When you think of cocktails, odds are you tend to think of the booze that goes into them. That’s the most important part, right?
While it’s true that yes, a cocktail would be pretty terrible without spirits (does anyone actually like tonic water?), a good one is made great with the addition of some take-it-to-the-next-level ingredients. Things like syrups, bitters, rim adornments, garnishes, and one of the most underrated of all: herbs.
They're key in a few classic recipes, like the Mint Julep or Mojito, but don't get a lot of love elsewhere in the cocktail world. And that's downright criminal, because they're a great way to add a bright, fresh kick to a huge range of drinks.
If you’re among the herb uninitiated, start with mint. It’s a pretty safe bet for any bartender according to Patrick Smith, Bar Manager at The Violet Hour in Chicago. “Mint is incredibly aromatic and works great with cocktails – it goes well with virtually every spirit,” he says. Just shaking or stirring it with your drink will capture some of that freshness. Or if you're feeling lazy, just use it as a garnish for the aromatics.
But there's a lot more you can do beyond that beginner-level territory. If you want to try your hand at it, keep these things in mind when you're mixing.
There aren’t really any cardinal sins when it comes to mixing with herbs – mixology thrives on getting creative with the classics. But some general flavor pairings work especially well.
As a general rule of thumb, mint is pretty universal. Otherwise, work within this flavor framework.
Rosemary: because of the hearty, savory nature of rosemary, it works best in sweet, citrusy cocktails.
Basil: these light, delicate leaves work well with light spirits like gin.
Tarragon: this licoricey herb works especially well with a golden rum.
Cilantro: some people find it soapy-tasting, but for those who have the right palate for it, cilantro has a distinctly tropical vibe. Try it with tequila.
Muddle With Care
Muddling is probably the most common technique for using herbs in drinks, after garnishing. But it’s not as easy as it looks to pull off.
“It's common to see bartenders muddle the living crap out of mint for drinks like a Mojito. But when you do that, the mint becomes very earthy and vegetal, so it tastes and smells like grass more so than mint,” says Smith. Instead, he recommends just lightly tapping the leaves with a muddler. “This allows the oils in the mint to be released without damaging it so much that it doesn't taste or smell like mint,” he says. Same goes for any other herb you'd be using in a drink.
Don’t limit yourself to just one herb, since combining several different ones in a drink can make for an especially interesting flavor profile. Try muddling fresh basil, cilantro, tarragon, and mint with a simple highball for a refreshing and especially herbaceous creation. Double strain before serving if you’re not into the idea of little green bits floating around in your glass.
Think Outside the Glass
Herbal additions to your drink aren’t limited to simple sprigs. To get the flavor – and to capitalize on the ability to layer different ones without turning your drink into a salad – try making your own herb-based bitters. “We use them to balance out the flavor of the intensely bitter roots, barks and deep rich spices,” says Smith.
His favorite flavor combos are lemongrass with turmeric and cinnamon, grapefruit with fresh tarragon, and hibiscus with star anise and coriander.
Appearance Is Everything
Ready for the advanced portion of class? Smith recommends getting creative with the ways you use your herbs – right down to the presentation.
The Violet Hour’s signature drink, The Juliet and Romeo, is made with gin, lime, cucumber, fresh mint and rose water. After a vigorous shake and double strain, the glass is garnished with a single floating mint leaf topped with a single drop of rosewater. Classy.
Next time you have office bar cart duty, think about using your herbs for more than just their flavor profile. A leaf makes an excellent vessel to hold a hit of bitters or other aromatic tinctures.
Don’t add herbs just for the sake of adding herbs – and don't try to add ones that are hopelessly out of season.
As Smith points out, changing weather should have a big impact on the drink menu. “The West Coast has access to fresh ingredients year round. But the East Coast is a winter tundra half the year, with few fresh options available,” he says.
Brighter, fresher options like cilantro work well in summer while more hearty sprigs like rosemary work better in the colder months.
Try it out in your next drink – ideally in an old favorite whose flavor profile you already know like the back of your hand. Whether you're shaking, stirring, muddling, or just garnishing, the fresh green addition will take the recipe to new heights.