That’s what I like about the south! Whiskey, that is. It was an interesting challenge to work with the people at Log House Plants to put together a collection of plants based around the flavors in whiskey. My top choices, peaches and cherries, don’t exactly fit in a six-pack at the garden center! Anyway, Log House is 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 Southern Belle Whiskey Garden:
Mint ‘Kentucky Colonel’
Read on for recipes, growing tips, and more.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Mint
Indispensable in mojitos and juleps, and generally useful in any drink that combines fruit and alcohol, mint adds a little botanical complexity to what can otherwise taste like a juice box for adults.
Look for spearmint, not peppermint or any other kind of mint. Grab ‘Kentucky Colonel’ if you can; it produces large, fragrant leaves and isn’t quite as invasive as other mints. Keep it in a pot against the house where it gets some protection from frost and you’ll probably have mint all year long. ‘Mojito Mint’ is another good variety to try–according to the catalog copy, it comes to us courtesy of tourists visiting Cuba who had the courage to pluck a sprig of mint from their drinks and bring it home. That’s right, it’s the authentic Cuban cultivar, only recently cultivated for sale in the nursery trade. You can get it from Territorial.
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.
Blackberry Julep: Muddle 1.5 oz bourbon, .5 oz simple syrup, blackberries, mint. Pour over crushed ice layered with additional berries and mint.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Chamomile
The chamomile to grow is German chamomile, Matricaria chamomilla. It’s an upright annual that is used as a medicinal herb, and it’s got one other thing going for it: it’s less likely to trigger allergies than Roman chamomile, a low-growing variety you sometimes see in lawns. Both are in the aster family.
You can start chamomile from seed in spring by direct sowing outdoors, or put the plants out at the beginning of the season. They need nothing more than ordinary garden soil, sun, and regular water to flourish and bloom. If you cut the flowers back regularly, you’ll get more blooms throughout the season, but remember that chamomile is an annual–you’re going to start over again next year.
You can harvest the flowers by snipping them off the plant in the middle of the day, when the sun is out and the plant is dry, and spreading them out in a single layer in a cool, dark place to dry. They’re also fabulous fresh, and you will get brighter, greener, more citrus-y flavors from the fresh blossoms.
Chamomile adds a nice floral touch to infusions and liqueurs. If you’re not growing it yourself, try it in J. Witty’s chamomile liqueur, or the very nice Italian Marolo chamomile liqueur with grappa. Good stuff!
And here’s a great whiskey/chamomile recipe: Big Fella Punch.
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 or peaches–they’re perfect together. Oh, and you know what’s amazing? Farigoule Thyme Liqueur. Seriously.
Growing tips and cocktail ideas: Tarragon
Because of its mint and anise flavors, tarragon makes an interesting cocktail ingredient. You’re looking for Artemisia dracunculus—and yes, absinthe drinkers, this is, in fact, a relative of wormwood, the artemisia species that flavors absinthe.
Give it sun and soil on the dry side and protect it from temperatures below about -20F. Try crushing a little tarragon into a mint julep for a spicier version of a classic whiskey drink.
Enough gardening–here are the recipes!
Chamomile Hot Toddy
1-2 oz whiskey
1-2 oz honey-chamomile syrup (see note)
Note: Make honey-chamomile syrup by combining equal parts honey and hot water. Add fresh (or dried) chamomile blossoms and allow to steep for 1 hour, then strain.
Pour hot water into a heat-proof glass. While you wait for it to heat the glass, press cloves into the rind of the lemon wedge and set aside. Empty the glass and coat the inside with syrup, then add the whiskey and top with hot water. Squeeze the lemon into the drink and drop it into the glass.
Summer Peach Old-Fashioned
1.5 oz bourbon
.5 oz thyme or tarragon simple syrup (see note)
Half of a fresh peach (optional upgrade: Grill the peach first!)
Thyme or tarragon sprig for garnish
Note: Make simple syrup by heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar melts. Add herbs and allow to steep for one hour, then strain.
Combine the first three ingredients in a cocktail shaker, and muddle the peach to release the juice. Shake well over ice, then strain into a short tumbler filled with ice. Add a dash of bitters and garnish with herbs.
Tarragon Mint Julep
2 oz bourbon (I like Maker’s Mark)
3-4 tablespoons superfine sugar (see note)
Generous handful of fresh spearmint or tarragon, or a mixture of both
Into a silver julep cup, mason jar, or highball glass, press 2 tablespoons of sugar with a small amount of water to create a paste. Add a layer of fresh mint leaves and crush gently. Top it with a layer of crushed ice. Sprinkle sugar and another layer of mint leaves, then top with another layer of crushed ice. Continue until the glass is full, then pour in bourbon.
Note: Superfine sugar dissolves quickly, but regular sugar is fine too. Don’t use powdered sugar—it contains cornstarch and can gum up a drink.
Where does whiskey come from? Barley. Corn. Check it out: