Farm to table takes on a whole new meaning when distiller, Geoff Dillon nurtures his herb garden anticipating the harvest that will allow him to make great gin, vodka and bitters. Whether they’re infused into the flavour of a spirit, brewed into a simple syrup, muddled into a cocktail or simply snipped fresh for a pretty garnish, fresh herbs are becoming an essential ingredient to this years summer cocktails.
“Alcohol itself has no flavour,” explains Geoff “so we rely on my fathers mix of 22 botanicals to infuse the flavour into our products.” While the exact blend of botanicals is a guarded secret of Geoff’s dad Peter, he will say that herbs play a huge role. “It’s the flavour of the botanicals that become the product.”
In addition to making spirits with herbs, Geoff also infuses herbs into simple syrup to flavour his mixed drinks. Anyone can make simple syrup at home. Use equal parts of water and sugar. Add herbs and cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to low and steep about 15 to 30 minutes to the desired flavour. Strain, cool and use it as a flavour base for cocktails, mulled wine and even just sparkling water. Flavoured simple syrups are a bartenders secret weapon for creating delicious flavour combinations.
To make any drink with your own twist, Sommelier, James Treadwell of Treadwell’s Farm to Table Cuisine recommends, “start with a classic recipe. Once you’ve mastered a great drink, then you can put your own spin on it.” Treadwell recommends measuring ingredients when making a cocktail. It ensures you are creating the cocktail in the way it was meant to be and an over or under pour of a single ingredient can throw off the delicate balance of a drink. “Taste as you go and have fun with it.”
But how do you take a great drink and make it better? James suggests, you think like a winemaker. “(Like wine) you want to achieve balance in a mixed drink”.
In the summer James puts his own twist on a classic Mojito. “I use a spicy Thai basil instead of mint with a few drops of Chambord and Sloe gin.” All that goes in the drink with Dillon’s Unfiltered Gin 22, lime juice and soda.” He calls it the Queen Street Refresher, “it’s a great cocktail for the summer.”
For nearly 200 years, the imagination and experimentation of countless baristas, mixologists and bartenders have brought us both classic cocktails and new and delicious creations. At the Sipping Room at Dillon’s Small Batch Distillers you can taste mini cocktails. The drinks will change depending on product availability and marketing activities, but there’s always something to be learned, new flavours to sip and a world of spirited enjoyment to discover.
“We do a simple syrup with rosemary to use in our Blue Spruce Cocktail,” says Geoff. The Blue Spruce is basically Dillon’s gin with rosemary simple syrup, fresh blueberries, the zest and juice of one lemon and tonic water. Then a fresh sprig of rosemary goes in the glass for looks, aroma and ambience. “People use it as a stir stick and little do they know they’re adding more fresh flavours to their drink.”
Rosemary, basil, dill and lemon balm, you will hear mixologists talk about fresh ingredients to make otherwise “decent” cocktails spectacular and you cannot get any fresher than growing your own herbs.
There are basically 3 tips to making your cocktails at home as good as those you pay the big bucks for in a bar. First, use a good quality product. Because liquor is typically the strongest ingredient in a drink, it is important to buy the best. A Martini made with a $5 bottle of gin is going to be disappointing compared to a great quality gin. That doesn’t mean that you have to spend a fortune every time you go to the liquor store, but know what quality is and buy it. This simple upgrade will start your cocktails off on the right foot.
The next tip is borrowed from the kitchen – always use fresh ingredients. This refers to making your own simple syrup, using farm fresh fruit or planting your own bartenders garden. If you enjoy gardening anyway, there’s no reason not to design a portion of your plantings around your drinking preferences. This rule equally applies to garnishes. Not every cocktail needs to be garnished but those that do should always be fresh.
Last but not least, measure everything. Like Treadwell’s comments, the importance of measuring cocktail ingredients cannot be stressed enough. Unless you’re a bartender who mixes hundreds of drinks in an evening, you need to measure or risk mixing a substandard drink.
It’s sage advice that Amanda Fear, Bar Manager at the Terrapin Grille in the Marriot Fallsview Hotel agrees with. “We use only the freshest ingredients and best quality alcohol,” explains Amanda. “If you cheap out on ingredients, you just won’t get the right flavour in a drink.”
On any day you might find Amanda muddling mint leaves into a mojito or mixing sugar with bitters in an Old Fashioned. “I’m old school when it comes to cocktails, I love the classics.” While Amanda may be a fan of classic cocktails, she’s also a fan of fresh herbs in cocktails.
Her three favourite herbs to work with are cilantro, basil and rosemary. “Rosemary and basil will sometimes be bitter so I make a simple syrup and use that”, she explains. She may use a good quality gin with a drizzle of basil simple syrup, fresh lemon, and a blend of tonic and soda water. She’s excited about a new Lemon Drop Martini she’s invented; vodka, fresh lemon and rosemary simple syrup. “I’ll rim the glass with sugar and use a lemon wheel and sprig of rosemary as garnish.”
Cocktails are also very seasonal and to warm you up on a cold winter day, Amanda’s created a Cilantro Caesar. She muddles cilantro into lime juice, adds vodka, clamato juice, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce. Add a garnish of a jumbo shrimp and you’ve got a spicy drink that is sure to warm the soul. As the weather gets warmer she plans to muddle cilantro with lime juice, coconut rum and ginger ale. Garnish with a slice of pineapple and it takes you away to warmer climates.
This story first appeared in the Spring Issue of Today Niagara Magazine. Lynn Ogryzlo is a food, wine and travel writer, international award winning author and regular contributor to REV Publications. She can be reached for questions or comments at www.lynnogryzlo.com.