COVID-19 canceled the world. And boy, do we have a lot of time on our hands.
But instead of watching the grass grow, writer Jodi Helmer suggests watching leaves, flowers, fruits, vegetables, and roots grow.
And then blend them into a cocktail! Her new book, Growing Your Own Cocktails, Mocktails, Teas & Infusions: Gardening Tips and How-To Techniques for Making Artisanal Beverages at Home, shows bartenders and greenskeepers of all sorts not only what goes into a world-class infusion, but how grow a proper “infusion garden” perfect for mixologists to tap when developing the new concoctions we will all be hankering for once quarantine is over.
“In cocktails, an infusion often refers to adding flavorful ingredients such as fruits, herbs, or spices into alcohol and leaving them to steep,” says Helmer. “Infused spirits make a great base for creative cocktails. They can be as simple as adding a single fruit to alcohol or mixing multiple herbs and spices to create a custom flavor.”
Infusions are hardly the latest trendy fad: any upmarket grocery will have rows of oils containing fronds of rosemary, thyme, or peppers within for an added culinary kick. Spa water and herbal tea are infusions.
“Any drink that mixes edible ingredients into liquids is considered an infusion,” Helmer notes.
She recommends starting off with a few basics: lemon verbena, basil, strawberries, thyme, and—in what should come as no surprise—mint. When to plant depends on where one is; May is the traditional sowing month for outside gardens, but for southern climes it can be whenever the threat of frost has passed. Indoor gardens have no such prohibitions so long as sunlight, a good five to six hours of it (strawberries generally need eight), and water are available.
But when and where are just the first steps in planting an infusion garden, or any garden. Plants have their idiosyncrasies and varieties; there are three kinds of strawberry plants alone: June-bearing, everbearing, and day-neutral. When it comes to mint, experienced green thumbs will grow it in a pot away from their other herbs; the plant is notorious for taking over gardens wholesale (ditto for lemon balm, another popular herb). Basil needs a lot of water, thyme not as much. Herbs, which grow like gangbusters, tend to die after they go to seed, so clipping any flowers will assure a longer-lasting plant. And the general rule is that the more you judiciously trim the plants, the more flavorful and leafy they become.
Keep in mind that even the fastest-growing herbs will still take time; basil takes about 75 days to mature, strawberries are harvest-ready around 30 days after the flowers are pollinated. Once you finally have your bushels and pecks, the science of infusion kicks in. Like planting a garden, it is a lesson in patience.
Helmer describes one of her signature fruit infusions: “In a sterilized, air-tight container, like a mason jar, mix three cups of washed, chopped fresh strawberries with four cups of vodka. The infusion should sit for three to five days; shake daily, and start testing the flavor after three days; the longer it sits, the more intense the fruit flavor. Remove the fruit from the vodka—straining it through a cheesecloth will filter strawberry sediment—and store in a new, sterilized glass jar with an air-tight seal. Use the infused vodka in cocktails or drink it straight.”
The five chapters Growing Your Own Cocktails covers the intricacies of botany quickly and easily, from climatic zones to garden design, even preservation techniques for your bounty. Helmer even touches on how everyday weeds like dandelions can be used for unique flavors and garnishes. As the country slips further into state-wide lockdowns, gardens will provide a way to break the monotony and give the owner the satisfaction of seeing something grow and progress. If we have the time, we may as well use it constructively.