Summer always puts me in mind to garden. I have a little herb garden with oregano, rosemary and lavender that always needs pruning, some roses that need constant watch from black spot, peonies dusty with blight – wait a minute. Gardening in DC is hard work, our weather vacillating between wet and humid to dry and droughty. Isn’t there an easier way to enjoy herbs and flowers?
Why yes. Drink them!
I love nothing better than to cook with fresh herbs and spices, and I’ve been known to throw some edible flowers into my salad, so I am loving the growing spread of these ingredients in cocktails. We’re both lucky and spoiled to be enjoying a cocktail renaissance here in DC. Time was a decent drink meant liquor + mixer, maybe with a garnish. Not anymore. Bartenders are approaching cocktails like, well, a chef would. The explosion of housemade syrups and infusions enable mixologists to make some potent magic.
But as with gardening, not everyone has a green thumb. It’s not enough to just toss some herbage in a martini glass and hey pesto! it’s a delicious cocktail. Just like that time I put too much adobe sauce in my sweet potato puree and set my guests throats on fire (um, sorry about that!). You have to know how flavors work together and how much power that pepper’s going to pop onto your tongue.
So here are my current favorites highlighting the trifecta of herbs, flowers and spice, with a few misses along the way.
The mojito has been the ascendant summer cocktail for years now – and why? The mint (ok, ok, the rum has something to do with it as well). Fresh mint muddled into simple syrup is one of the most glorious tastes ever. Cafe Salsa boasts it has the best mojitos in the city (though I bet you can add more suggestions!), and they have the bonus of adding a sugar cane. And what’s still rocking after a century? The mint julep of course, and the best place to enjoy it (apart from a Southern friend’s back patio) is the Round Robin Bar.
Then there are the more unusual tastes using herbs. I’ve already sung the praises of Belga’s basil champagne cocktail. Co Co. Sala attempts to mix cilantro with tequila in their Zuma cocktail – sadly, though it’s pretty, the cilantro flavor just doesn’t come through. Needs some muddling or simple syrup infusion magic. A better try with an unusual herb is Poste‘s Corrupted Passion, infusing tarragon into citron vodka, adding campari for bite and passion fruit syrup to take the edge off. It’s a lovely pink color too.
The best use of herbs in a cocktail I’ve tasted so far? Gina Chersevani’s Blueberry Hill at PS7. Mixing mashed blueberries in vodka with a foamy thyme topping sounded a little crazy to me, but the top note of thyme that hits your nose just before the sweet blueberries hit your tongue – sigh. It’s ridiculously good, the essence of a summer garden.
Floral infusions are perhaps seen as a bit girly, but they’ve been around in drinks for centuries. Medieval knights drank ‘em. Really, it’s not like you’re drinking perfume! This is an area that I think needs more experimentation, as I’m not seeing floral infusions as much as herbal. But, the elderflower liquer St. Germain has been all over cocktail menus in the city, and creme de violette is starting to shyly peek up as well. Rose is my favorite – paired with lychee it makes for a divine cocktail. Zaytinya has a sexy cocktail called the Eros (extra points for the name) matching tiny roses bathing in a sea of lemon and honey vodka with elderflower as well – inhale the floral scent first, then sip the citrus. Again, PS7 shines through with a Hibiscus Margarita, mixing tequila and lime with the hibiscus flower. Total tropical paradise in a glass.
The bloody mary just will not relinquish her crown as the Queen of Brunch. What defends her kingdom against the bland mimosa? Pepper (Well, the bacon-infused bloody mary at Saint Ex is a thing of beauty, and adding beef broth like at The Heights is unbelievable, but meaty cocktails are another article!). As spice is one of the most personalized of tastes, the best way to go may be to mix your own at Whitlow’s on Wilson’s Bloody Mary Bar.
I’ve written before about two cocktails at SEI that really win out on the spice race – Silver Samurai and Liquid Wasabi – both capture the perfect combination of heat and sweet. Poste tries to come through with a manly drink called Liberated, infusing rum with cinnamon and ancho chile. But somehow the flavors just don’t come together. A more heavenly combination can be found at Wisdom, with the Indian Ocean. Cardamom has to be my favorite spice and here it’s paired with pineapple and rum. Paging Gauguin and his Tahitian beauties.
So I hope that’s enough of a start for you to doff your gardening gloves and get out inbibing some different cocktail tastes. Please share your own favorites in the comments. I know I’m intrigued enough to start trying to infuse my own concoctions at home… we’ll see how that goes!