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Bartenders aren’t the most obvious green thumbs out there (don’t they sleep most of the day?), but if they’re serious about cocktail ingredients, it’s likely that they’re cultivating a little patch of land somewhere and growing herbs to use in their drinks (a.k.a. hoeing for hooch). We checked in with people like Daniel Shoemaker, the owner of the Teardrop Cocktail Lounge in Portland, Oregon, who’s installing a rooftop garden for the bar-restaurant.
“Things that work well for the bar grow like weeds,” says Daniel Hyatt, bar manager at the Alembic in San Francisco. At the Alembic, they grow herbs and even some raspberries in a little garden out back in an alley. Mint is one of those weedy plants that will become invasive if you don’t confine it to its own pot. Hyatt suggests growing an all-purpose spearmint but also playing around with other mints like chocolate mint, pineapple mint, and peppermint. Try using the chocolate mint in a Julep to “bring out the cocoa notes” of the whiskey, or swapping pineapple mint into a light-rum-based drink such as a Mojito to give it an extra-bright fruity flavor.
LEMONY LEAVES Citrus trees are great if you have the space, but you can also use homegrown lemon verbena to add lemon flavor to your drinks. “It’s flavorful, aromatic, and hard to find in stores,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco, where he’s planted several old wine barrels with herbs, a few citrus trees, grapes, and even blueberry bushes. Ehrmann pairs the lemony-floral verbena with tequila and mezcal, and suggests capitalizing on your harvest by concocting an infused rich simple syrup made with a handful of leaves, a cup of water, and two cups of sugar, boiled three to five minutes, cooled, and then strained.
“Most of these [herbs] have bitter oils that will release if you pulverize them,” says Daniel Shoemaker of Portland’s Teardrop Cocktail Lounge. Start gently when you muddle your homegrown herbs, or your cocktails will taste more like lawn clippings than fresh mint. Often, Shoemaker says, he’ll just smack the herb sprig or leaf in his hands to bring out the aroma. Daniel Hyatt agrees: “People forget that a big part of the experience with fresh herbs is the aroma. Sometimes I don’t muddle them at all; I set them on top of the drink so you smell them, which has a profound effect on the palate.”
DOUBLE-DIP ON BASIL Like borage, basil works double duty, say Beattie and Ehrmann, since you can use the leaves in a cocktail and the flower buds as fragrant garnishes. “If you pick the buds off your plant, which you want to do anyway to keep it from bolting [flowering too soon],” says Beattie, “they can be put on top [of a drink]—just pinch them before you put them in, and they get a wonderful smell.”