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Drink thyme


Herbs bring out the soul of summer cocktails.

Heide Brandes August 3rd, 2011

At the Cheever’s Cafe bar, Ariana Khalilian pulled out the plastic squeeze container containing a mixture of simple syrup and the pulverized essence of cilantro.

She squeezed the syrup into a tumbler of ice, mixed in a fresh dash of mandarin vodka and a generous pour of something citrus, and the cilantro cocktail was born. A clear, fresh drink made grass-green by the bits of floating herbs, it tasted just like summer.

To Khalilian, the cilantro makes the drink. But in the cocktail, it doesn’t have that sharp, tangy taste that either completely makes a salsa so perfect or, as those who hate cilantro say, “tastes like soap.”

Instead, it pulls out the citrus flavors into a drink that seems perfectly suited to blistering, Oklahoma summer days.

“The cilantro cocktail is my first experiment with using fresh herbs,” said Khalilian, manager and beverage director at Cheever’s, 2409 N. Hudson. “I’m really a beginner, and I’m just learning, but I like working with the chefs on the different flavors, the different herbs and how they can come together with spirits.”

With the cocktail’s success (“Everyone who tries it just loves it,” she said), Khalilian is now obsessed with arugula. She likes its pepper flavor, and has some ideas of incorporating it into a drink, perhaps a Bloody Mary.

With the abundance of fresh herbs available locally, experimenting with them in liquor is easy. Area mixologists who only used one herb — mint — for Mojitos or juleps are now bringing the rest of the garden behind the bar. Basil, cilantro, lavender, rosemary and thyme are becoming regulars.

At Ludivine, 805 N. Hudson, the bar area is dark and cool in the 100plus heat, and it’s easy to imagine how refreshing a gin would be with a sprig of basil lounging on the rim.

Kyle Fleischfresser, Ludivine bar manager, said herbs take cocktails to another level, where smell and texture and that little spark of rosemary truly make the perfect drink.

“Herbs go really well with gin,” he said. “Gin, steeped with herbs, adds character; that sense of smell adds just another layer to the drink.”

Mixing herbs into cocktails isn’t a new trend. As far back as the 1300s, herbs were used to infuse spirits in an effort to alleviate symptoms or cure the Black Plague. In America, fresh herbs were a popular drink garnish and ingredient from the early 20th century, Fleischfresser said.

“In the ’50s and ’70s, it fell off a bit, but it has recently started coming back,” he said.

For the bartender, the herbs’ smell adds to the flavor. Mixing the senses, like mixing ingredients, brings out a cocktail’s full potential.

“The most important thing is the smell,” Fleischfresser said. “Take a Mojito. Put a big sprig of mint in there, close to the nose; (it) brings it out.”

But the key to mixing herbs into alcohol is to be gentle, to coax out the aromatic oils and scents. Too many people excessively muddle the herbs, Fleischfresser said, grinding the delicate leaves into pulp.

“You make it bitter,” he said. Instead, he takes a sprig of mint and gently rubs it between his fingers. The scent is immediate.

“It takes little effort to open it up. I’ve seen bartenders just give it a little slap in their palm. That’s all you need,” he said.

Fleischfresser’s favorite herbs to experiment with are thyme, tarragon (a good complement to grapefruit) and sage. He said rosemary and tequila are a perfect couple, as are peaches, basil and whiskey.

“A lot of times, I have to be the one to introduce the drink (to customers),” he said. “If I find something I like, I’ll suggest it. There’s no limit to what you can do with herbs.”

Even better, amateur bartenders can create their own concoctions at home.

“The greatest fun about making drinks is experimenting,” Fleischfresser said. “Grow a little herb garden or go by the farmers’ markets. Experiment with fresh lavender; experiment with thyme.”

 
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