Herbs are popping up in cocktails more and more. Gone are the days where bartenders are limited to mint leaves for mojitos and juleps. Thyme in salty dogs, sage beekeepers, rosemary-blood orange spritzers—the list goes on. You can even get cilantro-flavored vodka, too! They add freshness obviously but they also impart another level of flavor you don’t expect in a drink. It’s kind of like the salty-sweet phenomenon—caramel by itself is fine but salted caramel… shut up—but for cocktails. It makes perfect sense, too, especially when you consider that, as Amy Stewart points out in here genius The Drunken Botanist, most liquors are made from or flavored, at least in some part, by plants. Leaves, bark, seeds, flowers and fruit all go into making up our favorite liquors and cordials, so why shouldn’t their pair well? But the same principles apply to non-alcoholic drinks, too. With herbs growing in the garden and hydration needed for these hot and humid days we’ve been having I think refreshing, herby beverages are in order!
I grow Thai basil in the garden nearly every year. It’s great for cooking Thai and Southeast Asian (or inspired) food at home. It works with beef incredibly well and fish, too, even more so than sweet Italian basil. It has a stronger anise and mint flavor than sweet basil, with notes of cinnamon and clove (though not as much as holy basil) and a bit more of a peppery zing.
Every year, though, I neglect the plants, not pinching back their flowers, as I should. They emerge from the tops of the plant as deep purple buds, which grow upwards creating a tall stem just as sweet basil does. When the little buds explode, the flowers that emerge are pearl-white with a tinge of hot pink to them. Against the deep purple hue of the buds and stems I forget that it’s an herb and look at it for its ornamental beauty instead. When it finally hits me that they need pruning I have an abundance of the flowers and since I hate to waste them I make a simple syrup out of them. The flowers have the same aforementioned flavors but, as you might guess, more floral.
Making Thai Basil Soda out of it is the best use if you ask me; it’s fresh, it’s sweet, it’s floral and it’s unique. So when you have people coming over and you don’t want to serve wine or cocktails (or its not a fitting time, or you might knock someone off the wagon) and need something a little different and interesting this is ideal. I don’t want to deter you but I do want to point out that if you don’t like basil this is NOT your drink—the soda is sweet like soda should be, but it’s also strong and herbal.
Simply mix the flowers with some sugar and water, bring to a boil, simmer for a few minutes and let it all steep together until cooled.
Strain the syrup free of any leaves and flowers and into a container (with a spout, for easy pouring later). To serve put about 3 tablespoons of the syrup into each glass and stir in a tablespoon of fresh lime juice. Fill the glass with ice and pour over about 8-ounces of carbonated or soda water.
If you’re not sold on the idea of basil soda but still want to add a little interest to a cool summer beverage by way of herbs I have to suggest Lemon Verbena Lemonade. Lemon Verbena is a tender perennial herb with an aromatic sourness and floral-lemon flavor and its perfect for giving a little dimension to your lemonade without overdoing it. Because the flavors of lemon verbena and lemon are so close, due to the citral they both contain, the herbaceousness of the verbena doesn’t stand out too much but rather weaves itself seamlessly into the sundrenched lemon flavor, as if it has always been there.
I have never seen lemon verbena sold at grocery stores (although I’m sure that it is somewhere) but last year I found little plants on sale at a local nursery and snatched on up. It won’t live through cold winters so when nights started getting cold I brought the plant in the house and kept it in a spot that stayed pretty warm and got partial sun. It lost all of its leaves. But, I was determined (or stubborn) and refused to throw it out so all winter long I continued to look like a crazy person, watering a dead plant with no leaves a la Morticia Adams. It paid off because when it started getting warmer and warmer in the spring I put it back outside and it exploded with new leaves and grew fuller than before!
If you can’t find lemon verbena, or don’t want to grow it, I think that lemongrass would make a very worthy substitute—lemon verbena and lemongrass have similar aromatic tastes.
I’m not usually big on lemonade; it’s usually too syrupy and has this undesirable ability to—and I’m sorry to go there, but—produce a mouthful of mucus. But there’s something so refreshing about fresh-made lemonade. The best way to get the full essence of lemon is to infuse the simple syrup with the zest. We’re all always going on about how the zest has more flavor than the juice so why not, right?
So, stir together some sugar, lemon zest, lemon verbena leaves and water together in a saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a boil and then simmer a few minutes before you shut off the heat and let it steep until completely cooled.
While that’s going on juice a bunch of lemons. A machine citrus juicer makes easy work out of this… but mine is buried in the gadget cabinet and I’m lazy so I used a hand juicer.
Strain the cooled syrup into a pitcher…
Then mix in the lemon juice and some water. Serve it over lots of ice and a few extra torn leaves of verbena.
Either way, no matter how you drink your herbs, it’s a totally refreshing and invigorating way to cool down in this hot, hot heat.
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