Learn how the best summer cocktails use fresh herbs, veggies and berries plucked from the garden.
Tart berries, crisp vegetables and peppery herbs—these ingredients are ever present in the memories connecting people with the land they live on. Whether it’s the elemental, paradoxically clean smell of dirt made robust with the heat from the sun or freshly dug beets blushing bright against Prince Edward Island’s red soil, those sights and smells, tastes and touches are remembrances planted in every garden. And blooming alongside these summer seedlings are new ideas for creative cocktails that take advantage of the fruit—and vegetables—of your labour.
“I have a lifetime love affair with cherries,” says Katrina Roberts, wine and beverage director at Morris East. The gourmet pizzeria in downtown Halifax is becoming as renowned for its creative cocktail menu as it is for its wood-fired pizza. “I still remember my family driving up to the Valley so my mom could buy a crate of sour cherries for us,” Roberts recalls. “I use cherry in several of the cocktails I’ve created for this reason.” The Kiss 75 cocktail at Morris East, a popular choice on the menu, features a cherry cordial Roberts makes from scratch using Nova Scotia cherries.
The trend of using fresh ingredients in beverages is also inspiring artisanal distilleries across Atlantic Canada. “My father was from a farm in Cape Breton and spent his career in the world of agriculture,” says Lynne MacKay, co-owner of Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. The micro-distillery produces small batches of vodka, rum, apple brandy, eaux de vie and fruit liqueurs. “We were never without a family garden—no matter where we lived,” MacKay says. “For years, I followed suit and had vegetable and flower gardens wherever I lived.”
Though MacKay abandoned her gardens in order to devote her land and time to the distillery, she still uses field-fresh ingredients in her recipes. The distillery’s eaux de vie, for example, uses local berries, pears and peaches. “We get to know the producers and their farms,” says MacKay. “We can see how much care and attention they lavish on their product. Picking what goes into our spirits is easy—only the very best fruit. No great distance from the field to our still.”
It’s a similar story for Julie Shore from Prince Edward Distillery in Hermanville, P.E.I. “My family used to have a distillery, pre-prohibition, in the fine state of North Carolina, making a corn whiskey similar to bourbon,” Shore recalls. “I grew up with these really cool stories of the distillery. I never could understand why the family didn’t get back into it. They got into
While Shore did get back into distilling, the fields of local farms—the most epic of gardens—are the backbone of her business. She and her partner Arla Johnson use fresh P.E.I. potatoes in their potato vodka and wild blueberries in their blueberry vodka. “Distilling is not too unlike cooking a meal,” Shore says. “If you have great ingredients, you have a great meal.”
They like counting their liquors—vodka, gin and rum—amongst the ingredients home cooks can use in cocktails. Fresh ingredients, after all, are the crux of a great cocktail. “We have noticed that there is a movement to put kitchen ingredients into cocktails,” Shore notes. She uses her potato vodka in Bloody Marys and Caesars, throwing in a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar and horseradish along with the Worcestershire sauce.
Whether sourced in backyards, urban gardens or farm markets, garden ingredients are as delicious as they are accessible. “Start with growing what you most love to eat,” says Carey Jernigan, urban garden project outreach coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax. “There are some lovely local seed companies which would have good advice—Annapolis Seeds and Pumpkin Moon, for example—and there’s always the wisdom of neighbours and friends.”
Fresh ingredients, after all, are the crux of a great cocktail.
Last year, Jernigan shared a plot at the North End Community Garden in Halifax. “I grew tomatoes, basil, kale, salad greens, coriander, parsley, thyme and oregano, broccoli, peas, beans…and a selection of medicinal plants and flowers,” she says.
Herbs are perhaps the easiest plants to grow and they are important ingredients for fresh, unique cocktails. Not only are they an easy garnish, they also bring flavour and richness to syrups and infusions. “Herbs offer complexity and deep flavours with sometimes a bit of bitterness to make the balance more interesting,” Roberts says. “Basil, sage and thyme are ingredients people are reticent to use in cocktails but they are so readily available to us.”
She enjoys using lemon balm, basil, thyme and sage from local gardens and farms in her cocktails. “We are fortunate in this province to have talented and conscientious farmers,” she says “I’ve been making mojitos for 10 years and have never tasted one better than with local organic mint from Riverview Herbs.”
The first sprouts of the season offer leafy promise to Roberts. “Flavours are bigger, bolder and brighter when they are fresh,” she says. “They offer complexity and that is what I like to play with.”
Beyond the usual fruit ingredients, she likes sampling unexpected vegetables in her cocktails. “We have juiced carrots as a component in a cocktail,” she says. “I have used fire-roasted tomatoes, created a digestive cocktail with local pumpkin and I have been playing with a vodka beet infusion. I am planning a cocktail for the fall which will have a parsnip element to it as well.” As Roberts demonstrates, any idea can take root at the bottom of a highball glass.