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Happy hours in the garden: Grow your own cocktails

By From page A7 | March 22, 2013

Hop plants, which are vigorous climbers, can be trained to grow on fences and trellises. Hop seed cones shown here can be used to stabilize and flavor beers in the brewing process. High-spirited gardeners are transforming their plants into beers, cocktails and liqueurs. AP photo

This October 2, 2012 photo shows Hop plants, which are vigorous climbers and can be trained to grow on fences and trellises, like these alongside a vineyard in Langley, Wash. Hop seed cones shown here can be used to stabilize and flavor beers in the brewing process. High-spirited gardeners are transforming their plants into beers, cocktails and liqueurs. (AP Photo/Dean Fosdick)

By Dean Fosdick

Gardening can be an intoxicating hobby, especially if the botany is booze-related.

Consider the possibilities: grapes fermented into wine, corn distilled into bourbon, hops used to flavor beer and fruit to sweeten liqueurs.

Why run to a liquor store when you can savor the harvest from your own cocktail garden?

Three processes are involved in converting plants into serviceable drinks: fermentation, distillation and mixing, according to Amy Stewart, author of the new book “The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks” (Algonquin Books).

“Virtually anything that produces sugar — fruit and grains — can be used distilled, fermented or drunk,” Stewart said in an interview. “Most people get involved with the mixers.”

Fermenting — adding yeasts to turn plant sugars into alcohol — came first, she said. High-proof beverage alcohol (20 percent and above) came later with distillation, or heating fermented liquids into a vapor and then re-condensing that into a more concentrated mix.

A cautionary note: It’s illegal to distill anything in the United States without a license.

“You can ferment but you can’t distill without the feds knocking on your door,” Stewart said.

In addition, know your plants. “Understand what you’re doing if you’re out there gleaning,” Stewart said. “A lot of plants become solvents when mixed with alcohol. Don’t pick anything that might become potentially deadly.”

A dizzying array of plants has been converted into alcohol over the ages, everything from agave (tequila) to yams (beer and vodka). Many plants are used primarily as garnishes, such as spearmint (mint julep), olives (martini) and cherries (Manhattan).

The marketplace is untapped for this emerging type of niche gardening, said Tim Russell, a spokesman for Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore. Territorial is teaming with Stewart to sell a cocktail-friendly line of herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

“A lot of young people are looking to do cooler things in their gardens like grow their own cocktail ingredients,” Russell said. “We’re hoping this will draw them further into gardening.”

The average liquor bottle contains a great deal more than straight alcohol, Stewart writes.

“Once a spirit leaves the still, it is subject to endless experimentation with herbs, spices, fruits, nuts, bark, roots and flowers,” she said. “Some distillers claim to use over a hundred different botanicals in their secret recipes.”

So if distillers are continuing to experiment, why not gardeners?

Stewart’s garden-themed recipes can be the foundation for:

* Infused vodkas. Fill a clean jar with fruit, herbs or spices and then add vodka. Seal, store and sample until your taste buds tell you it’s ready to drink.

* Homemade grenadine. Peel a half-dozen pomegranates, leaving the seeds and membranes intact. Squeeze and filter until you’ve made about two cups of juice. Pour that into a saucepan, add 1 to 2 cups of sugar, simmer and stir in an ounce of vodka, which acts as a preservative. The syrup should be good for about a month.

* Maraschino cherries. Clean and pit a small batch of fresh, sour cherries. Loosely fill a Mason jar with the cherries and cover with brandy or bourbon. Seal the jar and refrigerate. Use them in drinks or over ice cream.

The Associated Press

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