Liquor Nerd: Herbs help add complexity to classic cocktails

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      Assuming your name isn’t David Hunter, Jolly Green Giant, or Little Green Sprout, August is the month where gardens start to look less than picture-perfect.

      The colour-saturated pop provided by spring flowers is a distant memory—like the soothing monsoons of Juneary and a world where COVID-19 hadn’t ruined almost everything.

      If you’re lucky enough to have grass, chances are that right about now it’s a wasteland shade of dead brown. If you’re one of those urban survivalists convinced the apocalypse is not only imminent but indeed is actually upon us, you’ve probably been growing your own food, including herbs.

      And whether you’ve got basil, thyme, or oregano growing on a three-acre spread in Surrey or a 5-by-5-square-foot balcony in the River District, now is the time to use it or lose it. You’ve been cultivating the perfect herb patch for months. Time to reap the rewards.

      There’s only so much homemade pasta sauce you can make once the herbs start bolting and the tomatoes begin dropping. Luckily you’ve got options if you’ve got a liquor cabinet.

      For years, pineapples, oranges, grapefruit, coconuts, bananas, limes, and any other fruit you could think of were the big building blocks in North American cocktail culture. They gave us everything from the margarita, daquiri, and screwdriver to the chi-chi and squashed strawberry alley cat.

      Something revolutionary happened around the middle of the last decade, though, when bartending went from something you did to put yourself through college to a rock-star profession.

      For centuries, herbs were used in liquor production—giving us everything from Jägermeister and Chartreuse to Bénédictine and Verveine du Velay. Suddenly innovators from New York to Vancouver were using herbs behind the bar in everyday cocktail creations.

      At first it was hard to wrap one’s head around. Rosemary is something you’re supposed to use to bring out the best in lamb, not take a gimlet in a thrilling new direction. But think about why you use herbs in cooking—for flavouring, accenting, and freshness—and then ask yourself why mixology should be any different.

      There’s a line of thinking that suggests you think carefully about what herb goes in what drink.

      Mint is subtle enough that it goes with pretty much anything—starting, of course, with a classic straight-outta-the-South mint julep. Gently bruise five or six sprigs in an old fashioned glass, add a heaping teaspoon or two of sugar, a heap of crushed ice, and a tablespoon of water, and transport yourself to a majestic veranda in Athens, Georgia.

      With other herbs, some bedfellows are better than others. Savoury and strong rosemary goes great with sweet citrus-forward cocktails like the gimlet, basil is delicate enough that it won’t overpower things in a vodka smash, and cilantro has a vaguely tropical exoticness that adds an extra complexity to a classic margarita.

      Whether you’re raiding the garden tarragon patch for a tarragon Negroni or culling the sage for a honey sage bourbon cocktail, your drink will often start with a simple syrup. Make a tea by boiling a small handful of herbs in a cup of water for 20 minutes, then add a cup of sugar and you’re pretty much done.

      For added flavour kick and brightness, start your cocktail by muddling a few sprigs of herbs in a shaker. Remember you’re bruising them gently rather than pounding them into a green paste.

      Summer can be cruel for those trying to maintain the perfect garden. Do your part to keep things rolling along to the fall.

      Here’s something you can make after getting at the garden with a pair of clippers:

      Tarragon Negroni

      2 oz gin
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz Lillet
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      1/2 oz tarragon simple syrup (as per above)
      3 sprigs fresh tarragon

      Muddle two sprigs of tarragon in a cocktail shaker and add gin, Campari, Lillet, lemon juice, and simple syrup. Strain into a chilled rocks glass, add fresh ice, and garnish with the tarragon sprig.

      Mike Usinger is not a professional bartender. He does, however, spend most of his waking hours sitting on barstools.