to a stronger root system. (Don’t do this if you’re growing a grafted tomato: in that case, the graft needs to be visible above ground.)
I have never found the flavors of tomatoes to be very stable in infused vodkas. If you want to mix up a batch of tomato flavored cocktails, my suggestion is to chop or mash the tomatoes with vodka and let it sit for a few hours at the most. You won’t get much additional benefit beyond that.
There’s actually a fantastic organic tomato vodka made by a company called Crop in New York. We had a vodka tasting party a few years ago, and we put a bottle out almost as an afterthought. It was everyone’s favorite.
Kitchen Garden: Muddle 1.5 oz vodka or gin, juice of ½ lemon, ¼ oz simple syrup, fresh basil & tomato. Shake over ice, strain & serve. Garnish with tomatoes on pick.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Celery
If you’ve never grown celery, this is the year you’re going to start. It would never have occurred to me to plant celery in my garden, but someone gave me a few starts, so what choice did I have? I happened to have a good spot for them: I put them near the kitchen door, where they get rich, moist soil and about a half day of shade. The celery thrived, and I found out that I’d been crazy not grow it before. I used it in everything: soups, salads, all kinds of dishes that could be improved by celery if only I had some on hand. And of course, I used it in drinks.
The celery to grow is ‘Redventure,’ a cross between an heirloom strain called ‘Giant Red’ and a popular commercial variety called ‘Ventura.’ Crossing those two resulted in a celery with slender red stems about the diameter of a pencil—perfect for swizzle sticks. And it’s got a rich, strong celery flavor that’s bold enough for cocktails.
You can easily start it from seed, but I’d spring for a six-pack of it so you can start using it right away. Just give it rich soil, plan on watering it about once a week when it’s not raining, and give it some shade. ‘Redventure’ will continually produce new stalks all season long, but in the second year it will want to push up a central stalk and set seed. You can try cutting the stalk down, but the plant will win in the end and put all its energy into reproducing.
Use the slender stalks as a garnish in a Bloody Mary, or muddle them with vodka in any kind of spicy, savory cocktail. Oh, and if you’re not growing your own? Get yourself some celery bitters. You will be amazed at how they upgrade a cocktail with a nice dry, vegetal, complex dash of flavor.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Cilantro
The trick with cilantro is to keep it from blooming. Once it blooms (this is called ‘bolting’), you can forget about harvesting any leaves. So keep it watered, grow it in the shade, and look for varieties that are bred to resist bolting, like ‘Santo‘. Cut back an entire stalk to harvest it, rather than snipping off individual leaves, and pinch off the flowers if they do bloom. If you see a thick central stalk emerging, that’s the one you want to cut back.
If you’re growing cilantro for the fruit, which is what botanists call those round seedpods, then of course you might as well go ahead and let it bloom. Generally the term coriander is used to refer to the dried fruits/seeds, and cilantro refers to the leaves. It’s the same plant. To get that dry, woodsy coriander flavor, be sure and let the fruit dry completely until it is brown. The best flavor comes from plants grown in climates with cool, wet summers. If you can find it, get Coriandrum sativum var. microcarpum, which is favored by spice growers who want the fruit, not the leaves.
Because coriander is one of the key ingredients in almost any gin formula, cilantro makes an excellent addition to gin drinks as well as vodka.
And now–the recipes!
1.5 oz vodka or white rum
10-15 fresh blueberries (reserve a few for garnish)
2-3 sprigs spearmint or basil
.5 oz simple syrup, orange liqueur, or St-Germain
Optional: sparkling wine or club soda
Squeeze the lime into the cocktail shaker, then combine all ingredients and crush gently with a muddle to release the blueberry juice. Shake well and strain into a glass filled with ice. Top with sparkling wine or club soda if desired, and garnish with blueberries.
The Farmers Market
1.5 oz vodka (Try Glacier Potato Vodka from Idaho)
2-3 ‘Mexican Sour Gherkin’ cucumbers
1-2 stalks ‘Red Venture’ celery
2-3 sprigs cilantro
2-3 slices small spicy or mild peppers
6 cherry tomatoes or 1-2 slices large tomato
Dash of Worcestershire sauce (try Annie’s for a vegetarian version)
Reserve a celery stalk, cherry tomato, or cucumber for garnish. Combine all ingredients excep the tonic water in a cocktail shaker and gently crush the vegetables and herbs, making sure to release the tomato juice. Shake with ice and strain into a tumbler filled with ice. Top with tonic water and add garnish.
And here’s the Farmers Market Cocktail video: