When I go into the walk in refrigerator at SoBou, my restaurant in the French Quarter, to select herbs for the day’s cocktails at the bar, I create a bunch of the freshest most interesting looking specimens. I walk to the bar with my nose buried in their beautiful fragrant branches and grin like a schoolgirl. I have no shame admitting to those careless wedding dreams of myself as a bride walking down the aisle with a large herbal bouquet filled with mint, thyme, sage, lavender and rosemary dotted with a few cala lilies.
Wedding fantasies aside, fresh herbs have become one of my personal Cocktails Tells. Much like with professional poker players, my tell quickly identifies my preferred method in my cocktail making style. My cocktail creations include using herbs for fresh garnish, infusions and simple syrups rich with herbal kick. Many of these herbs have a romantic and medicinal quality too with an ancient history of their use.
Scarborough Fair, made popular by Simon and Garfunkel, is an old British ballad. The reoccurring stanza of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme is was based on a medieval belief about what qualities you wanted in your true love. Each herb has its own meaning. Parsley, still used today to aid digestion, was thought to take bitterness away. Sage has long been a sign of strength and power. Rosemary symbolized faithfulness and the practice of giving your lover a branch of rosemary to wear in your hair goes back to Ancient Greece. Thyme is a symbol of courage and bravery as Knights would wear the herb on their shields and Ladies would embroider them on their crests.
I symbolically wear my heart on my sleeve as I recently got a tattoo of rosemary, thyme and lavender, which represents true love and devotion on my right arm. These also happen to be the three herbs I like using most in cocktails.
Oh and the variety of herbs are endless as well. Think of an elevated Tom Collins made with gin, fizzy lemonade and lemon basil, meaning good wishes! A mojito can be transformed if you use spearmint, pineapple mint, orange mint or any of the over 600 varieties of this popular herb, meaning eternal refreshment, wisdom and virtue. Chef Dominique of Dominique’s on Magazine has walls and towers of hydroponic herbs growing in his enchanting back patio and he is gracious enough to let me harvest my spoils. The varieties of Lavender – French, Spanish and English, the marjoram, the rosemary trees… its a wonderland of herbal stimulation. I used 7 types of Chef Dominique’s herbs to create my 007 Vesper, infusing 7 fragrant herbs into our own New Orleans high proof Buck 25 Vodka, specially made for more potent infusions.
But take a drink as simple as the Julep – mint, sugar and bourbon. An icy potent concoction full of herbal kick and sweet strong cooling flavor. You can transform this cocktail, but keep its spirit by changing the herb, sugar and liquor. Try the Lemon Thyme Julep below if you are feeling courageous.
Snip some branches of thyme to create a layer on the bottom of a metal Julep cup. Add the maple syrup and press gently into the thyme with a muddler. Add half the Rye and a handful of crushed ice. Swizzle the julep till the metal cup is frosty on the side, top with more crushed ice and the rest of the rye. Add a large bunch of lemon thyme and place the straw within the sprig so that the drinker must bury their nose in the herbs to take a sip.
Abigail Deirdre Gullo first fell into bartending when she learned to make a Manhattan (sweet) for her beloved grandfather at the age of 7. Abigail is a member of the United States Bartenders Guild and a proud supporter of the Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans. When not behind the bar at SoBou, she is behind her computer screen blogging at www.ryegirlnyc.blogspot.com, or tweeting @nycbaby, though she would rather be singing in a Rock-n-Roll band.