One of the easiest ways to bring fresh, robust flavors to food is by introducing spices and herbs. Cocktails are no different: A few basil leaves or sprinkle of thyme can change a dull drink into a delicious one, adding depth of flavor that liqueurs and mixers just can’t compete with.
“Herbs add a level of complexity and depth to cocktails that are difficult to attain with bitters or syrups,” says Jason Pollard, a mixologist at The Usual in Ft. Worth, Texas. “You only have to look to the Mint Julep to see how influential fresh herbs can be. Next time you have leftover herbs from a recipe, try adding them to your evening cocktail and see how it changes the experience.”
Sweet, savory, salty, and even sour, herbs are gifts that keep giving — or give classic drinks an unexpected twist. Learn to harness the power of herbs with the cocktail recipes below.
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The piney smell and flavor of sage add a vibrant warmth to just about anything it touches. For cocktails, a sage-infused syrup can provide an earthy sweetness that pairs well with citrus flavors.
The recipe below, developed by mixologist Peter Siewruk of Sparrow at The Dalmar Hotel in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., uses Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto. This Italian liqueur derives from rose petals, chamomile (from Italy’s Lazio region), and lavender, along with gentian and melissa balm. Its light bitterness and floral, spicy components brighten sage-flavored cocktails in a pleasantly distinct way.
“Sage as an aromatic plays really well with the tonic and helps to bring out the striking flavors of Italicus, while still letting you taste the bourbon,” Siewruk says.
The Me Oh My Recipe
Developed by: Peter Siewruk
- ½ ounce bourbon
- 1 ounce Italicus
- ¼ ounce Chambord (or Cassis)
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce honey syrup*
- 3 fresh sage leaves
- Splash of tonic water
- Add all ingredients (except tonic) to a shaker tin with ice, and shake quickly to combine.
- Pour over ice in a Collins glass, and top with tonic water.
- Gently mix with a bar spoon, and garnish with fresh sage leaves.
*The Honey Syrup Recipe
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup honey
- Mix honey and water over medium-high heat.
- Simmer until fully mixed, stirring occasionally.
Cardamom is a complex herb that can be citrusy if its color is green, and smoky if its color is black. The zesty flavor of green cardamom is both sweet and spicy, making it complementary to a wide variety of cocktails. Black cardamom’s minty, menthol-like flavor pairs well with dark spirits like whiskey, and even tea. Cardamom’s herbaceous flavor also makes it a great herb to transform into tinctures and syrups.
In the Cardamom Old Fashioned, developed by Samuel Diaz, mixologist at San Francisco’s Kaiyo, the bourbon’s oaky taste is elevated with a mix of sweet and spicy from the cardamom. “I like the herbal notes of cardamom, especially when paired with cinnamon, because it plays perfectly with both the spice notes and caramel notes in Woodford Double Oaked,” Diaz says.
The Cardamom Old Fashioned Recipe
Developed by: Samuel Diaz
- 2 ounces Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon
- ¼ ounce cardamom/cinnamon syrup*
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes cardamom bitters
- Garnish with orange peel
- Combine all ingredients together in a rocks glass with a large ice cube.
- Stir until very cold.
- Garnish and serve.
*The Cardamom/Cinnamon Syrup Recipe
- 5 cinnamon sticks
- 5 cardamom pods, crushed
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups fine granulated sugar
- Boil two cups of water with cinnamon sticks and crushed cardamom pods for five minutes.
- Strain, and add two cups of fine granulated sugar to strained hot water.
- Bring to boil until all sugar is dissolved.
- Refrigerate after cooling. Syrup will last for 7-10 days in the refrigerator.
The lure of lavender cannot be overstated. Its calming properties are used in beauty products and wellness rituals, and let’s be honest: Is there anything more beautiful than a field of lavender? While its mild floral scent is often used throughout homes, spas, and even laundry detergent, lavender can also be the perfect addition to a cocktail recipe. The herb’s floral notes strike a balance between sweet and savory that can brighten any drink.
With its subtle, floral aromatic profile, lavender can deepen the botanical taste of spirits like gin. Clint Spotleson, mixologist at Herbs & Rye in Las Vegas, uses lavender soda to amplify the delicate flavors of the At Last recipe. “I felt lavender had a flavor that complements Italicus, yet was delicate enough to let other ingredients continue to be the star,” Spotleson says. “I’ve found using flavors from herbs in a spirit can be a home run when done properly.
The At Last Recipe
Developed by: Clint Spotleson
- 1 ounce Italicus
- ½ ounce London Dry gin
- ¾ ounce lemon juice
- ½ ounce Earl Grey syrup
- Lavender soda
- Add all ingredients (except the soda) to a shaker tin with ice and shake quickly to combine.
- Pour over ice in a Collins glass.
- Top with lavender soda, and gently mix with a bar spoon.
- Garnish with a lemon twist and fresh lavender sprig.
Dill is a buttery herb with a grassy smell and warm, anise-like taste. Its powerful flavor may not be the first that comes to mind for cocktail-making, but it belongs in any herb-loving home bartender’s roster. When balanced with more neutral, cooling ingredients like cucumber, dill is truly a match made in cocktail heaven.
“Dill is such a prevalent flavor note that gets picked out for rye whiskey, but I wanted to make sure that the cocktail showcased the herb, and all of its floral and soft characteristics,” says Jason Pollard of his Green Goddess drink. “As such, pairing dill with avocado and honey is an easy way to fold in classic rye flavor notes, and showcase the uniqueness of a Kentucky style rye like Woodford Reserve Rye. Dill in this cocktail helps to soften some of the spicy edges that rye whiskey is known for,” says Pollard.
The Green Goddess Recipe
Developed by: Jason Pollard
- 2 ounces Woodford Reserve Rye
- 1 ounce lemon juice
- 1 ounce honey syrup (1:1 honey: water)
- ½ avocado
- 3 dill sprigs, plus extra for garnish
- Thyme sprigs, garnish
- Seedless blackberry jam, garnish
- Combine all ingredients in a blender with pebbled ice.
- Flash blend to combine, and pour into an 8-ounce julep mug.
- Garnish with thyme and dill sprigs, and droplets of seedless blackberry jam.
A member of the mint family, basil is an essential herb in many cuisines around the world, from Italian to Thai and Vietnamese. There are over 60 varieties of basil, and its typical flavor profile is both sweet and peppery. The versatile herb can be used as a syrup, or a garnish of a few leaves on top of your favorite cocktail.
Bar manager Kate Fiore developed the Irish Eyes recipe to showcase the levels of flavor that herbs can bring out of a drink. “Basil leaves elevate this cocktail in a way that any fresh herb, paired with the right ingredients, would,” says Fiore, who manages the bar at Match Restaurant in Norwalk, Conn. “Basil is bright, slightly bitter, and intensely aromatic, so it can hold its own in this drink. The sweet strawberry and acidic balsamic vinegar require the balance that basil brings. I’ve found that Broken Shed Vodka is the perfect vehicle for delivering this familiar and always satisfying flavor pairing — it’s viscosity is just right for the bold flavors here. The vodka also takes on flavor particularly well, so you will never get a harsh sip.”
The Irish Eyes Recipe
Developed by: Kate Fiore
- 2 parts Broken Shed Vodka
- 1 part balsamic vinegar
- 3 basil leaves
- ½ cup fresh muddled strawberries
- Muddle basil leaves with balsamic vinegar.
- Combine with strawberries and add vodka.
- Top off with seltzer.