There’s a sunny spot on the back balcony where two of my favourite words spend the summer in a tangle of aromatic green co-existence: “cocktail garden.”
Most people would call this cluster of terracotta pots by the kitchen door an herb garden. And that it is. I’m always snipping basil, rosemary and thyme for soup, sauce or pesto. But mostly, my harvest is reserved for the cocktail hour: for making flavoured syrups and herbal infusions for drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Herbs are easy to grow, thriving even in tight spaces, with minimal care. All they need is a decent-sized pot with drainage, faithful watering (whenever the soil feels dry to the touch), adequate sunshine (at least four hours a day) and regular snipping to encourage new growth.
For my cocktail garden, I look for especially aromatic varieties of herbs—ones that readily release their fragrance and flavour when infused in tea, syrup or alcohol, or muddled with sugar. The best way to choose herbs for a cocktail garden is to touch them at the market or the nursery, to rub their leaves between your fingers and then smell.
Among my all-time cocktail-garden favourites:
Moroccan mint, a form of spearmint with bright green leaves, is especially aromatic. It is great for muddling into mojitos, or for sweet Moroccan iced tea made with black tea and sugar.
Pineapple sage isn’t at all like the sage most of us know. It’s a tall plant with downy leaves that produces brilliant scarlet flowers in fall. Its leaves have the most subtle, surprising pineapple fragrance. Really nice for iced tea sweetened with honey.
Lemon thyme might be my all-time favourite herb. Tiny variegated green leaves are topped with pretty pink flowers, both of which are edible. Great for syrups and sorbet, but also as a garnish.
Rosemary is one of the most aromatic of all herbs. Just a few sprigs yield an intensely flavoured syrup. You can also dry the leaves with coarse sea salt and hot chili pepper flakes and then, using a spice mill, grind the mix into an herb salt for rimming margarita or bloody Caesar glasses.
Lemon verbena is a beauty of a plant that can grow to three feet tall in a big pot, with glossy pointed leaves that release a glorious citrus scent when rubbed. Cut the branches all summer long and dry the leaves for a year’s worth of tisane or use them fresh in white sangria or iced tea made with green tea.
My summer cocktail bar is always well stocked with a few basics: simple syrup, lemons and limes, sparkling water and bitters. A fresh supply of ice cubes is a must. I keep mine in a zippered bag so they don’t absorb odours from the freezer. And I make fresh ones.
Then I get busy in the kitchen mixing up the syrups and herb salts that lend my drinks their summer personality. Here are a few favourites:
A splash of this highly aromatic syrup jazzes up gin and tonic or a glass of Prosecco. It is also really good in the fall, stirred into bourbon and unfiltered apple cider, with a twist of lemon.
You can make other herbal syrups following this recipe by substituting a handful of lemon thyme, lemon verbena or other fresh herbs. Thai purple basil will yield an exquisite mauve syrup. In a medium saucepan, combine one cup water, one cup sugar and four sprigs rosemary. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar, then reduce heat and simmer for five minutes. Turn off heat and let stand one to two hours. Strain, discard the herbs and transfer to a clean bottle or jar. Keep refrigerated up to a month.
Mint & Maple Bourbon Smash
Cut a lemon in half crosswise and squeeze the juice into a cocktail shaker or Mason jar. Cut the remaining halves into smaller pieces and add to the shaker. Add two ounces maple syrup and a handful of fresh mint leaves and muddle until fragrant. Pour in four ounces of bourbon and stir. Strain into two cocktail glasses and add a drop or two of bitters to each. Drop in some ice and top with club soda. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint. •
All photographs by Susan Semenak unless otherwise noted