My cocktail-loving friends at Log House Plants have put together a collection of plants based around the flavors in gin. 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’s in our Old Tom Gin Garden collection:
Cucumber Mexican Sour Gherkins
Borago officinalis ‘Borage Blue’
Basil ‘Genovese Compact’
Thyme ‘Golden Variegated Lemon’
Read on for recipes, growing tips, videos, etc.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Cucumber
‘Mexican Sour Gherkin’ is not actually a cucumber. It’s a close relative, Melothria scabra, native to Central America and Mexico, with a bright, tart flavor a bit bolder than a cucumber—but the flavor isn’t the only reason to grow this one. The fruits themselves are only the size of a grape, but they resemble miniature watermelons, with a mottled green and white skin. They’re the perfect size for a drink garnish. (get them here)
Look for them in garden centers, but if you can’t find them, grow them from seed. They’ll get up and running quickly, they’ll tolerate cold better than a regular cucumber, and they’ll produce loads of fruit all season long. Just be sure to give them wire or a trellis to climb—they can reach ten feet tall, and really will produce more fruit than you know what to do with. That’s okay, because your friends will all happily take the surplus. Just give them sun, rich soil, and regular water, then stand back.
Cucumbers of all kinds blend so well with gin that Hendrick’s actually adds a little real cucumber extract to its lovely blend. I also love Square One’s Cucumber Vodka, carefully made with actual cucumbers, not other flavor blends meant to taste like cucumber.
Farmer’s Fizz: Muddle 1.5 oz gin, lemon cucumber, basil, juice of ¼ lime. Shake with ice, strain into short glass filled with ice, top with tonic water. Garnish with cucumber.
Gherkintini: Muddle 1.5 oz gin with sour gherkin cucumbers. Add .5 oz dry vermouth, shake over ice, strain into Martini glass. Garnish with sour gherkin cuke.
And try gin, cucumber, and oregano in this lovely drink with a fabulous name: Gin & Sin.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Basil
Basil! You know what to do, right? Lots of sun, warm weather, regular water. 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.
Now–if you live in a cooler climate like I do, or if you want to grow basil year-round–I confess that I have never mastered the art of keeping a year-round supply of basil going in my garden. I have, however, been successful with a number of strategies that, if implemented together, might just work. So give this a try.
First, think of basil plants as a kind of long-lasting grocery store item rather than something you buy from the garden center once a year. In other words, plan on picking up basil plants whenever you see them throughout the year to replace the one that might be on its way out.
Second, choose the right variety. The giant, fragrant ‘Genovese’ is wonderful, but it won’t last as long. ‘Finissimo Verde’ produces smaller leaves, but behaves more like a perennial and might even make it through the winter indoors. ‘Pesto Perpetuo’ is also long-lasting. Garden centers will probably start selling the new ‘Bonsai’ grafted basil this year, which, as the name suggests, is grafted onto sturdier rootstock and trained into a bonsai shape. And there’s always the awesome, and surprisingly cold-tolerant, purple Thai basil.
Third, try to find a place to grow them indoors. A sunny, south-facing window is ideal. If you’re really committed to this, 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.
And finally, if you’re dying to plant some basil outside but it’s not quite warm enough, try this trick, which I learned from Niki Jabbour’s new book The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener: put an upturned wine glass or punchbowl over the plant, cloche-style. It’s a cocktail-ish way to grow cocktail herbs.
Oh, and a nice basil spirit to try? It also comes from Square One! They make a lovely basil-infused spirit you simply must try to believe.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Thyme
Many varieties of thyme have been bred to work as groundcovers rather than as culinary herbs, so look for Thymus vularis, also sold as common thyme, if you’re after flavor. The citrusy T. citriodorus ‘Aureus’ is another good choice. Both are hardy to about -15F. They prefer sun but will tolerate light shade, and don’t require much water or rich soil. The tiny leaves of thyme can be stripped off the stem, but in a cocktail, you’re better off just throwing the whole sprig in the shaker. Add thyme to any cocktail that calls for grapefruit–they’re perfect together.
Growing Tips and Cocktail Ideas: Borage
People say that borage leaves taste like cucumber, but if that’s the flavor you’re after, why not just eat a cucumber? Use the leaves if you want—some people pick small, young leaves for salads or cook them with other greens—but it’s the flowers I’m interested in. The dazzling bright blue color isn’t found in many flowers, particularly edibles, and the fact that they hold their color when frozen means that you can do a very elegant little ice cube trick with them: Fill ice cube trays halfway, freeze, and then set a flower on each half-cube of ice. Refill with water and freeze again. This traps the flower in the middle of the cube.
The plant is ridiculously easy to grow as a summer annual. Because of its long taproot, it resists transplanting; for that reason you’re better off starting from seed. (Get them here.) Once you’ve got a patch of it going, it will self-sow every year. If the blue color doesn’t suit you, there is a white variety available from Johnny’s Select Seeds, and the blue variety sometimes produces pink or purple flowers for reasons known only to the plant.
Borage is the classic Pimm’s Cup garnish, but I can’t imagine a cocktail whose looks would not be improved by floating a starry blue flower atop it, so use it in everything. Champagne and a splash of St-Germain elderflower liqueur? Add borage. Aviation, a gin drink made faintly purple with violet liqueur? Borage. A lemon drop? Borage. See how easy that is?
Pimm’s Cup: Muddle 1.5 oz Pimm’s, .5 oz gin, cucumber, borage leaves, juice of ½ lemon, .5 oz simple syrup. Shake over ice, strain into tall glass over ice, top with ginger beer or sparkling lemonade. Garnish with cucumber & borage blossoms.
Old Tom Gin Collection Recipes
Grapefruit Thyme Cooler
1.5 oz gin
1.5 oz fresh grapefruit juice
¼ fresh lime
.5 oz thyme simple syrup (see note)
Thyme sprig for garnish
Note: Make thyme simple syrup by combining equal parts sugar and water, heating until sugar melts, then adding fresh thyme leaves and allowing to steep for 1 hour.
Combine all ingredients except club soda and garnish in a cocktail shaker. Shake over ice and strain into a tall, skinny Collins glass, a short tumbler, or a Mason jar filled with ice. Top with club soda and garnish with thyme sprig.
1.5 oz Hendrick’s Gin
3-4 chunks lemon cucumber
2-3 sprigs basil
Borage blossom or basil leaf for garnish
Squeeze lemon into cocktail shaker and combine all ingredients except the club soda. Muddle cucumber and basil, then add ice, shake, and strain into a tall, skinny Collins glass filled with ice. Top with club soda and add garnish.
And here’s a video about the Herbarium and about cocktail gardening in general: