Kate Frick inhaled the scent of lemon verbena and stroked quarter-sized nasturtium leaves in the greenhouse at Crum’s Heirlooms in Bonner Springs, and then dug her fingers into a tray thick with crinkly Bolloso Napoletano basil sprigs.
As Frick deftly transplanted the baby plants into larger pots, she mused about ways to use them in cocktails at her Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie.
That’s because while Frick might look like a farmer on this frigid April morning, she’s really a bartender, albeit one so passionate about her ingredients’ provenance that she grows as much as she can herself.
Frick and Myers Hotel co-owner Stephanie Marchesi work one day a week at the farm owned by Jim and Deb Crum, swapping labor for produce.
They also rent five 10-foot-square plots in the Tonganoxie Public Library’s community garden, where they will this year raise okra, celery root, beets, potatoes and other vegetables for both the bar and Saturday morning breakfast menus.
Come summer, the Myers Hotel’s own garden full of herbs, edible flowers and blackberries will provide a backdrop for sipping both morning cappuccinos and evening cocktails.
Growing her own gives Frick access to unique varieties and ensures what she’s using is truly local and seasonal.
But it’s not only about supply. Hers represents the industry’s shift in thinking, one in which the garden drives what’s in the glass.
“It’s just following the plant and letting it inform what you’re drinking,” Frick said. “It’s a fun way to think about being more sensitive to what’s happening in the season.”
Kansas City’s bartenders are increasingly adopting this approach, and there’s no reason home bartenders can’t as well. After all, planting a cocktail garden isn’t much different than picking plants with salsa or spaghetti sauce in mind.
All it takes is a bit of planning, said Megan Downes, beverage manager at the Brass Onion in Overland Park.
First consider which drinks you enjoy most. How are they made, and which ingredients can you grow? It doesn’t matter whether you have a windowsill or enough space to re-create one of the aromatic and evocative landscapes detailed in "The Cocktail Hour Garden."
Everyone can grow something, Downes said.
“It’s such a simple thing,” she said. “Growing herbs is no more difficult than growing a house plant.”
Fresh herbs are an essential part of Downes’ cocktail strategy, and she plans to plant as many pots as she can at the bar once the weather warms.
Her favorites? Hardy and ornamental lemon grass, delicate French lavender, tarragon, mint and basil. Some will be muddled directly into drinks or used as garnishes. She’ll infuse others into spirits or add them to syrups and shrubs that can be enjoyed both with and without alcohol.
Common varieties are readily available at area garden centers, but there’s no reason to stick with the familiar.
Seedsheet sells easy-to-grow cocktail garden sheets seeded with Thai basil, cutting celery, pea shoots, purple basil, lemon balm, tulsi (a type of basil), borage and bronze fennel greens; the website includes recipes featuring each.
Gardener’s Supply Company’s cocktail plan outlines a patch containing cilantro, alpine strawberries, lavender and other herbs.
Territorial Seed bases its recommendations on the "Drunken Botanist," an authoritative and entertaining compendium of the plants used to make alcoholic beverages the world over.
Like tequila? Try planting “Grower’s Friend” sage or “Arp” rosemary. Partial to Old Tom gin? Plant some Mexican sour gherkin cucumbers or blue borage. Rum? Go with “Cuban Mojito” mint.
Even vegetables like eggplant, peas, asparagus and winter squash can be turned into tasty tipples, if cocktail books like "Good Things to Drink" are anything to go by.
Exploring those flavors is a big part of the fun for Chris Conatser, a bartender at Black Dirt on the Country Club Plaza.
Herbs like ‘Berggarten’ sage are surprisingly complex, with notes of elderflower complementing sage’s typical earthiness, he said, as is orange mint, which has a bergamot character reminiscent of Earl Grey tea.
“(Orange mint) goes well with gin, or with whiskey,” said Conatser, a former Powell Gardens botanist who also holds degrees in soil science and environmental engineering. “It’s great for garnishing, muddling, infusing, making syrups or just about any other component of the cocktail.”
Conatser grows all manner of ingredients himself, including some to be used in his latest venture, Strange Root. The company’s founder, longtime bartender Vic Rodriguez, hopes to make the first in a line of single-varietal herbal spirits and amaro available in bars this fall and for retail sale by early 2019. It’s additional proof that garden-to-glass is here to stay, he said.
“This is more than a trend,” Rodriguez said. “This is a game-changer.”
Other local distilleries offer similar shortcuts to freshness. Tom’s Town Distilling Co. will in June release its Machine No. 5: Garden Party Gin, inspired by Powell Gardens and made with some botanicals that were even sourced there.
Lifted Spirits Distillery earlier this month launched its Traditional Absinthe Verte. The spirit is distilled from Kansas wheat and steeped with grand and Roman wormwood, fennel, star anise, hyssop, spearmint, peppermint, melissa leaf (lemon balm), chamomile and hibiscus.
The resulting vivid green absinthe both looks and tastes as if it came straight from the garden.
If you’re in a DIY mood, "How To Make Your Own Drinks" is filled with recipes for transforming strawberries, rhubarb and other fruits into wine; infusing gin, vodka and whiskey with all manner of homegrown flavors; and creating teas, syrups and all manner of other tipples.
For inspiration, though, you simply can’t beat the plants themselves, said Frick. She spent a summer working on an organic farm in Vermont during her 20s, in between earning a bachelor's degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and a masters in architecture from the University of Kansas.
Gardening became her passion, and when Frick opened the Myers Hotel in 2015, she quickly installed a handful of raised beds in the yard’s sunniest spot. One evening the Crums came to the bar, bearing a bouquet of rosemary, thyme and alyssum. By the end of the evening, Frick had arranged to work for them.
Now she and Marchesi help every Tuesday during the growing season, doing everything from working in the greenhouse to planting, harvesting and driving the tractor. That gives Frick access to the same heirloom varieties the Crums supply to more than two dozen of Kansas City’s independent restaurants.
Frick also prompted the Crums to plant a few for her, including purple-blossomed borage and lovage, a slow-growing celery-like herb whose hollow stems can also be used as biodegradable straws.
“I’m totally geeking out about that,” Frick said. “In two years I can be using straws that I farmed.”
Frick credits Deb Crum for encouraging her to taste plants throughout the season to better appreciate how they evolve from tender chlorophyll brightness to the intensity of a mature plant, its flowers and its seeds.
What she doesn’t use fresh, she preserves by making jam, syrups and bitters; infusing in spirits; pickling; or even dehydrating. The idea, Frick said, is to capture that variety for year-round use. “I would really like to think about this year’s harvest as a way to maintain all the fresh flavors throughout the winter months,” Frick said. “This is how I get inspired.”
An egg so fresh that it was still warm prompted Kate Frick of the Myers Hotel Bar in Tonganoxie to create this cocktail in the greenhouse at Crum’s Heirlooms. It calls for homemade rhubarb bitters, but Fee Brothers Rhubarb Bitters make a fine stand-in.
Makes 1 drink
1 fresh egg white
1-1/2 ounces gin (Frick used Leatherbee)
1/4 ounce rhubarb bitters (see note)
1/2 ounce rhubarb simple syrup (see note)
1/4 ounce lemon juice
1 dash orange flower water
1 nasturtium leaf, for garnish
Combine egg white, gin, bitters, simple syrup, lemon juice and orange flower water in a cocktail shaker; dry shake until ingredients are combined. Add ice, and shake again until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and garnish with nasturtium leaf.
For rhubarb bitters: roughly chop two ripe stalks rhubarb (deep red stalks will yield the best color). Place in a clean glass container and cover with high-proof neutral spirits of your choice. Put the lid on, and place container in a cool, dark place for two weeks, agitating daily. Strain into another clean container, discarding rhubarb. Bitters will keep indefinitely if stored in a well-sealed container in a cool, dark place.
For rhubarb syrup: Combine equal parts chopped rhubarb and sugar in a saucepan. Simmer on low heat until the rhubarb breaks down, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and strain using a fine mesh strainer. Store the syrup in the refrigerator for up to one month.
Herbaceous IPA Float
Lemon verbena and French tarragon from Crum’s Heirlooms’ greenhouse inspired this cocktail from the Myers Hotel Bar’s Kate Frick.
Makes 1 drink
1-1/2 ounces mezcal (Frick used Mezcal Amarás)
1/2 ounce Aperol
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce agave nectar
1 handful French tarragon leaves
Crane Brewing Farmhouse IPA
1 sprig lemon verbena, for garnish
Combine mezcal, Aperol, lime juice, agave nectar and tarragon in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake and strain into a Collins glass. Add ice and top with beer. Garnish with lemon verbena.
Stalking the Wild Julep
Chris Conatser, a bartender at Black Dirt on the Country Club Plaza, prefers using home-grown orange mint in cocktails like this mint julep variant. Mellow, sweet bourbons play off the mint’s bergamot and black tea character, and serving it up — an unconventional julep choice — allows the orange mint to shine, Conatser said.
Makes 1 drink
2-1/2 ounces bourbon (Conatser uses Four Roses Yellow Label or Buffalo Trace)
1/2 ounce orange mint syrup (see note)
Orange mint leaf, for garnish
Combine bourbon and mint syrup over ice, and stir until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass and serve up, garnished with a fresh orange mint leaf.
For orange mint syrup: in a saucepan, combine 1 cup dried orange mint tops with 2 cups of water and 2 cups of sugar. Bring to a simmer, then remove from heat and allow to cool. Strain syrup through a coffee filter and refrigerate.
Get Well Soon
Tarragon holds its own in this cocktail from the Brass Onion, which beverage manager Megan Downes said is the bar’s most popular order. She uses a Breville Smoking Gun to add a smokey flavor to her honey syrup but promises the drink will be just as delicious without smoke.
Makes 1 drink
1-1/2 ounces bourbon (Downes uses W.L. Weller Special Reserve)
1/2 ounce berry-tarragon shrub (see note)
1/2 ounce honey syrup (see note)
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
Lime wheel, for garnish
Combine bourbon, shrub, honey syrup and lime juice in an ice-filled cocktail shaker. Shake until chilled. Strain into a rocks glass, add ice and garnish.
For berry-tarragon shrub: Combine 20 ounces fresh or frozen berries (Downes uses a blend that includes cherries), 2 loosely packed cups of fresh tarragon leaves, zest of one lemon and 1 tablespoon black peppercorns in a four-quart container with lid. Fold in 6 cups of granulated sugar until well blended, being careful not to bruise the herbs. Allow to macerate for one hour. Add 1 cup apple cider vinegar and 1 cup water and stir until well blended. Cover and refrigerate for 48 hours, stirring regularly. Strain mixture through a fine mesh sieve, chinois or cheesecloth. Bottle strained mixture and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Use leftover solids in sauces or berry cobbler.
For honey syrup: Combine 1 part honey with 1 part water and stir until blended. Store in a container with a lid.
"The Cocktail Hour Garden" is a delightful place to start when thinking about how to structure your garden and what to drink in it. This cocktail uses parsley, which is just as happy in a pot as it is in the ground, and can be served either with or without alcohol.
Makes 1 drink
1 cup packed fresh parsley leaves
Zest of one line, finely grated
1 cup cold water
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
3 tablespoons agave nectar or honey
2 ounces vodka, gin or tequila (optional)
Sparkling mineral water
Parsley sprigs and lime wedges, to garnish
Combine parsley, lime zest, water, lime juice and agave nectar or honey in a blender or food processor and puree. Strain through a fine sieve. Divide liquid into four tall glasses and add ice. Add two ounces of your favorite spirit if you like, or leave it out. Fill glasses with sparkling mineral water and garnish with parsley and lime wedges.
Garden and cocktail books are both popular, and these four combine the best of both worlds.
▪ "The Cocktail Hour Garden" (St. Lynn’s Press, 2016) — this book is devoted to creating garden spaces as satisfying as the cocktails they’ll inspire. It recommends plantings for aroma, flavor, different times of day, attracting pollinators and butterflies and entertaining and includes recipes for what to make with what you grow.
▪ "The Drunken Botanist" (Algonquin Books, 2013) — Pretty much any plant that’s ever been used in the production of alcohol is included in this delightful and detailed book, which is an essential read for anyone interested in garden-to-glass cocktailing.
▪ "Good Things to Drink" (Francis Lincoln, 2015)—This book will happily see you through the seasons and even includes recipes for unexpected ingredients like asparagus, eggplant and butternut squash.
▪ "How To Make Your Own Drinks" (Mitchell Beazley, 2011) — Do-it-yourselfers will be captivated by this book, which includes recipes and methods for both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages ranging from wine, beer, cider, liqueurs and infusions to lemonades, teas, kid-friendly cordials and syrups.