My cocktail-loving friends at Log House Plants have put together a collection of plants that are particularly worth growing for infusing in simple syrups and for making infused vodkas and liqueurs. 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.
Here’s what we chose for the Mixologist Simple Syrup Collection:
Agastache ‘Golden Jubilee’
Scented Geranium ‘Attar of Rose’
Read on for recipes, growing tips, and more.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Agastache
Also called anise hyssop or licorice mint (Agastache foeniculum) This tough little perennial is, in fact, a member of the mint family, and the leaves do taste and smell of licorice or anise. It’s completely hardy on the West Coast and will survive winter temperatures as low as -25F. In summer, the plants thrive on sun and very little water, pushing up flowering stalks that reach a couple feet in height. Because it’s such a widely adaptable plant, you’ll find that anise hyssop does just fine in partial shade as well.
These plants have been the subject of a great deal of hybridizing, but I haven’t noticed any compromises in the flavor of the leaves. So you might as well indulge your vanity and shop for good looks. ‘Golden Jubilee’ is popular for its chartreuse leaves and brilliant blue flowers, and A. aurantiaca ‘Fragrant Delight’ produces a mix of orange, purple, and lavender blossoms. ‘Blue Fortune’ is considered the workhorse of the bunch, with light blue flowers and a really vigorous habit. They all attract bees, butterflies, or hummingbirds, and they require zero care except for shearing back the dead blossoms at the end of the season.
So what do you do with them? In Scott Beattie’s book Artisanal Cocktails, he slices the leaves into long, thin strips and shakes them over ice with vodka and a berry-infused simple syrup, then serves the drink with seltzer water and garnishes with more of the leaves and blossoms. I’ve also seen it muddled into a gin & tonic, and anise hyssop-infused simple syrup is generally a good upgrade to ordinary simple syrup in any fruity or floral drink. The flowers are edible, so feel free to garnish with them as well.
Herbal simple syrup: Heat equal parts sugar and water until sugar melts, then add fresh herbs & allow to steep for 1 hour. Refrigerate. Use a splash of vodka as preservative.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Lavender
The best way to get a little lavender flavor in a cocktail is to make a simple syrup with it. Be sure to start with either an English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) like the strongly fragrant ‘Violet Intrigue’ or ‘Munstead’—they’re the ones most often used in cooking or perfumes–or L. x intermedia like ‘Grosso’ or ‘Provence.’ Both require sun, fast-draining soil, minimal water, and winter temperatures above 0F to survive. Mulch is unnecessary, and in fact, wood mulch can cause rot at the base of the plant. Use grey pea gravel if you’re going to mulch. After the plant blooms, shear off the spent flower stalks and the top 1/3 of the foliage, but never cut down to bare wood–the plant won’t recover from that treatment. Lavenders are fairly short-lived plants: plan on replacing them after about 5-7 years.
Make up a pot of simple syrup and just toss in fresh or dried lavender buds while it cooks. Strain it, cool it, and mix it. I’d use it in anything involving gin, vodka, or sparkling wine. A fresh lavender bud also makes a fabulous Martini garnish; the essential oil spreads out on the surface of the gin and magical things happen. Looking for lavender in a bottle? Yes indeed! Check out Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters.
Lavender bitters: 8 oz 100-proof vodka, 1 cup dried lavender blossoms, ginger slice, 5 cloves, 2 tbsp dried orange peel. Steep for 2 weeks in dark, strain, add 1 tsp simple syrup, store in dark bottle.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Scented Geranium
Scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.) Not a true geranium, these fragrant pelargoniums are the result of endless hybridizing, which is why it’s impossible to list a particular species. You can get scented geraniums that smell (and taste) of roses, coconut, apple, nutmeg, strawberry, lime, and ginger. They do great in containers, they can tolerate dry soils, and they prefer full sun but will put up with a little shade. If you’re growing the plants for flavor, do give them as much sun as possible to encourage the development of essential oil.
The flowers are edible so they’re safe to use for garnish, and the leaves release a tremendous amount of flavor into simple syrup. They’re also fantastic muddled into gin or vodka to dress up a basic Martini. In fact, a British distiller is making Geranium Gin, which does taste of rose geraniums, but it’s not yet available in the United States so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
Herbal Infusions: Wash herbs & loosely fill clean jar. Top with vodka (or gin!). Steep for 1-3 days, testing regularly. Strain & use within 2-3 months.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Mint ‘Orange’
I like this mint for infusions and syrups because the orange flavor gives it a richness and depth you don’t find in ordinary mints.
Like other mints, it wants sun but will tolerate some shade. To keep it from spreading, grow it in a pot (you can bury the pot in the ground, leaving 2-3 inches of the rim aboveground, if you prefer), or plant it in one of those small areas hemmed in by concrete on all sides that everybody seems to have around their house somewhere. Give it regular water, and cut off an entire stalk, not individual leaves, when you’re ready to use it. If, after a few years, the mint starts to seem tough and bitter, dump the whole thing out of the pot, extract a few young side shoots, and re-pot just those shoots. The new plant will be sweet and tender again.
Herb-infused sugar: Crush fresh herbs into 1 cup sugar. Store in closed container for 2 weeks. Shake regularly to prevent clumping. Use in tea, simple syrups, and for sugared rims. More recipes & tips at LogHousePlants.com
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Angelica
Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a big ol’ gorgeous creature in the carrot family that has been used to flavor liqueurs since the Middle Ages. If you’re going to grow it, be sure to get this particular species. (Get the seeds here.) There are other ornamental angelicas sold in garden centers, but they can be mildly toxic. It’s actually fairly easy to grow from seed, and I’ve had good luck planting them in fall after the rains start. Just be sure you sow them where you actually want them to grow: like other members of the carrot family, angelica has a long taproot and doesn’t like to be transplanted. Angelica is happy in the shade and it likes damp soil, but I’ve ignored it all summer and it survived fine without extra water. The plant is a biennial, producing only leaves the first year and blooming and going to seed the second year. If you’re really into angelica, plant it two years in a row and always let some go to seed so you’ll have a fresh crop every year.
The roots and seeds are used to flavor liqueur and vermouth. Although distillers love to keep their recipes a secret, take a swig of Strega, Chartreuse, Galliano, and other such Italian and French herbal liqueurs and see if you don’t taste the indescribably fresh, bright, green flavor of angelica. The best way to use it in a cocktail is to chop off a thick stem and mix it into a simple syrup or infuse it in vodka for no more than 24 hours along with other fresh herbs and citrus. (Give fresh, green herbs too much time in vodka and you’ll start to get really nasty off flavors. Experiment with longer infusion times at your own peril.)
Herbal liqueur: Combine fresh herbs in jar with vodka for 1-4 days. Strain and add spices & dried citrus peel, soak for 2-3 weeks, tasting regularly. Strain, add simple syrup to taste, refrigerate for 1 week before using.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Thai Basil
Like mint, basil can be tricky in infusions and simple syrups. The flavors just aren’t very stable and tend to break down, producing off-flavors that you won’t enjoy in a drink. But this thai basil really holds up well, so this is the one I recommend. Even so, don’t do long infusions with this one. Soak the herbs in vodka (or whatever spirit you’re using) for a day or two at most, and taste often. When it’s fabulous, it’s done.
Grow basil outdoors in rich soil, in warm, sunny weather, and give it regular water. Indoors, a sunny, south-facing window is ideal. If you’re really committed to growing basil indoors or having a supply year-round, you’ll get a little heated seed mat (available at garden centers and hydro shops for about twenty bucks) and put that under your plant. You can also pull a potted basil from its pot, rinse the roots off, and stick it in a glass of water. It won’t live forever, but keep a few going and you’ll be surprised at how well they do. Thai basil in particular is long-lived and can get through the winter with the right care.
Don’t let any basil bloom if you want it to keep producing leaves. Pinch back the blooms or harvest any stalks with blooms at the end first. And do harvest a stalk rather than pull off individual leaves–by doing that, you’ll actually be pruning the plant and helping to keep it going. Just start at the tip and cut back as much of one stalk as you need at a time.
Herbed salt: Mix equal parts kosher salt and fresh herbs in food processor, or crush & blend by hand. Spread on baking sheet, bake at 225 for 30 min or until dry, turning once. Use for salt rims or sprinkle onto savory cocktails.
Recipes? I’ve got some recipes!
Herbal Simple Syrups
To make your own herbal simple syrups, combine equal parts sugar and water and heat until the sugar melts. Add fresh, clean herbs and steep for one hour. Strain and use immediately, or save in the refrigerator in a tightly-sealed bottle or jar for 2-3 weeks. To make it last longer, add a splash of vodka.
Invent your own garden-inspired cocktails by mixing herbal simple syrups with your favorite spirit—think vodka, gin, or rum—adding lemon or lime juice, and topping with soda or sparkling wine. Garnish with fruit or fresh herbs.
1 quarter fresh lemon
Garnish options: Fresh lavender sprig, Johnny jump-up (viola), pansy, borage blossom, or lemon twist
In a tall, skinny Collins glass or a short tumbler filled with ice, pour gin over ice. Squeeze one lemon wedge over ice and drop into glass. Top with Dry Lavender Soda and a dash of Scrappy’s Lavender Bitters. Garnish.
Note: 1.5 oz is a serving of gin, but if you’d like to make this drink a little less boozy, it tastes fine with only 1 ounce.
And if you really get into making your own simple syrups, eventually you’ll want to try elderflower cordial. Check this out: