Photo by Chris Casella

Cocktail Garden

Your “I Wish I was in Brooklyn” Pinterest board is overflowing with recipes promising mysterious craft cocktails that nod back to the naughty days of Prohibition, in addition to being stacked with dashing drinks that feature words like “infused” and “herbaceous,” and yet when your people arrive, your IKEA-hack bar only contains two bottles of Watershed Vodka (keep it local!), a bottle of St Germain, and a bottle of flat tonic.

Take a deep breath. You’ve got this. It really is easy to prepare unique, fresh, and delicious cocktails with homegrown ingredients, but you’ve got to lay the groundwork first. This guide assumes that you have no idea where to begin, so if you’re already shaking up a homegrown hyssop-infused gin smash right now, you can skip this one. For the rest of you, let’s take the first steps together to make it a bit easier on you when the guests arrive.

Step one:

Grow your cocktail garden.

There’s no crazy equipment to buy, no classes to take, and only one recipe to remember: dirt, water, sun. You don’t need a garden or even a backyard. As long as you aren’t living in a windowless jail cell, you can make this work. Buy a planter that you can put near a window, or cut the tops off and punch holes in the bottom of a clutch of milk cartons (wash ‘em out!). Also buy some potting soil (they sell it in bags! It’s so easy!). You’re going to be planting basil, mint, lavender, and sage. These are all widely available at garden stores, grocery stores like Weiland’s, or probably even WalMart.

Thai Basil works really well in cocktails, but almost any variety will do. When it comes to mint, look for spearmint, and more specifically the Kentucky Colonel variety, as it provides larger leaves, as well as a great flavor and aroma. Lavender comes in many forms, but the best variety for these purposes is the Munstead cultivar. Salvia Officinalis, or just simple “garden sage” is the type of sage you should look for, but if you want to get more specific, White Dalmation, Berggarten, and Holt’s Mammoth are all excellent choices.

Pour dirt into your growing vessel, pack it lightly, about one inch from the top, and then take your baby plants, pull them out of their pots, break up the root ball, put them in the dirt, add water occasionally, and let the sun do its job. You are gardening, and it is glorious.

Step two:

Infuse your cocktail garden.

There’s a lot of different methods for using your garden in drinks. For drinks like the mint julep or the mojito, you’ll want to break out your muddler. Muddling is quick and easy, but make sure to use a light touch. You don’t want to pulverize the mint in the bottom of your glass, or you’ll end up releasing undesirable bitter flavors.

Spirit infusions are another possibility. Shove some leaves in the bottle, and give it a quick shake, then let it sit. Different herbs infuse at different rates – you’ll get some flavor after a couple hours, but it could take a day or more. If you don’t check it regularly and let the infusion go too long, you’ll end up overpowering the spirit. Taste it often.

The simplest and most foolproof method is making flavored syrups. Almost every cocktail calls for some sort of sweet component, and flavored syrups provide that sweet component while bringing your exciting herbal flavors along for the ride. Simple syrups are, as the name would imply, simple, and flavoring them is just as easy. If you do somehow end up with a gross batch, it’s way easier to pour some sugar water down the drain than an expensive bottle of over-infused booze.

Add equal parts water and sugar to a pot, and throw in a handful of leaves or buds from whichever plant you choose, then bring it to a boil for a minute or so to dissolve the sugar, and release the oils in the leaves. Take it off the heat and let it cool completely, then strain out your plant bits.

Step three:

Drink your cocktail garden.

Now that you know the techniques, you’re a “mixologist,” which is a gross word that some idiot thought would be cooler than bartender. It’s not. Whatever you decide to call yourself, it’s time to make some drinks.

There’s a million cocktail recipes out there, but they tend to all fit into a few basic categories, like collins, cobblers, juleps, and highballs. One of the simplest to remember is the sour. You have probably heard of a whiskey sour, but margaritas, daiquiris, sidecars, and more also fall into the sour category. They all follow a simple framework of spirit, citrus, sweetener, and occasionally egg white. The most common ratio is three parts spirit, two parts citrus, and one part sweetener, though that can, and should, be adjusted for individual taste. By using your flavored simple syrup you can add a new dimension to any classic sour, or create your own using the same framework. Try combining 2 oz of gin or vodka with 1 oz lemon juice and 0.5 oz lavender syrup. Shake with ice, strain, and taste. Too boozy? Too sour? adjust the recipe and try again. Swap the gin for tequila, the lemon for lime, and the lavender for sage and you’ve got a sage margarita.

Find yourself getting sour on sours? Switch to a classic like a mint julep. Lightly muddle 5-7 mint leaves in the bottom of a glass, with a tbsp of simple syrup and 2 oz of bourbon. Add a mountain of crushed ice, garnish with a mint sprig and you’re off to the races. Swap the bourbon for rum, add some limes and you’ve got a mojito. Swap the mint for basil…you get the idea.

Go water those plants and go make some drinks.