Summer Herbs Enliven Craft Cocktails

An assortment of herbs and freshly made rosemary-blueberry syrup at The Snug.
An assortment of herbs and freshly made rosemary-blueberry syrup at The Snug. Photo courtesy of The Snug

From Garden to Glass

Long gone are the days when sugary syrups and technicolor hues defined a cocktail. No offense to the fuzzy navel or mai tai, but today’s connoisseurs are seeking libations with a bit more complexity and depth. Bar and restaurant guests are demanding the same high-quality ingredients in their glasses as they do on their plates, and mixologists are happy to oblige.

Paula Thompson, owner of SMIC’s Sip & Quip in Downtown Sacramento, says a farm-friendly city like Sacramento gladly welcomes the unexpected flavors that herbs bring to a drink. Basil, mint, and rosemary all have made appearances on her cocktail menu.

Paula Thompson, owner of SMIC’s Sip & Quip in Downtown Sacramento.
Paula Thompson, owner of SMIC’s Sip & Quip in Downtown Sacramento. Photo courtesy of SMIC’s

“Fresh herbs are so fun because they add so much complexity without being overpowering,” she says. 

Thompson says the love for seasonal ingredients, coupled with the pent-up demand caused by the pandemic shutdown, means people want a night out to be more meaningful and more fun.

“When people go out, they want it to feel special. They go out for the experience,” Thompson says. “People want to sit at the bar and talk about their drinks.”

SMIC’s Sip & Quip is a swanky spot with an old-school vibe. The cocktail menu reflects this aesthetic, offering modern takes on classic drinks. The mint julep, for example, features local honey, while the classic martini gets a kick from rosemary.

“I have a passion for the craft. I’m all about quality and I want to dazzle people,” Thompson says.

Rosemary Martini.
Rosemary Martini. Photo courtesy SMIC’s

Charles Roehr, bar manager at Midtown’s Magpie Café, says fresh herbs add a bright flavor that can’t be mimicked by other ingredients. Magpie’s signature drink, Port of Rye, is made with a simple syrup infused with fennel pollen and toasted fennel seeds, which add a distinctive, yet subtle, licorice flavor. When in season, fennel fronds are added as a garnish.

Roehr, who has been at Magpie since 2015, says he set out to develop a bar program that mirrored the farm-to-fork elements of the dining menu. At the time, Magpie offered a fish dish that featured fennel pollen.

“I thought it was interesting, something that would work well in a cocktail,” Roehr says. “I wanted to mimic the fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits used in the food and bring those flavors to the bar.”

Trevor Easter, bar director at The Snug, a cozy lounge in the R Street Corridor in Sacramento, says using herbs and botanicals to flavor spirits is nothing new (juniper berries are used to make gin, for example). Today’s infusions are similar: Dried or fresh plants are steeped into a “tea” using alcohol, water, juice, or honey as the base.

Easter says the best way for home mixologists to up their cocktail game is by infusing a simple syrup with fresh herbs. For even more oomph, juice can be substituted for water — simply heat the liquid to 120 degrees F, add one or two teaspoons of herbs per eight ounces of liquid, and infuse for a minimum of five minutes (too long and it can turn bitter). Strain the liquid, then add the same amount of sugar by volume and blend until the sugar is dissolved.

Another great way to add fresh herbal notes to cocktails is through infused honey. Easter uses “runny honey,” which is three parts honey to one part warm water. Similar to infused simple syrup or juices, it can be infused with fresh herbs by heating to 120 degrees F, adding one to two teaspoons of fresh herbs per eight ounces of liquid, and steeping for a minimum of five minutes. Strain, and use as desired to flavor cocktails.

Freshly made rosemary-blueberry syrup. To make syrup, see Rosemary Cake Cocktail recipe. Photo courtesy of The Snug

Easter also recommends looking to dessert menus for cocktail inspiration. For example, a rosemary cake can easily be transformed into a rosemary cake cocktail using fresh lemon juice, blueberry-rosemary syrup, olive-oil-infused gin or vodka, and egg white. Similarly, the farmers’ market can provide inspiration. While fruit is an obvious choice, vegetables and herbs are great in cocktails as well. Try ginger, cilantro, lemongrass, and sage.

SMIC’s Sip & Quip

Magpie Café

The Snug