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Lottie Muir aka The Cocktail Gardener and founder of Midnight Apothecary
The first glimmer of sunshine has cast its rays upon us and we’re already filling up virtual shopping baskets with more summer clothes than we can a) afford or b) have room for. If you want to up your party-hosting game this summer, you’ve still got time to plant your very own cocktail garden — much more impressive than half-cooked Tesco Finest bangers on the barbie.
An ‘outdoor cocktail cabinet’ of plants will transform your cocktail adventures, whether you’re infusing a base spirit or mixing and garnishing your cocktails, there’s a vast array of amazing and unusual flowers and herbs that you can easily grow that aren’t available in the shops and will be packed with nutrients, flavour and good looks.
So, what can you grow and what you can your transform them into?
What you want in a cocktail is a variety of leaves, stalks, flowers and seeds. If you have a sunny spot, rosemary and lavender provide year-round cocktail ingredients — rosemary in early spring and lavender right through into late summer.
Lavender buds infused in gin for a matter of hours and combined with some meadowsweet syrup, organic pear juice and fresh lemon juice make a knock-out cocktail – beautifully garnished with a lavender flower.
Rosemary offers up a delicious resinous flavour to cocktails combining beautifully with apples (try a calvados) or aged tequila.
You can also experiment with sugar and salt rims using lavender buds or rosemary chopped extremely finely. Both plants, though, are mediterranean so need a lot of sun or they will not thrive.
Plants that will thrive in semi-shade include the mint family. Growing Moroccan spearmint will make perfect mojitos. But if your patch is small it seems a shame not to grow the more unusual varieties of mint that can work miracles in your cocktails:
Chocolate mint tastes like an After Eight mint and is perfect when paired with a caramel-y bourbon in a Chocolate Mint Julep. And if you make the mint into a syrup you will capture more of the taste, not just the aroma of the mint, before you add another sprig for the garnish.
Apple mint has a delicate sweet aroma of spearmint and apple and is actually considered superior in taste to spearmint but lets itself down with its hairy leaves. But we embrace its fuzziness.
Bronze fennel is a wonderful addition to your collection if you have a slightly larger plot as it can grow nearly two metres high and tolerate a bit of shade. You can use its finely dissected aromatic leaves and stalks to infuse gin or vodka – the leaves make the most exquisite garnish early in the season when put in a tall Collins glass in amongst the ice. Combined with the petals of Dianthus, your drink can look like an exquisite rockpool. It has an anise-y flavour and scent. A great thing about fennel is that you can use its pollen in drinks for an amazing aniseed-flavour garnish (try it in a sugar or salt rim) and, later in the year, its seeds for the same reason. The whole flower heads also make a really attractive garnish.
The sage family will offer a bounty for cocktail hour:
Try pineapple sage for incredible scarlet flowers and pineapple-scented leaves.
Blackcurrant sage has equally exotic red flowers and a delicate blackcurrant aroma to its leaves which works well in a Blackcurrant Mojito. Use the leaves and flowers with some mint in your summer mojitos for a real wow factor. Again, though, they are sun-lovers.
If you want to grow plants that provide natural sweetness so that you can reduce the amount of sugar in your cocktails, try growing Stevia. It comes from south America and is tender so probably won’t last the winter unless you can bring it indoors but it is worth trying it to taste the incredible sweetness of the leaves – much sweeter than sugar.
A UK herb grown for its sweetness more successfully is sweet cicely, a hardy perennial, likely to survive the winter. But, like Stevia, it has an aromatic aniseed-y taste which only mixes with certain flavours. It goes spectacularly with rhubarb and other really strongly scented flowers that won’t be overpowered by it.
Flowers as garnishes
Using flowers as a garnish in a cocktail really adds to the luxury of it. It’s worth growing ones that have the ‘wow’ factor for scent and, if possible, taste, as well as looks.
Nasturtiums, which thrive, in fact flower best, in poorer soils, provide exotic looks, hardly any scent but a wonderful hot bitterness to their taste. So you can eat the whole thing. Their leaves are even more mustardy hot and can be infused in rum or tequila. They grow from seed really easily as an annual and die back in the winter.
Also try growing magenta or cerise Dianthus and picking individual petals. Roses are another obvious choice for their fragrant and beautiful petals – which can be made into a divine syrup too and added to some gin, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and soda.
Alternatives to a slice of lemon
More unusual but a great alternative garnish to a slice of lemon or lime are cucamelons. Originally from central America, these grape-sized tiny watermelon lookalikes have a cucumber and lime taste and grow happily on a vine.
Wild strawberries are an expensive delicacy in specialised shops but if you grow some they work out very economically and look like tiny jewels in a long drink. They are much sweeter than their commercial cousins and will thrive in a shady spot, spreading happily along the ground by runners that form new roots and plants.
Finally, if you want to surprise your guests, how about giving them an electric shock? Remember the sensation of sherbet exploding on your tongue or popping candy? Try growing electric daisies. These bedding plants look pretty enough as a cocktail garnish but it’s the effect they have when you put a few petals on your tongue.
I am thrilled to be partnering with Young’s to grow some of these exciting cocktail garnishes in the garden of the Leather Bottle pub as part of their Craft Kitchen season. Look out for more details soon.
In the meantime, good luck on your cocktail adventures this summer. And remember, not all flowers are edible. Always check with an expert if you are unsure and if in doubt, leave it out!