Speaking of messes, a digression and confession: I don't like weeds in my teeth. In other words, when it comes to herbal cocktails, I prefer those that are strained, so the leaves are not swimming right there in my glass. Miss Flighty teases me relentlessly about this, but she is the Queen of Green and I am, admittedly, more of a Prince of Pristine. I like my Mint Juleps made with mint simple syrup (the flavor is more delicate if you let the sugar syrup cool a bit before adding the mint), and I prefer my Roquette fine-strained to eliminate the arugula bits. Feel free to rib me about this. I'm used to it. "I'll never apologize for leaving the herbs in my cocktails," says Straub. "I think they have more flavor that way, and they're so great visually. I do object to the gratuitous herb-adding I see sometimes from bartenders who want to make something seem new or different, but when it's done well there's nothing better."
One of my favorite ways to add visual appeal to a cocktail or punch is to embed herbs or edible flowers in ice cubes. It's a bit easier if you can make oversize cubes or spheres, but I've frozen thyme flowers in regular-size cubes and they were a big hit (most recently I used thyme ice in a gin and tonic to which I added a splash of thyme–lemon verbena simple syrup). To keep the leaf or flower from floating to the top and poking out of the cube, I fill the tray only halfway with water and when that's frozen, I fill the tray the rest of the way. It takes a little planning, but we taste with our eyes as well as our mouths, so the payoff is well worth it.
The Best Herbs to Plant
Early success is crucial to the sustainability of any endeavor, so I would suggest starting with the two heartiest herbs I know, mint and basil. By mint I mean spearmint (a good all-around variety to look for is the relatively mild Kentucky Colonel, but if you have the space try a few different ones). Be warned, it will try to take over, so you might want to find a way to keep it contained. (Or let it go nuts and be grateful for the aromatic bounty.) A large pot can work, but mint likes to run, so a raised bed is better. If a pot is your only option, try to find a sunny spot outsidemint likes heat, which somehow makes sense given its cooling qualities. It's also a good idea to divide the plant when it starts to get spindly. Before you know it you'll have more mint than you can use. But try. Juleps, Mojitos, Audrey Saunders' Gin-Gin Mule, Dale DeGroff's Whiskey Smashall these cocktails and many more will reward you many times over.
Basil is a member of the mint family, and it's another great plant for the home-bar garden. Sweet basil is the variety most people are familiar with, but there are a number of others worth considering, particularly Thai basil, which is smaller-leafed, tastes somewhat anisey, and works well with a variety of spirits. It's most commonly seen in the Basil Mojito, which may hold the cocktailian record for fastest transformation from cool to cliché. In the mid '90s, as cocktail culture was being reborn, every creative bartender seemed to have a basil phase. Most quickly moved on to more exotic herbs, or at least more interesting types of basil. Scott Beattie uses opal basil and sweet Italian basil in the Upstairs Neighbor, a beautiful and complex take on a Bloody Mary that also has a splash of aged balsamic vinegar. Basil feels right in a drink that resembles a salad more than a beverage, but it also works well combined with its mint cousin (such as in a Mojito). One of my favorite Beattie drinks, the Thai Boxer, is made with Thai basil and mint along with cilantro, rum, lime juice, coconut milk, and ginger beer. It's a perfect reflection of his culinary approach to mixing drinks.