As the weather warms, bars and restaurants are inspired to look towards the dirt to source garnishes and cocktail ingredients.
Summertime is green time and what’s floral and herbaceous in your backyard, planter, or farmers market stall can translate to an unexpected ingredient or colorful accent in your cocktail glass.
We’ve talked to restaurants, mixologists, a distiller, and a cider maker throughout Boulder County to ask them to share their knowledge of close to the dirt garnishes and ingredients. Turn up the flavor and style profile on your favorite home based cocktails with these garden goodies.
The Wheelhouse, Niwot
This gathering spot opened at the end of 2020 and shares a wall with Wheel Works, Niwot’s popular bicycle repair and sales shop on 2nd Avenue. Plenty of Boulder County cyclists stop there after their ride, with good cause. When bar manager and mixologist Kendal Lew greets customers, she’s not afraid to suggest something grown to enhance the alcohol.
Lew said that sage is one of her favorite herbs to use because it adds unique depths to what she’s serving. “While sage may seem like a winter garnish, it pairs beautifully with cucumber. A sage and cucumber vodka lemonade is incredibly refreshing on a hot summer day.”
According to Lew, another common herb, basil, can bring out an unexpectedly versatile flavor range when paired with cocktails. It complements the sweetness in strawberries, the herbal profile of gin, or the tart of citrus.
She reminds home mixologists to always bruise herbs before garnishing with them. Her technique is to place the herb in one hand and slap it with her other hand a few times. “The act of bruising the leaves releases their aromas. It is incredible on the nose when you go to sip your cocktail. It makes a HUGE difference.”
West End Tavern, Boulder
Drinkers know that West End Tavern has a lot going on behind the bar. One of the restaurant’s most requested summer selections is their Galactic Lemonade. It’s a far cry from the kind of mass-produced, Mike’s Hard Lemonade-styled drinks found in a tub of ice at a backyard barbecue. (No disrespect to Mike’s. Our editor loves PBR and we just don’t get it.)
While the freshness of the citrus and sugar gives the drink a sought-after flavor profile, in addition to taste, it features one of the most interesting grown garnishes available in a summer drink.
“We infuse vodka with butterfly pea flower,” said General Manager Ashley Milikin. “This gives it an incredible blue-purple hue that’s known to shift in tone. It also has a slight earthy flavor that complements fresh lemon juice and lavender syrup. It also looks great perched on top of the glass rim.”
If you want to use it at home, butterfly pea garnish isn’t something easy to find at grocery stores, though you can try scouting it at some specialty retailers in the area or order it online. You can also grow it at home in the spring. Just make sure your drainage is good and amend the soil so its a bit acidic. Once they’re going, be warned — these plants love to climb. A trellis is a must. Once grown, flowers should be dried before using.
After you’ve sourced the flower, you can use it in alcohol, food, and even tea. It’s fascinating to experiment with how it changes color based on other ingredients you pair it with.
Jax Fish House, Boulder
Jax Fish House has been a beloved Boulder seafood destination since it first opened on Pearl Street in 1994. The site of many oyster-filled happy hours, the bar has always been an important part of coming to Jax.
In the last decade, lots of restaurant drinkers have asked for the Coin Margarita when they place their order. Lots of reasons exist, but this is one: the aromatic garnish of cucumber and orange plays with the senses and completes the drinking experience in a gorgeous and unexpected way.
Jax GM Fabio Stefani talked about why he thinks this drink is one of their top summer requests. “A blend of silver tequila, fresh muddled cucumber, orange, triple sec, and lime; it’s a refreshing and crisp take on the classic marg.” We love a good update to a staple cocktail.
Dry Land Distillers, Longmont
You can find lots of great stops in the alleys behind Longmont’s Main Street in Old Town, including one of the city’s standout hard alcohol makers, Dry Land Distillers. The short, broad sign over a modest door gives entryway to a building that used to be Valley Farm Dairy in the late 1930’s. Now it’s a gathering spot for adults who want to relax with friends.
Kelly Dressman talked about one of the most herbaceous options they offer. “One cocktail that we are featuring currently is the Highlander. It features our light whiskey, thyme simple syrup, fresh squeezed lemon and a house-made chamomile liqueur. We garnish with a sprig of thyme needled through a fresh lemon rind as a finishing touch.” That’s layers of garden garnish, all of which is easily grown or found in the neighbor’s yard. Go ahead and grab some. We’ll give you a boost.
Centro Mexican Kitchen, Boulder
Mexican restaurants along the front range can offer a varied experience, from expected standards to boundary pushing innovation. Whatever you’re looking for in that spectrum, you can find and if you’re headed to Centro, you’re going to find a more unique twist.
That spirit is more than represented at their bar, which puts an herbaceous twist on their typical margarita. Going beyond lime, sea salt, tequila and sugar, Centro offers a herradura blanco margarita with cucumber, jalapeno, fresh basil, and agave topped by a spicy jalapeno.
General Manager Bobby Mitchell talks about why it’s a happy hour favorite. “A little bit spicy and a little bit herbaceous, it’s what people want in their glass when they’re looking for a work break at the end of a hot, still Boulder summer afternoon.”
Stem Ciders Acreage, Lafayette
With a huge bar, easy entry to an oversized patio overlooking Lafayette, and tons of room to spread out at picnic tables and Adirondack chairs, Acreage by Stem Ciders is one of our favorite summertime hangout spots. While plenty of the ciders there naturally feature botanicals, the bar also features cocktails where grown herbs kick up the beverage’s flavor profile.
Acreage spokesperson Tristan Chan shared some of what their mixologists said work best for subtly highlighting their cocktails. One example is how they use sugar to candy fennel, and then add it to a drink they call a Hoped Kicker. They also combine raspberry cider, rosemary, thyme, sage and lemon for a refreshing spritz. The garnish for this drink couldn’t be simpler – a rosemary sprig.
For drinkers who want something more traditional, it’s hard to talk about herbs in the summer without including a mint julep. Stem’s ‘cider julep’ includes their Banjo Laws, which is a whiskey barrel-aged cider with crushed ice and mint simple syrup. An expected mint leaf is the garnish in this case.