A shimmering pink tea beckoned from a glass jug at Greenhouse Café’s booth at the Queen Anne Farmers Market recently. It was rhubarb-lemon-bay-leaf tea sweetened with lavender-honey syrup. 

The medley of so many garden-fresh ingredients felt like serendipitous magic and sent me down a path of learning to make my own. The process of creating homegrown teas, liqueurs, syrups, infusions and oils may seem like ancient or secret knowledge passed down through a lineage of apprentices, but the skills needed are actually surprisingly simple and accessible. 

With the processes developed before refrigeration and technology, little is required beyond a stove and a place to dry herbs and store your concoctions. 

Whether you grow your own or purchase locally grown ingredients, there’s a world of flavor alchemy to explore to enrich your tumblers with the invigorating tastes, smells and nutrients of the garden.  

Belinda Kelly and Venise Cunningham, owners of Simple Goodness Sisters, are well-steeped in herbal craft. For four years, Kelly’s Happy Camper Cocktail served craft cocktails out of a 1957 Aladdin camper around Seattle. The sisters then joined forces to create artisanal syrups like Huckleberry Spruce Tip and Rhubarb Vanilla Bean, made mostly from the produce they grow on Cunningham’s farm in Buckley. They opened a Soda Shop in Wilkeson and recently launched the Cocktail Farm Club, a recipe kit subscription that shifts with the seasons. They offer classes occasionally, too.

“The fun of making syrups was creating flavors that didn’t exist in the market, while reflecting Washington ingredients as much as possible,” Kelly says. “The idea you can make fun and delicious drinks is really spreading.” Beverage creativity is bubbling up in specialty bars, on Instagram in #cottagecore feeds, on TikTok under “Dirty Sodas” and even in mass market teas like the Starbucks Refreshers series.

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Grow your own

“You want to start with the best quality you can, and often that’s what you grow yourself,” Kelly says. “Even the mint leaf picked a week ago under lights in a fridge is remarkably different in flavor than one from your garden. There’s a huge range in quality. Often the spices sold in the grocery store are a year or more old.” 

Another bonus to growing your own ingredients is that since fresh herbs pack more flavor, you’ll need far less than if you were using dried ones. 

“When you grow something, your idea of eating changes dramatically — you start to understand seasonality, which is something you don’t see in our grocery stores,” Kelly says. “Seasonal eating is becoming very inspiring to me. For instance, strawberries have a short season, so you have limited time to enjoy them. I might make strawberry jam, frozen strawberries and infused vodka.”

And you don’t have to go all out, like Fremont Mischief Distillery’s cocktail roof garden; you can start with a few pots of mint and thyme on your deck or windowsill.  

Cunningham recommends starting with the basics: herbs such as rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, parsley and basil. All of these are perennial (provided you choose a rosemary rated hardy to at least zone 7), except the basil. She chooses purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) because it flowers late and the leaves have a mild flavor that plays well with other ingredients in syrups. 

For the same reason, she prefers mojito mint (Mentha x villosa) over peppermint or spearmint. She recommends planting mint in a pot to keep it from running rampant, and giving it extra water to keep those leaves coming. 

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Kelly also enjoys chamomile blended in honey.

In addition to drinkables, Cunningham makes pestos of basil or arugula, as well as herb blends that she freezes into ice cubes and adds to dishes all year.

Add a floral flourish 

Edible flowers can be used as a garnish floating in a drink, embedded in ice cubes or tossed into a salad or onto focaccia. The dried umbel-shaped flowers of fennel, a perennial, impart a licorice note to your creations, says Cunningham. Peppery nasturtiums add an exotic touch. Sweet and mild calendula will politely seed around to be a welcome garden presence. Borage offers ethereal blue blossoms that taste like cucumber.

Other edible flowers include violas, snapdragons, lavender and — Cunningham’s current experiment — fuchsias. Just be sure to obtain organically grown plants or seeds. 

Kelly notes that wild elderflowers (Sambucus species) can be foraged locally to make syrups or shrubs — but make sure to leave some for the people waiting for the berry harvest.

Cunningham has a greenhouse and enjoys growing buzz buttons, aka the toothache plant (Acmella oleracea), a tropical plant grown from seed that stars in a signature margarita at the Chandelier Bar at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas. When nibbled, the blossoms tingle and slightly numb your mouth.

Another garnish Cunningham grows from seed is a fruit: the adorable cucamelon (Melothria scabra), a grape-sized cucumber relative with watermelon-style stripes and a tangy flavor. A heat-lover, cucamelon starts can be found at some Seattle nurseries in early to mid-summer. 

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What are we having?

Teas, syrups, shrubs and infusions are the easiest on-ramp to herbal beverages, Kelly says. Tea is as easy as pouring hot water over leaves, fresh or dried. At the other end of complexity is making bitters. Their formulas — which can be copyrighted — can have as many as 30 ingredients, and often involve toasting, drying or curing. 

When mixing up a cocktail or mocktail, combine what Kelly calls the “big three” flavors: sweet, sour and bitter. Once you find the right balance, you can play with incorporating other notes like umami, salty and astringent.  

There are many roads to get there, but the phrase “what grows together, goes together” can help. Pairing plants in season at the same time or from the same region is likely to work.  Watermelon, mint and lime is one great combination, Kelly says, but the fun is in finding your own.

Terms to know

Muddling: Add your herbs or fruit to your drink, stir to “muddle” and enjoy. Kelly recommends clapping on a mint leaf to release its oils. Creative bartenders are even muddling tomatoes or cooked carrots, she says.

Infusion: Adding plant ingredients to a spirit and letting the flavors blend. Start with a clean glass jar and your flavor ingredients, pour the alcohol over and wait. You can use anything from fruit to bacon, Kelly says, but the timing varies for each ingredient based on its flavor strength and absorbability. Hot pepper might take four hours, vanilla bean four days, she says. Then strain out your dry ingredients. “It’s a super-sustainable way to use up leftovers or fruit about to go bad,” she says.

Bitters: Typically high-proof-alcohol cold infusions with many ingredients. Bitters are often used to balance the sweet and sour flavors of cocktails, Kelly says.

Syrups: Cooked sweetener usually made of fruit or honey and water. Rich sugar syrups are 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. Simple syrups are 1-to-1. They last an average of three to four weeks in the refrigerator, or a bit longer if using acidic ingredients like blueberries or lemon, says Kelly

Liqueur: A spirit, like vodka, infused with flavored syrup.

Shrubs: A type of syrup that includes vinegar, which helps break down the flavors. Using balsamic, cider or champagne vinegar will influence the taste. For a cold shrub, simply shake the ingredients to dissolve the sugar and marry the flavors. Highly durable, shrubs can last up to six months refrigerated. “Shrubs were like pioneer Coca-Colas,” says Kelly.