A great way to introduce some new exciting flavours and freshen up your cocktails is by using flowers and herbs. If you don’t know where to begin don’t panic, Mike Di Tota, aka the botanical bartender from The Bonnie, New York, is here to give you some insight and inspiration on how you can use these different flavours in your cocktails.

My story

In my twenties, I took a job at a small plant nursery to combat restaurant burnout, and what started as a simple retail gig became an obsession. I quickly transitioned from growing a few basic houseplants at home, to nurturing a collection of over 200 orchids in my tiny studio apartment. I became infatuated with the plant world and enrolled in the New York Botanical Garden School of Professional Horticulture. At the same time, I landed my first bartending job at a neighbourhood gastropub, Sweet Afton in Astoria, New York.

By night, I was learning about craft gins and small batch whiskies and by day I was studying the garden’s 250 acres, becoming an expert on the 1000 plants I’d need to know before graduation. In my backyard I was growing herbs and flowers like scented geraniums, lemon balm and agastache, becoming intimate with how they grew, which parts of the plant gave off aroma, and the best ways to extract their flavour in edible form so that I could use them in my cocktails. I discovered that there are so many easy, accessible methods to explore botanicals with ingredients you can grow yourself or easily procure from the grocery store, and these new flavours can help you invent some exciting cocktail creations!

Syrups

Syrups are one of my favourite ways to incorporate plant notes into a cocktail. Steeping soft herbs like tarragon, thyme or cilantro in a slightly cooled 1:1 simple syrup releases their bright flavours; heating hard spices like caraway seeds and allspice berries activates their aromatic oils. Pureeing fresh mint into a simple syrup is a terrific way to extract its flavour without the hassle of muddling. It’s important to remember that soft herbs work best when chopped, pureed, or steeped in warm syrup but not cooked (heating mint over a flame will produce a rancid flavour). Barks, roots and dried spices like cinnamon, whole cloves and coriander seeds can be boiled to infuse a simple syrup; exposing them to heat releases their flavours.

Garnish

A perfect drink stimulates multiple senses, so the garnish is an important opportunity to create a visual preview of the cocktail’s flavours, as well as an aroma to precede each sip. Delicate wild honeysuckle blossoms, scented geranium leaves and fennel fronds are lovely atop a glass; fresh bay leaves and thyme can add great savoury aromas.

Infusions

Liquor infusions are another simple way to introduce complexity to a drink. Dried herbs and flowers like lavender, chamomile and bay leaves are better suited to infusing liquors than fresh herbs and flowers: they impart maximum flavour in minimum time.

Infusing chamomile into gin is a personal favourite pairing: the flowers give the spirit a beautiful golden hue, and the floral flavour is an unexpected counterpoint to the spirit’s juniper notes. Lavender is a lovely aromatic match for vermouth blanc; dried hibiscus flowers add both a tannic astringency and a vibrant ruby colour to tequila.

Get exploring

There’s a whole botanical world for bar staff to explore, and you don’t have to be a bitters geek to incorporate herbs and flowers into your drinks. The lightbulb moment for me was when I realised that every liquor comes from a plant in some way: roots, bark, stems, seeds, flowers, fruit and vegetables. My two paths converged when horticulture and mixology collided, and I continue to learn more from their interaction every day. The plant kingdom is an endless source of inspiration for me.

Key serves

Black Velvet

85ml Cava sparkling wine

85ml GUINNESS

20ml Fresh mint syrup*

Fresh mint leaves, for garnish

METHOD

Add syrup and Cava to a Champagne flute. Fill with Guinness. Garnish with fresh mint leaves.

*MINT SYURP

1 Cup granulated sugar

1 Cup water

1 Bunch fresh mint leaves

METHOD

In a small saucepan, bring the sugar and water to a simmer, stirring to dissolve.

Remove from heat and let cool.

Add to a high powered blender.

Blend syrup with mint leaves until smooth.

Strain, removing mint pulp, and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

(1.45 standard drinks* - 5.3 units per serve)

Winter’s Finale

55ml Fennel-infused TANQUERAY GIN*

20ml Lemongrass syrup

15ml Fresh lime juice

3 Dashes dandelion bitters

Pinch of salt

Fennel frond, for garnish

METHOD

Add all the ingredients to a shaker and fill with ice.

Shake and strain into a chilled coupe.

Garnish with fennel frond.

(2.45 standard drinks* - 1.7 units per serve)

Fennel-Infused Gin

1 Fennel bulb (roughly chopped)

1 750ml bottle of TANQUERAY GIN

METHOD:

Pour full contents of the gin bottle and fennel into an airtight container.

Cover, shake and let sit for five to seven days to infuse.

Strain.

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