When I moved back to Madison seven years ago, the cultural feature that most enchanted me was the locally grown food movement. How could I not have been enchanted? I spent nearly two decades in New York, where my only private green space was a fire escape adorned with a few flower pots. But Madison also rocks a thriving local food scene. And in my desire to go native (in that respect, at least), I rented a plot in our neighborhood community garden.
Seven years later, my urban gardening skills are still, well, a work in progress. I often forget to weed. I’m lazy about watering. Without organic pest control, much of my summer garden typically ends up being devoured by insects. At the same time, I’m often frustrated by the challenge of using all of my abundant garden produce. One year, I grew so much zucchini that, even after baking a dozen loaves of zucchini bread, I had to give most of it away. I left one rather hefty squash on my neighbor’s car. (She somehow didn’t notice it, and ended up driving around all day with a zucchini on her windshield.)
But one thing I have learned over the years is that not all of my surplus food needs to be eaten. By anyone.
Some of it can instead be sipped, in the form of a locally grown, homemade liqueur, cocktail mixer or tincture.
Don’t let the word tincture fool you: I’m no master mixologist. Some of my neighbors may think I am. But that’s only because I mix them drinks, in exchange for help with things like bike repair and snowplowing. In fact, I’ve just learned a lot from the Internet, and from talking with local bartenders.
And that means anyone interested in making better use of the garden surplus — or extra produce from the farmers’ market or a CSA — can spend the summer making fresh, locally grown ingredients for cocktails.
The mixer recipes below are presented in roughly chronological order, from early rhubarb harvest in June to peak apple season in late September. Although I provide a few gardening tips here, I don’t grow all of these items myself.
My community plot doesn’t allow trees, for example, and I get rhubarb from my mom’s garden.
Nevertheless, all of this produce is available in Madison. Some of it — like the rhubarb and cherries — freezes well for later use. So if you have room in your freezer, don’t worry about buying too much! Finally, a note on measurements: I store most of my syrups and mixers in mason jars. Because of that, the mixers are measured in cups. The cocktail recipes, however, are measured by jigger — that hourglass-shaped, stainless steel device that typically holds 1.5 ounces in the larger cup and 3/4 ounce in the smaller one.
Rhubarb is a hardy, tart perennial that is usually started from a small dormant plant called a crown. Most varieties grow edible stalks that will yield several pounds of fruit in late spring and early summer. But you’ll typically wait two years after planting before pulling edible stalks. According to my mom, you harvest the rhubarb by holding each stalk near its base and twisting it cleanly off the roots.
Rhubarb also grows seed stalks which — because it’s a perennial — must be cut down to ground level every year to keep the plant growing.
Rhubarb makes a great cocktail mixer for people who like fruity but slightly tart, drinks. Once you’ve harvested the rhubarb, trim the stalks and chop them into large (1- or 2-inch) pieces.
8 cups rhubarb
3 cups filtered water
1 1/2 cups agave nectar
Put about 8 cups of the chopped rhubarb into a pot, covering it with water until it’s just covering the fruit (about 3 cups). Pour in agave nectar (add more if you prefer a sweeter mix. Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn down the heat and let the pot simmer for an hour or two, until the rhubarb has the consistency of chunky applesauce. Cool the mixture fully, then strain it — with a jar strainer lid or mesh colander — into a storage container. Strain it several times, as needed, until all solids are removed. Yields 3-4 cups. Use immediately, or store in refrigerator.
Cocktail: The Rhubarb Flower
1 1/2 ounces dry gin
1 1/2 ounces rhubarb syrup
3/4 ounces elderflower liqueur
juice of 1/2 lime
1/8 teaspoon elderflower tonic
splash of soda water
Pour all the ingredients into cocktail shaker (or Mason jar) with ice, and blend vigorously. Strain the frothy blend into a cocktail glass, and serve up.
Unlike rhubarb, basil is a fairly tender annual. To grow basil from seed, you can start it indoors about 6-8 weeks before replanting it outside. To start from plants, it’s easy enough to buy them at the farmers’ market or a local greenhouse, and stick them in the ground. You can snip off leaves whenever needed, and cut off entire stems if you cut just above a pair of new leaves. But the most important thing to know about basil is that whether you are using it or not, its flavor and yield depends on regular pruning of the flowers and seeds. When your basil plants grow flowers, cut them off.
Since basil is best used fresh, its leaves are often muddled into cocktails. A longer lasting option, however, is to make a strong tincture.
4 ounces fresh basil leaves
1-2 cups vodka
Remove the basil leaves from the stems, and rinse well. Use a large spoon or rubber spatula to press the leaves into a jar, then pour in the vodka. Place the jar in the refrigerator for several days, but agitate it daily. After a few days, remove the leaves and use, or store in the refrigerator. If the flavor is too strong for your personal taste, dilute the tincture with more vodka, or just use less of it in the cocktail. Yields 1-2 cups.
Cocktail: Lemon Basiltini
1 1/2 ounces vodka
2-4 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon (or less) basil tincture
juice of 1 lemon
The basil tincture adds a fresh herbal essence to a classic lemony vodka drink. Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail shaker. I recommend dropping half a teaspoon of the tincture in first, to make sure it isn’t too strong, then adding as you taste. Do the same with the honey, if you wish. Stir the ingredients first to dissolve the honey, then add ice and shake. Serve in a martini glass.
The Celestial Sphere
Around the middle of July, I start buying up tart cherries, then pitting and freezing them. Given their abundance here, though, you can also buy them later, frozen or canned, in many stores.
Some sour cherry brandy recipes instruct that the pits are useful for fermentation, and to leave them in. But I find them easier to use without pits, especially when pressing the fruit for the drink we’ll be making.
Tart cherry liqueur
4 cups Door County cherries
4 cups Everclear or other neutral spirit
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Place fresh or thawed cherries in a large (8 cup) jar or container. Pour in a roughly equal volume of the spirit. Cover jar and let steep, at room temperature, for at least 2 weeks and preferably longer. The flavor only gets better with time. Pour off the cherry-flavored spirit into another container, and store it in a refrigerator.
Next, shrub the macerated cherries by placing the fruit into a colander, setting the colander over a bowl, and sprinkling it with sugar. After a few days, press any additional juice out of cherries, then blend a tablespoon or two of vinegar into the juice. Combine this sweetened cherry vinegar shrub (about a cup) with the refrigerated cherry-flavored spirit. Dilute with water until liquor is about 80 proof. (Do not drink without diluting.) Yields 3-4 cups.
Cocktail: The Celestial Sphere
1 1/2 ounces tart cherry liqueur
3/4 ounce grenadine
3/4 ounce orange-flavored liqueur, like Cointreau
juice of 1/2 lime
small piece of fresh ginger
splash of soda water
Mix the tart cherry liqueur with grenadine, orange liqueur and lime juice. (You can make the grenadine homemade by simmering 1 cup of pure pomegranate juice with 1/4 cup of sugar, then cooling and storing in the refrigerator.) Using a clean garlic press, squeeze some juice (to taste) from a fresh piece of ginger, and stir it into the mixture until fully blended. Add ice, and serve on the rocks with a splash of soda water. Or blend vigorously with ice in a cocktail shaker, strain into a cocktail glass, and serve.
Mint is another cold-tolerant perennial that grows heartily here. Several varieties grow so well that if you don’t cut them back periodically, they will take over your garden. To prevent this, some people prefer to grow their mint in pots. In addition to using it in sauces and salads, you can also muddle it into cocktails (or lemonade) all summer long.
10-12 mint leaves
2-4 tablespoons sugar
Muddling is not a hard science, but there are some guidelines. To muddle, take a handful of rinsed mint leaves and place them at the bottom of a short, sturdy glass. Pour in the sugar and gently press with a muddler (it looks like a tiny baseball bat) to release the oils. The key is not to shred the leaves or crush them, because then the flavor gets bitter.
Cocktail: Minty Mule
1 1/2 ounces whiskey
juice of 1/2 lime
4 ounces ginger ale or ginger beer
The mule is a classic cocktail that typically doesn’t use mint. For those who prefer clear spirits, vodka can also be used instead of whiskey. After muddling the sugar and mint, pour the lime and whiskey into the glass. Stir gently to blend. Fill the rest of the glass with ice and ginger ale. The mint leaves should stay at the bottom, with the oils suffusing the drink.
At the end of every summer, we always go apple picking. Any sweet local variety that’s good for eating — Empire, Cortland, Honeycrisp — is also good for drinking. The only problem with picking your own apples, of course, is that you often end up with too many. Did I say problem? Enter the shrub.
6 red apples
2/3 cup sugar
1-2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
To shrub the apples, quarter them, remove cores, and grate into a colander. Place the colander over a bowl, sprinkle the sugar over the fruit, mix lightly, and cover. Leave the fruit overnight, then press the grated apples with a ladle or rubber spatula to extract any remaining juice. When you have about 1 cup of liquid, mix in 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar, then pour the shrub into a mason jar or another container. Use immediately or store in refrigerator.
Cocktail: El Castillo
1 1/2 ounces tequila
1 1/2 ounces apple shrub
3/4 ounce mescal (optional)
juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons agave nectar, or to taste
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and blend vigorously. If your cocktail isn’t sweet enough, add more agave nectar and shake again. Strain into cocktail glass and serve.