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Herbs found their way into the cocktail scene a long time ago. We have been using more and more fresh herbs in craft bars as it has evolved over the last decade, but I think we have just reached the tip of the iceberg as far as how common they are in drinks. Fresh herbs open a door to a huge number of flavor and aroma possibilities that just wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
If you’re considering broadening your mixology horizons (so to speak), why not consider growing some of your own herbs? I’ve drafted a list of herbs to consider if you’d like to start your very own mixology herb garden.
I had some of my own ideas on what to include in this list, but I also wanted to get advice from other bartenders as well. Facebook was a great resource for this and I was able to get a lot of great recommendations from people. Of course there were a few “medical grade” recommendations that did not get included in the list, but I’m actually surprised there weren’t more. Special thanks to everyone that helped with this article, especially Nick Burton of Stateofthesoil.com who recommend some unusual herbs and flowers (for another article I’m sure) that I have never heard of.
A few Disclaimers:
- Many of these herbs are recognized as safe for human consumption, but please do your own research as far as health and safety concerns. Sometimes one part of a plant is safe but another part is not safe. Leaves, stems, roots and seeds can all have different levels of toxicity.
- If you’re considering growing herbs for a bar / restaurant cocktail program, you should definitely speak with your local health inspector to make sure you know how to do so legally and safely.
I know spring is still quite a ways away to consider using this list, but if you are planning on building a rooftop garden or a cocktail garden, my spring project, there is a lot of planning that has to go into it. Sourcing specific seeds or plants can take a while and researching any health concerns could easily take months. So be sure to plan ahead!
With that, let’s get into the list!
No surprise here – this is probably the most used herb behind most bars. The mint julep and the mojito are probably the most common cocktails that feature a fresh herb as a principal flavor in the drink, but there are so many uses for mint behind the bar. That being said there are also many different types of mint that you can consider for a cocktail garden. Below are a few unusual varieties to consider if you want to add something more interesting to your bar program or home garden.
- Mojito Mint
- Yerba Buena
- Chocolate mint
- Pineapple mint
- Lemon mint
- Ginger mint
- Mexican Mint
Most people are pretty familiar with basil as a cooking ingredient, but it also makes a delicious ingredient for cocktails as well. The dark opal and purple basil offer a beautiful dark color that could make a stunning garnish. Some varietals to try:
- Cinnamon Basil
- Christmas Basil
- Spicy Globe Basil
- Lemon Basil
- Lime Basil
- Napoletano Basil
- Dark Opal Basil or purple basil
Oregano is typically associated with Greek food and also is a key ingredient in pizza sauce. It’s beautifully aromatic and could be a great addition in your next bloody mary.
- Hopley’s oregano
- Jim’s Best oregano
- Italian Oregano
- Greek Oregano
- Cuban Oregano
- Mexican Bush Oregano
Like most of the herbs on this list, thyme is very flexible in cocktails. Use it as a garnish, in a syrup, shrub or infusion and let the subtle, slightly minty aroma make a nice accent to your next cocktail.
- Common Thyme
- Lemon Thyme
- Lime thyme
- Juniper Thyme
- Caraway Thyme
- Nutmeg Thyme
- Orange Balsam Thyme
- Silver Thyme
Common in sushi restaurants, the Red variety could be a great accent for anise flavored ingredients. The green variety brings a spicy cinnamon note that could work well in whiskey cocktails or anything that calls for Angostura Bitters.
While the translation for this loosely means skunk sweat, don’t let this scare you away from trying to use it in cocktails. This unusual ingredient could be a great to experimenting with juniper focused Gins, Amaro, Chartreuse, Strega and Genepy de Alpes.
Do you love cilantro but want even more intense flavor? Give Papalo a try. Evidently the taste has been described as imagining if Cilantro, lime and nasturtium had a beautiful herbal baby. All right I said that, but still makes you want to try it right? It works really well with epazote
Every time I see this herb, I imagine Kermit the frog hanging out on top of it strumming away on his guitar. The leaves and flower of this plant are both edible and pack a peppery punch.
Lovage is an herb that I have heard a lot about but have not had the opportunity to work with in cocktails yet. My understanding is that it tastes a lot like celery. This could be a lot of fun to use to add an additional aromatic note to celery bitters or a celery syrup/infusion.
This is a fun herb to play with in drinks because it is actually sweet and can replace some sweetener in your cocktail. It’s said to be 200 times sweeter than sugar so experiment with using it in cocktails.
Often found in tea, lemon verbena has a subtle lemon perfume. If you are looking to add another note to your lemon drop or add a beautiful garnish that reinforces the lemon juice in your cocktail, consider using lemon verbena
Thinking outside the Grocery Store
I know these herbs I’ve suggested vary a lot – from the “pretty common” to the “uhh, what’s that?” But if you have the ability to give them a try, there’s nothing like some obscure herbs to really get creative in your cocktail creations – even if it’s just experimenting for your own entertainment and education!
What are you growing? Did we miss any great herbs we should add to the list? Let me know in the comments!
Some awesome ones I grew in the bar garden this year were angelica, wormwood, bronze fennel, and chamomile. Used the first three to make absinthe, and used all four to make vermouth. Calendula was a great one too for tequila infusions and made for a beautiful edible garnish.