Mix outside your comfort zone… drink your garden!

By / Wine + Drinks / December 9th, 2016 / 19

This time of year, it’s only natural to want to max out your herb garden, and most of us already have some great ideas for how to eat it up. When it comes to pairing fresh greens with liquor, though, we tend to stop at mint, that wild, fast-growing, booze-friendly herb that goes with pretty much everything.

It’s totally worth trying to think beyond the fresh green leaf, though. Cilantro works well in place of mint in almost any gin-based cocktail, since it can brighten up booze by imparting a lot of the same sharp and fresh flavours mint does. Borage is a must in a Pimm’s Cup; thyme is lovely with grapefruit. And a rosemary garnish — especially if it’s lightly charred — makes a very welcome addition to juicy, fresh lemon cocktails.

Which leaves us basil — the problem child of the drinks world. It’s a tough one, since we tend to use it in savoury foods more than sweet, and its delicate flavour and fragrance can easily be lost if mixed with strong flavours.

“When working with stuff like that, I often don’t read cocktail books. Instead I read a lot of cookbooks,” says Simon Ho, owner of Fat City Blues, a New Orleans‒inspired cocktail bar in Toronto’s West End. “You’ll see some flavour combinations that work well together with basil, like strawberries and black pepper or watermelon and lemon.”

Before he opened his own bar, Ho worked for a decade at the Drake Hotel, where he was well known for his seasonal approach to fresh and refreshing spring and summer cocktails. He says that when experimenting at home, “a little goes a long way,” since it’s easy to get carried away and use too much of a good thing. You don’t win friends with salad.

Rule number two? Don’t pulverize the herbs. A gentle muddle is as much pressure as you want to apply. Some cocktail recipes even instruct the bartender to shake the herbs into the drink (then strain them out), since over-working the herb can bring out a bitter flavour. Finally, when you apply a herb garnish, smack it on your palm first to release all the plant’s aromatic qualities. A good, fragrant garnish can fool the palate into believing there’s more of that fresh flavour in the drink than there actually is.

Since we tend to use more fresh herbs in the summer, many of us turn towards gin, vodka or white rum — traditional warm-weather spirits. Ho urges people to try to mix outside of their comfort zone, however, and start playing around with different liquors. The Mint Julep, after all, is a brilliant mix of bourbon and mint, even though the combo of the two might seem counter-intuitive to many people. Fernet-Branca gets along famously with mint, as does brandy.

“In the past, for anything with basil, I immediately started with gin,” Ho says. “This year, I’ve been leaning a lot more towards rum, mezcal and tequila instead. Not everything has worked. It can take a few failures before you figure out the perfect formula.”

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, since Ho has supplied this excellent, light, summery basil/tequila cocktail. Exactly the sort of thing he’s known for.

fat city smash

2 fresh strawberries
4 fresh basil leaves
2 cracked Szechuan peppercorns
2 oz tequila (blanco)
1/4 oz St Germain elderflower liqueur
1 oz lemon juice

In a shaker, gently muddle together strawberries, basil and cracked pepper. Add tequila, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and ice. Shake and strain into a chilled rocks glass with crushed ice. Garnish with sprig of basil.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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