As a longtime renter, I have yet to invest in a garden. Honestly, my history with plants isn’t great. I often apologize to leafy gifts: “Look, amaryllis, let’s be honest. This is not going to end well for you.” We remember to care for our dog primarily because she is a beagle, a breed that — if left unfed for an hour — releases a sound with all the restraint and politesse of Internet commenters discussing Obamacare.
Still, in summer I start entertaining gardening fantasies, a rich dirt-rotica worthy of “50 Shades of Green.” They reached a fever pitch as I read Amy Stewart’s “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks,” most of which focuses on the botanical origins of ready-to-drink alcohols: the grapes, the hops, the wheat. The last segment, though, gets DIY. “Gardeners are the ultimate mixologists,” Stewart writes. “Even the most ordinary vegetable patch yields the mixers and garnishes that make remarkable drinks: It is nothing for a gardener to produce lemon verbena, rose geranium blossoms, sweet yellow tomatoes, and deep red stalks of heirloom celery.”
When I called her, Stewart had recommendations for mixologists aspiring to sprout green thumbs. “Grow the things that are so easy to grow there’s no reason not to — like mint — and the ones that are a little harder to find,” like that lemon verbena, which Stewart loves for the citrus note it brings without adding acidity.
“I feel like I’ve failed if I have to buy mint,” she said. I was glad she couldn’t see me blush.
Until I get around to planting my acre (or, realistically, my single pot of shame-reducing mint), I’ll depend on the kindness of gardeners and ogle the yards in Takoma Park, an area full of aging hippies and thus full of burgeoning gardens and fruit trees. Sometimes they burgeon their way right over property lines, which makes them fair game, especially since Takoma Park is less likely to have cranks defending their turf with shotguns. (See “hippies,” ibid.)
I also like to see what the pros are doing. The first time I had Todd Thrasher’s tomato water bloody mary at Restaurant Eve, it took me back to a shed beside a one-lane highway in Mississippi. That’s where my family used to stop on our way to the beach to load up on peaches, corn and, most of all, tomatoes, fat and fragrant — fruit that, were it to encounter the pale, mealy cousins sold in grocery stores, would not acknowledge them as kin. Thrasher’s cocktail is the smell of the last stop on the way to summer.
It was with some amusement, then, that when I recently asked Thrasher about the drink’s origins, I found it was originally concocted in early spring, long before prime tomato season, crafted from hothouse tomatoes from one of the restaurant’s suppliers. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice — oh, never mind. Can I just have another quart of that drink?
The tomato water is a project to make, but not all garden-centric drinks require a Thrasherian effort. Feeling rushed? Muddle your pickings into a drink; the Blushing Mary recipe in Stewart’s book has flavor notes similar to Thrasher’s beauty and can be made in minutes. More patient? You can infuse garden pickings into spirits. Feeling culinary? Try making shrubs — vinegar/fruit flavor essences that can be added to cocktails — or blending and straining produce for juice and color without bulk. (My own recipe, for something I call Bell of Oaxaca, pairs cool bell pepper and tomato with a vegetal, briny mezcal.)
The highly ambitious might take a page from Julien Bourgon, a Thrasher protege at Bar TNT in Arlington. Bourgon won D.C.’s annual rickey competition with a delicious drink that blended Bulleit bourbon with a cantaloupe soda he created by soaking thin slices of ripe melon in cold water with vanilla beans, citric acid, sugar and a little salt, then carbonating. The refreshing factor was upped with cubes of honeydew frozen in liquid nitrogen.
If you prefer cocktails with a lower risk of industrial explosions, though, shrubs and infusions are great options. At Dino, bar manager Fabian Malone uses apricots that aren’t pretty enough for desserts in an apricot-basil shrub, infuses blackberries into rum, and infuses raspberries into gin for a tart, refreshing rickey. Overripe fruits — think bruised seconds that you can score at the end of the farmers market — make for great shrubs, which are made by macerating the produce in sugar to draw out the flavors, straining out the solids, then adding vinegar.
For those willing to wait, infusions can produce beautiful results. Keep in mind, though, that different plants infuse at different rates. “Peppers can get really hot, really fast,” Stewart says. “If you have some idea, like making a tomato-basil-pepper vodka, you should do the flavors in separate bottles and combine them later.” Taste your infusions frequently, too: Peppers can infuse in a matter of hours, whereas citrus may take much longer.
While there are some classic spirit-to-produce pairings (peaches and bourbon; gin and cucumber), Thrasher says there aren’t any rules. Just try things and see, he says — though he doesn’t tend toward brown spirits when working with more delicate flavors.
Stewart was amused by some of the produce ending up in cocktails. “I’ll admit, I’ve had a great roasted beet bloody mary, but you see carrots and kale in cocktails. . . . At some point it can start to feel a little forced. I think I’d just have a beer.”
Or a beer and a salad, I suggested.
In “The Drunken Botanist,” Stewart writes, “I am certain that at this very moment, a craft distiller in Brooklyn is plucking a weed from a crack in the sidewalk and wondering if it would make a good flavoring for a new line of bitters.”
After reading the book, I found myself eyeballing the fruits and blooms in the neighborhood with greedier eyes — not only the fig tree across the street, but the echinacea flowers, the onion grass in our lawn, the daylilies growing wild at the roadsides.
When we spoke, though, she highlighted an important caveat: A little hubris, and that trendy urban foraging can go badly wrong. When infusing alcohol, you’re extracting the most active ingredients, so “you really need to know what that plant is before you soak it in vodka,” she said.
I’ll stick to the figs. Take note, hipsters: If you’re muddling toxins into your G&T, not even ironic mutton chops will protect you.
Allan is a Takoma Park writer and editor; her Spirits column appears monthly. On Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.