The Care & Feeding of a Bar, Part 2on July 14, 2009 at 11:54 pm
I promised to follow-up on the liquor post with ones about the various other “accessories” needed to keep a fabulous bar.
This one is a bit of a luxury, but it is a luxury that is achievable as long as you have a sunny window:
The Herb Garden
The WHAT, you ask?
The HERB GARDEN, I say!
Fresh herbs can make a good drink wonderful, and if you’re going to invest in mixing a lot of drinks, growing your own is going to give you a better return than buying them every single time you want a cocktail. Plus, you won’t have to decide what you want in advance.
I grow about a dozen, several of which I’m not even going to list in this post, because they’re a bit more rare and not really staples (but I love them anyway). The ones here are the ones you should consider growing if you want to make fresh herbal concoctions! If you can’t grow herbs in a garden, you can still use this as a handy guide to what is yummy with what.
You probably know what mint is. Mint comes in many different varieties, and all of them look slightly different, but most of them will at least resemble the leaves in this photo. It can have fuzzy leaves, and different mints will have a different strength.
Mint is, obviously, needed for mint juleps, but also for mojitos, and right there, you can probably tell something about the great versatility of mint, that it is delicious with rum and with whiskey. It’s also excellent in gin and vodka drinks. If you are going to grow one herb, grow mint! It tends to be very hardy and will grow even in ridiculously difficult conditions, so it is an easy plant to cultivate.
If you are going to grow two herbs, the second one should be:
You probably know basil as the chief ingredient in pesto sauce, or as a starring member of an insalata caprese. But basil is also a fine addition to many cocktails. Basil plays well off citrus flavors like lemon, lime, and grapefruit. I use it in lemonade-styled drinks. As with mint, it comes in several varieties– you can even get basil in different colors! Basil goes best with gin and vodka drinks, but it is also okay with rum.
Again, better known as a cooking ingredient, cilantro, also known as coriander, is a chief ingredient in a lot of Latin American and Middle Eastern cooking.* There are a huge number of variations in cilantro/coriander leaves, and in the flavors, too. The one I show above is a Middle Eastern variety which looks sort of like fennel or dill. The Latin American variety looks more like flat-leaf parsley. In both cases, it can be distinguished by its pretty white flowers.
Cilantro is amazing in rum drinks, and I regularly use it as a replacement or addition to mint in a mojito. It’s also wonderful in daiquiris. It is also okay with gin or vodka.
*There is also an herb called Vietnamese Coriander which I also have planted and use regularly that has flat, reddish, shiny leaves and is unrelated to what is normally called Coriander or Cilantro. If you see it, it is yummy, but not the same thing! Try it in a gin drink!
Sage is not quite as versatile, but comes in a ton of varieties and many of them taste good in different types of drinks. Common sage, like the one I’m showing here, is notable for its “crumply” looking leaves and purple flowers, and most sage will at least partly resemble this, though it may have fuzzy leaves Sage has a rather pungent, herbal scent and is best in gin drinks or whiskey drinks. Other sage varieties will taste good in other liquors– I use pineapple sage in rum quite a lot.
Those creeping, tiny-leafed plants that almost look like a moss are Thyme! Thyme is a great addition to gin or vodka drinks, and, again, comes in many varieties that have slightly different flavors that you might like in other liquors. Unlike the other herbs here, you should strip the tiny leaves from the stems with your fingers, mash them a bit with a mortar and pestle to make the oils come out, and then soak them in liquor before straining them out.
There are many other herbs you can try! These are just a few of them that I think work best and are most common!
For most herbs, when you prepare them, you can do it in a number of ways. You will usually want to strip the leaves from the thicker stems, and then chop the herbs up to put them in a shaker, or mash them a bit with a mortar and pestle– this starts freeing the oils from the herbs that flavor things! Then you can add a whole, untouched sprig or leaf to garnish a drink. For some herbs that are more pleasant to eat whole, like mint or basil, you can add the crushed or chopped leaves to the drink when you serve them instead of straining them out– this is customary when making a mojito.
When you go to pick out your herbs, your best bet is to go to a local seller– big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot tend to be more susceptible to blighted plants. Try to find a local nursery who has many varieties of the herb you want to pick, and don’t be afraid to taste a leaf or two of the ones you are trying to decide between– between three or four mints, you might discover several very different flavors, and sometimes the prettiest plant is not the best-tasting.