Cocktails in the Garden
Raise the bar with garden-fresh ingredients that transform cocktails into signature drinks
Cheers! Drinks made with just-picked herbs, fruit, and vegetables as flavorings and garnishes are the toast of the summer party season, whether made with alcohol or not.
As cocktail gardeners have grown more adventurous, the happy-hour repertoire has expanded well beyond the classic sprig of spearmint for juleps and mojitos and into the realm of refreshing homegrown blackberry cocktails and summer drinks garnished with edible dianthus petals and frilly little marigolds. When the ingredients are within easy reach of an imaginative backyard bartender, every cocktail becomes a flourishing signature drink.
Above all, a cocktail garden should be a pretty and comfortable spot, says Mary Palmer Dargan, a landscape architect who lives in Atlanta and in Cashiers, NC. Good design should really come first. "My recipe for a successful cocktail garden is easy," Dargan says. "You need a flat place for a table and chairs, and an étagère a two-tier table where you can park wine or cocktail mixes and backup glasses."
What to grow
Herbs for Cocktails
Veggies and Fruits for Cocktails
- Gherkin cucumber
- Red currant
- Hot pepper
- Alpine strawberry
- Mini watermelon
Dargan, the author of Lifelong Landscape Design (Gibbs Smith), recommends a stone or brick patio. Built-in seating is especially nice, "because people like to perch," she says. "If you have a seating wall instead of a lot of furniture, you get an A+ in my book."
Renewed interest in kitchen gardens, community gardens, farmer's markets, and edible landscaping has contributed mightily to enthusiasm for garden-to-glass cocktails. Gardeners with bumper crops of strawberries, cherry tomatoes, or cucumbers are looking for new ways to use and combine favorite ingredients, and stylish cocktails shake things up quite a bit. Scott Beattie, the author of Artisanal Cocktails (Ten Speed Press) led the way, putting a fresh twist on the cocktail hour with his bold use of local, organically grown fruit, herbs, and vegetables.
Beattie grows some of his own ingredients, forages for wild blackberries, and relies on the dizzying choices available from local organic farmers in his Sonoma County, CA, neighborhood. Never underestimate the value of the flavor of fresh produce in a cocktail, Beattie says. A Pimm's Cup made with cucumbers from your own backyard or a farmer's market "it's a huge difference from what you get at a grocery store," he says. "You'll be blown away by how something that simple can be so good, with a delicate and very complex flavor."
Amy Stewart, whose book The Drunken Botanist (Algonquin) explores the plants that are used in the world's most famous cocktails, proves that you don't need a big space to be successful. She turned her narrow side yard in Eureka, CA, into a flourishing cocktail garden, most of it in pots and planters. Stewart grows hops on a trellis and raspberries and blueberries in pots. She keeps a romping clump of mint in check by growing it in a raised planter that also serves as a bar, and she installed shelves on a garden wall for pots full of herbs, with room for bottles and party glasses.
Dargan learned to make the most of small-space gardens when she lived and worked in Charleston, SC. "A human body takes two and a half feet to stand up and drink a glass of champagne," she says, "but people love being crowded in together. Don't be afraid to over-invite. People will figure it out."
If you have room, a fountain adds to the glamour of a cocktail garden, she says, and in the evening, candlelight "will move the mood toward romance."
Dargan likes to garnish cocktails with nasturtiums or daylilies, mixes fresh peaches with champagne for festive bellinis, and recommends cordials made with elderberry flowers steeped in sugar, water and lemon slices. But while you're mixing the punch, don't forget that the atmosphere of the garden itself is part of the cocktail you're serving, she says. "It provides the ambiance, and when you're out there, you're drinking up fresh air, sunlight and bird song," she says. There's something intoxicating about the very idea.
From The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
- 1 750 ml bottle dry rosé wine, not sparkling. (Example: La Vieille Ferme rosé)
- 2.5 cups (20 oz.) St-Germain elderflower liqueur
- 30 oz. club soda
- Strawberry slice or raspberry for garnish
Mix the rosé and St-Germain in a pitcherthis can be done ahead of time. Fill short tumblers or wine glasses with ice, add 2 oz. of the rosé/St-Germain mixture to each glass, and top with 1.5 oz. club soda. Garnish with a strawberry or raspberry.
To quickly mix larger or smaller quantities, prepare:
- 5 parts wine
- 4 parts St-Germain
- 6 parts club soda
If serving in a punch bowl, add club soda right before serving so it doesn't go flat.
Garden-Infused Simple Syrup
From The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
"Simple syrup" is a cocktail staple for balancing the flavors in other ingredients. It can also be used to add a hint of sweetness and flavor to seltzer.
- 1/2 cup herbs, flowers, fruit or spice
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 oz vodka (optional)
Combine all ingredients except vodka in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer and stir well, until the sugar has dissolved. Let the mixture cool and pour through a mesh strainer. Add the vodka (if using) as a preservative and keep refrigerated. Good for one to two weeks; lasts longer in the freezer.
From Andrew Silva, a Burlington, VT, chef and cocktail enthusiast.
The flavor of fresh Concord grape juice harmonizes beautifully with Bourbon. If you don't have fresh juice, use a good-quality store brand. Makes two cocktails
- 5 oz. Bourbon
- 1 oz. fresh lime juice (NO bottled lime juice or anything that comes from a plastic lime)
- 1 oz. Cointreau
- 2 oz. grape juice
Mix all the ingredients in a shaker filled with ice. Shake and pour into chilled cocktail glasses.
How to Use the Plant a Bar
Last updated: 12/28/2022
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