With recent years' blossoming of interest in artisinal bitters and infusions and the growth of local micro distilleries, Portland has become home to a vibrant and lively cocktail culture. All we're missing is knowledge of the gardening side of cocktail culture. Which begs the question: what plants can we grow in our gardens that will provide inspired infusions, garnishes, swizzle sticks and muddling herbs for our mixed drinks? I asked Amy Stewart, author of The Drunken Botanist, what she recommends growing for the Portland cocktail aficionado's garden.
Here are six of her favorite cocktail plants, hand-picked for Portland's climate:
'Mojito' mint - According to Amy, it's the actual strain of spearmint grown in Cuba, which is only available because Canadian tourists were taking it out of their mojitos and bringing it home with them.
'Red Venture' celery - Amy says, "I would have never in a million years thought it worthwhile to grow my own celery, but this stuff is fabulous. The stalks are much smaller than those big green bunches you by the grocery store, so they actually fit in a drink, and they are beautiful dramatic red. The flavor's much stronger than regular celery, so it's great for muddling into a savory drink. And they will pretty much keep going all year round. You will find the once you have a steady supply of celery, you'll use it in everything."
Black currant - "The Pacific Northwest is great for any kind of berries, and I'm very excited about growing my own black currants to make cassis. Really, any kind of berry belongs in a Portland cocktail garden."
Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers - "Not technically a cucumber, but a very close relative. Each one is about the size of a grape or an olive. The flavor is a bit more tart than a regular cucumber, but they pair very well with gin and they make a beautiful garnish — and the vines are freakishly prolific, so this is one really worth growing."
Grafted tomatoes - "Portland's climate is kind of like mine [northern California], where summer comes late in can be kind of iffy. I am very excited about these tomatoes that are grafted onto sturdier commercial rootstock. This is what commercial tomato farmers do, but it only recently occurred to anyone to start selling them to home gardeners. It's the same concept as a grafted fruit tree — you'll get more disease resistance and therefore a more vigorous, productive plant. You can also get a combo plant with two varieties grafted onto one rootstock. I know it sounds like a freak of nature, but it's just very old-school technology — you're pretty much just mashing the cut stem of one plant up against another."
Stewart has put together six collections of cocktail-friendly plants to go with her book - the Drunken Botanist Plant Collection, grown by Log House Plants and available through Territorial Seed Company and at garden centers up and down the West Coast this spring. The collection is comprised of six different tray packs themed around particular spirits: the Old Havana Rum Garden, the Heart of Agave Tequila Garden, the Farmers Market Vodka Garden, the Old Tom Gin Garden, the Southern Belle Whiskey Garden and Mixologist's Simple Syrups Garden. According to Stewart, "the challenge was coming up with an assortment of plants that pair well with that spirit, but also grows in jumbo sixpacks. So I would normally want to put peaches with whiskey, but we can't exactly put a peach tree in a sixpack!" The pairings may not all be 100% conventional, but they are inspired and sure to delight. The same link, above, brings you to a list of other great plants that are essential for summertime cocktails. Recipes making use of all the plants are included (on the plant tags). Here is what Amy wrote about the collections on her website.
The plants should be available this spring at New Seasons Markets as well as a number of garden centers including Cornell Farms, Portland Nursery, the Urban Farm Store, Drake's 7 Dees, Portland Homestead, The Garden Corner in Tualatin, Good News Gardening in Hood River, Schedeens in Gresham, 13th Street Nursery in Salem, Garland Nursery in Corvallis, and Bird's English Garden in Ridgefield, WA
If you're intrigued about designing a cocktail garden of your own, check out Amy and her fellow bloggers' writings about it on Garden Rant here (the design of Amy's cocktail garden) and here (the design before-and-after). And here are tips on growing a cocktail garden, with lots more plant suggestions.
Of course, no writing about cocktail gardens would be complete without a seasonal recipe making use of the delectable late winter citrus:
Here's a drink I made for a gathering of librarians and booksellers in Seattle. I called it the Dewey Decimal 580, 580 being the section in the Dewey Decimal system devoted to the botanical sciences. I thought the librarians were going to be much more impressed with that than they were, but I guess they've seen it all. —Amy Stewart
Dewey Decimal 580
1 oz gin
1 oz Lillet Blanc
1.5 oz fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice (about 1/3 to 1/4 of a grapefruit, depending on size)
Shake over ice, serve over ice in short rocks glass. Garnish with a long strip of grapefruit peel.