In stylish bars around town and across the country, bartenders who once mashed -- or in bar-speak, muddled -- only mint for mojitos and juleps are bringing the rest of the herb roster into play.
Herbs are key ingredients in dozens of late summer cocktails. Cilantro, rosemary and thyme are common. Every sort of herbal garnish goes. And with home gardens and farmers markets at a seasonal peak, plenty of fresh herbs are available.
On a recent evening in the small, busy bar at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, three young women celebrated a birthday sipping tall, pink drinks with a dark ruffled leaf floating on the surface. "It's a purple basil cocktail, smooth and delicious with no aftertaste," says attorney Lauren Allen of Old Town. "People are really into herbal drinks. And my mom says it's huge in San Diego."
The trio has sampled thyme martinis while visiting Santa Fe, N.M., and sage mojitos in Hawaii.
The man behind Eve's purple basil cocktail is manager and sommelier Todd Thrasher. "I'm tired of fruity cocktails with mango and passion fruit. I'm looking for new ideas," he says. "With herbs, the cool thing is, not only is the flavor great but the aroma that comes off the glass is amazing."
Infusing liquor with herbs is a new way for bartenders to get more creative, says Shawn Kelley, spokeswoman for the Distilled Spirits Council, a trade organization. "All these things are going on in the kitchen. This is just translating it to the bar."
Cocktail expert Gary Regan, author of "The Joy of Mixology," says today's herbal cocktails are actually a rejuvenation of an ancient trend, dating to the 1340s. "During the time of the great plague, they thought herbal-infused spirits could alleviate symptoms or find a cure," he says. "Think of Benedictine," he adds, a liqueur infused with fruit peels and herbs first made by monks in the 16th century.
Regan, who conducts training seminars for bartenders and others in the liquor business, says herbal infusions make a lot of sense especially from a culinary standpoint. "Alcohol boosts flavor," he says. "It's the reason we make penne with vodka sauce -- the vodka boosts the flavor of the sauce. Herbal cocktails are a cuisine of sorts."
Which is why when bartender Gina Chersevani needs lemon verbena for a verbena martini or mojito, she pops out the door of Poste Moderne Brasserie in the Penn Quarter and into the chef's herb garden at the adjoining Hotel Monaco. In addition to the usual suspects -- basil, thyme and rosemary -- chef Robert Weland grows heirloom cherry tomatoes and the stuffing for his stinging nettle ravioli.
Chersevani says her customers are "surprised to see me muddle fresh herbs. People assume it's a package thing." Herbal drinks are popular because "it's seemingly healthy even though you are drinking liquor," she says.
For Kera Carpenter, owner of Domku Bar & Cafe in Petworth, herbal cocktails are the logical choice for her Scandinavian/Slavic restaurant. "I was looking for flavors that would complement my food," she says. At the bar, the specialty is Baltic-style, house-made herbal aquavit -- vodka flavored with herbs and spices.
She pairs a pickled herring plate with a cocktail she calls the ogorki , flavored with dill aquavit and cucumber and spiked with potato vodka. "It's the perfect match," says Carpenter.