Radical botanicals: Herbs in cocktails

Lucy Britner

Lucy Britner

28 October 2015

Today’s bartenders are making the most of an ever-growing choice of exotic spices and herbs to pep up their drinks menus. Lucy Britner goes on the taste trail

Everyone knows that adding a dash of salt and pepper to food can enhance its flavour. Chefs elevate this to an art form, creating perfectly seasoned dishes using a range of spices and herbs. Now it seems that bartenders are grabbing a slice of the action too…

The rise of the restaurant bar has undoubtedly had a big effect on the drinks industry. As well as the use of increasingly cheffy techniques to make drinks, we’re seeing a wider range of ingredients used in those drinks – ingredients more typically found in the kitchen than behind the bar. As restaurants plump for more exotic cuisines, so the unusual herbs and spices that feature in those dishes are making their way into your mise en place.

Deep roots

Q  What’s the difference between a herb and a spice?
A  Generally speaking, a herb is
the leaf of a plant whereas a spice is any other part – including the seed, bark or root. Or, in saffron’s case, the stamen of its flower.

But that’s not to say that including herbs and spices in drinks is a new thing. The ancient Greeks had a penchant for aromatised wine (the blueprint for today’s vermouths), while in South America the Mayans practised rudimentary mixology, adding chilli spice to their hot chocolate drinks. As well as being used for medicinal purposes down the ages, herbs and spices were often used simply to mask the unpleasant flavour of roughly made spirit.

Mint, for one, has been doing the rounds for a few hundred years now. In fact, the first printed mention of the Mint Julep was in 1803 and the drink was described as a ‘dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning’ (more on this cocktail on p.118). Lucky Virginians. Skip forward 212 years and the minty Mojito may be one of the most popular cocktails in the world, but it’s safe to say that mint has got some mates…

Herb and spice use is ‘much more than just mint now’, acknowledges Marian Beke at Nightjar in Shoreditch. ‘Every decent bar has a selection of fresh or seasonal as well as dried or garnishing herbs. There are so many varieties you can play with.’ And he does. For the last two years, his menus have included ‘local herbs such as nettles. Also, some more unusual and aromatic herbs such as oak moss or sea grasses,’ he says.

‘I’ve noticed a trend for using foraged ingredients and ingredients from the sea,’ notes Speciality Brands business development manager, Jon Lister. At Nightjar, Beke’s Beyond the Sea cocktail takes in both of these trends, mixing Gin Mare and oyster leaves (distinctly salty tang and crunchy texture, from plants that grow near the sea) with sherry, grapefruit and plankton ‘air’.

When it comes to using herbs and spices, Beke recommends treating them like any other ingredient. ‘Try to understand at what point, or in which way, you can extract the most from any individual herb or spice, such as by infusions, drying and dusting, as a garnish or by mixing them.’

A herb for all seasons
In the Fitzrovia basement of one Michelin-starred Dabbous restaurant, Oskar’s Bar has been home to all manner of herbal remedies since it opened in 2012, many of which inspire a seasonally changing menu. Oskar Kinberg claims he’s yet to find a herb or spice that doesn’t work in a drink – and the man has tried a few. His current favourite is marjoram (part of the oregano family). He pairs the herb with fruits such as grapes and strawberries: ‘It gives the drink a lingering fresh finish.’

Previous favourites have included shiso, an Asian sibling to mint; kinome, which is Japanese Szechuan pepper tree leaf; lovage, a celery- and aniseed-tasting herb native to the Mediterranean; and lemon verbena. ‘The best way to find out what works and what doesn’t is to taste as many things as possible all the time,’ he says.

And don’t forget that freshness affects the taste of both herbs and spices. ‘Try them as you get them. They are more pungent some days than others,’ advises Kinberg. ‘Be precise in your recipes but allow for slight variations.’

Going global
Elsewhere in the capital, a wave of new North African-inspired restaurants has recently pushed a range of ingredients from the region into the spotlight, not least the tangy, lemony sumac – vivid red, made from dried and ground berries grown and used widely in Africa and the Middle East. Ottolenghi in Spitalfields lists a Sumac Martini, which combines the spice with vodka, falernum, lime and pomegranate juice.

Haggerston restaurant Berber & Q is currently serving the aptly named Sumac Habit – mezcal with chilli-infused Aperol, dried lime and sumac – while also offering the Harissa Rose Mary, incorporating the spicy, chilli-based North African culinary paste into the classic cocktail.

And that’s before we even look at Ottolenghi’s Saffron Chase, a gin cocktail that includes the spice that’s more expensive than gold. Who knows what the GP is on that...

A pinch of sense
Meanwhile, The Trading House is a new venue in The City that draws inspiration from the old commercial spice routes worked by the likes of the East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries. Here, the herb and spice repertoire ranges from garnishes for gin and tonics – such as Portobello Road with nutmeg and grapefruit, or Bathtub with orange and cinnamon – to extras in classic cocktails. Anyone for a Cinnamon and Ginger Manhattan or a Cumin Bloody Mary?

Big brands are starting to cotton onto the herb and spice trend too. At Imbibe Live in June, Speciality Brands’ Lister talked about the importance of seasoning drinks. One of his favourite additions is using rocket in a Tommy’s Margarita. ‘It adds peppery spice,’ says Lister – though he sounds a warning note. ‘[Whatever you add], make sure it works and there’s a clear reason for using it, not “just because”.’

Gin is an obvious benefactor, with its already high botanical count. But other spirits brands are also creating signature drinks with distinctive herbs or spices. Grey Goose recently launched a range of signature serves for its vodka, featuring mint, oregano, rosemary and basil in long drinks with soda – a simple way for any bar to get involved with the trend.

Whether you’re heading down the spice route or looking to cultivate a herbal habit, there’s a whole world of botanical nuance and complexity to explore.

Three drinks from seasoned bartenders

Jon Lister, Speciality Drinks
Glass: Highball
Garnish: A basil boat and ground pepper
Method: Add Cocchi Rosa and strawberries to the glass, top with tonic.
60ml Cocchi Rosa
Chopped strawberries
Fever Tree tonic water
Basil leaf
Black pepper

Oskar Kinberg, Oskar's Bar
Glass: Highball
Garnish: Lemon slice and a marjoram sprig
Method: Muddle the grapes and marjoram. Add all of the other ingredients except the soda. Shake with ice and strain into a highball. Top with soda water.
50ml gin
20ml lemon
20ml lemongrass syrup*
6 white grapes
12-15 marjoram leaves
1 egg white
Soda water
*To make the lemongrass syrup add 100g of chopped lemongrass to 1 litre of 1:1 simple syrup. Cold-infuse for 24 hours.

Chris Moore, Beaufort Bar at The Savoy
Glass: Coupette
Garnish: Rosemary sprig
Method: Shake all ingredients except champagne, then strain into a coupette. Top with champagne and garnish.
25ml Grey Goose
20ml Lillet Blanc
25ml lemon juice
20ml cardamom syrup*
10ml Galliano
Champagne to fill
*To make the cardamom syrup: use 200g sugar to 100ml water. Cook on medium heat with 100g of crushed cardamom pods for 10 minutes. Strain and allow to cool.

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