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Drinkable Herbs 

click to enlarge Pineapple sage - PHOTO BY AMY STEWART
  • photo by Amy Stewart
  • Pineapple sage

We're continuing to work our way through a year's worth of grow-your-own cocktail ingredients, moving on this month from flowers to herbs. Let's start with some of the sweeter, more floral herbs you might mix into a drink, and next month I'll move on to the savory herbs. Autumn is a great time to plant any of these. Just water them until it starts raining, then stand back and let them take care of themselves through the winter.

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) Also called "licorice mint," this tough little perennial is, in fact, a member of the mint family, and the leaves do taste and smell of licorice or anise. It's completely hardy on the West Coast and will survive winter temperatures as low as minus 25 F. In summer, the plants thrive on sun and very little water, pushing up flowering stalks that reach a couple of feet in height. Because it's such a widely adaptable plant, you'll find that anise hyssop does just fine in partial shade as well.

These plants have been subject to a great deal of hybridizing, but I haven't noticed any compromises in the flavor of the leaves. So you might as well indulge your vanity and shop for good looks. "Golden Jubilee" is popular for its chartreuse leaves and brilliant blue flowers, and A. aurantiaca, "Fragrant Delight," produces a mix of orange, purple and lavender blossoms. "Blue Fortune" is considered the workhorse of the bunch with light blue flowers and a really vigorous habit. They all attract bees, butterflies or hummingbirds, and they require zero care except for shearing back the dead blossoms at the end of the season.

So what do you do with them? In Scott Beattie's book Artisanal Cocktails, he slices the leaves into long, thin strips and shakes them over ice with vodka and a berry-infused simple syrup, then serves the drink with seltzer water and garnishes with more of the leaves and blossoms. I've also seen it muddled into a gin and tonic, and anise hyssop-infused simple syrup is generally a good upgrade to ordinary simple syrup in any fruity or floral drink. The flowers are edible, so feel free to garnish with them as well.

Angelica (Angelica archangelica) is a big ol' gorgeous creature in the carrot family that has been used to flavor liqueurs since the Middle Ages. If you're going to grow it, be sure to get this particular species. There are other ornamental angelicas sold in garden centers, but they can be mildly toxic. It's actually fairly easy to grow from seed, and I've had good luck planting them in fall after the rains start. Just be sure you sow them where you actually want them to grow: Like other members of the carrot family, angelica has a long taproot and doesn't like to be transplanted. Angelica is happy in the shade and it likes damp soil, but I've ignored it all summer and it survived fine without extra water. The plant is a biennial, producing only leaves the first year and blooming and going to seed the second year. If you're really into angelica, plant it two years in a row and always let some go to seed so you'll have a fresh crop every year.

The roots and seeds are used to flavor liqueur and vermouth. Although distillers love to keep their recipes a secret, take a swig of Strega, Chartreuse, Galliano and other such Italian and French herbal liqueurs and see if you don't taste the indescribably fresh, bright, green flavor of angelica. The best way to use it in a cocktail is to chop off a thick stem and mix it into a simple syrup or infuse it in vodka for no more than 24 hours along with other fresh herbs and citrus. (Give fresh, green herbs too much time in vodka and you'll start to get really nasty off flavors. Experiment with longer infusion times at your own peril.)

Scented geranium (Pelargonium spp.) Not a true geranium, these fragrant pelargoniums are the result of endless hybridizing, which is why it's impossible to list a particular species. You can get scented geraniums that smell (and taste) of roses, coconut, apple, nutmeg, strawberry, lime and ginger. They do great in containers, they can tolerate dry soils, and they prefer full sun but will put up with a little shade. If you're growing the plants for flavor, do give them as much sun as possible to encourage the development of essential oil.

The flowers are edible so they're safe to use for garnish, and the leaves release a tremendous amount of flavor into simple syrup. They're also fantastic muddled into gin or vodka to dress up a basic Martini. In fact, a British distiller is making Geranium Gin, which does taste of rose geraniums, but it's not yet available in the United States so you'll just have to use your imagination.

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) I was talking to a friend on the East Coast about this plant, and he was complaining that it was available for such a short time there. Well, here on the West Coast, it's almost a weed. If you don't get much of a frost, you'll be able to harvest it all year. This salvia (also in the mint family) produces stalks of red, tubular flowers that hummingbirds love, and the leaves are, in fact, pineapple-flavored. There's a variety called "Golden Delicious" with chartreuse leaves and red flowers, but it's not really a strong bloomer, and it only reaches a couple feet in height, while the regular pineapple sage can get to six feet in good weather. In any case, give it some sun, don't worry too much about water, and protect it against winter temperatures below 10 F. (Of course, if you grow it in a container, you will have to water it. "Golden Delicious" is fabulous as a container plant.) If the plants look scraggly at the end of winter, cut down some or all of the branches to the ground and it will regrow as soon as the weather warms up.

What to do with it? Anything you do with anise hyssop will work with pineapple sage as well. This recipe was served by the nice people at Combier in New Orleans this summer when I gave a talk about The Drunken Botanist (the book, that is -- it'll be out next March). We called the drink "The Drunken Botanist" that day, but it normally goes by the name "Pineapple Express." There is one new and unusual ingredient here: Combier Kummel, a modern version of a traditional caraway, cumin and fennel-flavored herbal liqueur. If you don't have kummel and can't get it, I'll let you in on a little secret: tequila and pineapple are amazing together. Get some pineapple juice and a good orange liqueur (like Original Combier or another triple sec) and start experimenting.


Pineapple Express

(by Tommy Klus, Portland, Ore.)

10 leaves pineapple sage

.5 oz agave nectar

1.5 oz tequila reposado

.75 oz Combier Kummel

1 oz fresh lemon juice

In a shaker, lightly muddle pineapple sage leaves in agave nectar, then add remaining ingredients and ice. Shake and strain into a coupe or Martini glass. Garnish with a small pineapple sage sprig. (Smack sprig in hand to release the plant's aromatic oils.)

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