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14 Jul 2020

On Cocktails: Herbs and Spices Can Help You Make Delicious Non-Alcoholic Drinks, If You'd Like to Sober Up for a Bit

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A selection of the herbs and spices our intrepid bartender likes to use at home. A selection of the herbs and spices our intrepid bartender likes to use at home.

You’re all cut off.

Look, when I wrote about bars being an important part of our society, I didn’t say you should all run right out to them the second they reopened—while forgetting all the things we’ve learned over the last several months. This is why we can’t have nice things!

I’ve heard a lot of people recently say: “I have been drinking so much more during quarantine!” I get it. Some of us (like me!) are still unemployed; those who are employed have few options for entertainment outside of the home; and the supermarkets sell booze in California. Cthulhu knows I’ve had a couple of unhealthy binges during this nightmare.

So … let’s all sober up for a minute, and talk about non-alcoholic cocktails—and, more specifically, the herbs that can make them delicious.

If you are a regular reader of my hodgepodge of history, recipes and rants, you know I think herbs are pretty great. They give my favorite type of hooch (amaro) its signature flavor, and I think they might be helping keep this unreasonably abused body of mine functioning at an acceptable level. They can also make things without alcohol pretty tasty, too, so let’s raid the pantry, and get kitchen-witchy!

But first, a disclaimer: I am definitely not a doctor; this is not medical advice; and you should check for contraindications with prescription medications, pregnancy or existing health conditions for anything beyond the culinary use of any herb. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s start with rosemary and thyme, because, why not? I keep these around, fresh, much of the time. They last, being woodier than, say, cilantro. They work with chicken or vegetables with ease. They are also really great for you!

I love thyme, and I use it often. It’s antimicrobial and can help tame a productive cough. It also has carminative properties, helping with gas and bloating, and it can ease digestion. Rosemary has been valued for millennia, and it, too, can also help with digestion. It has benefits for the nervous system and can help kick-start the liver. Both also work fabulously for making infused syrups and vinegars. Making the vinegar couldn’t be easier: Just take a quality apple-cider vinegar, preferably from a local producer to show some love, and drop the herbs into a sterilized jar before covering with said vinegar. Give it at least a few weeks to really get the mojo working—and then you can use it lots of ways. Take a spoon directly, or add a little local honey and hot water, or perhaps soda water. If you sweeten it, you basically have a shrub, a once very-trendy cocktail ingredient that doesn’t get enough love these days.

To make a syrup, just heat sugar and water, in equal parts, until the sugar is dissolved. I usually don’t go all the way to full boil, but many people do. Just let the syrup cool, and throw in a handful of whatever herb(s) you want to use. Rosemary and thyme are great for this and play well together; feel free to use any woody or dried herb. Avoid leafy herbs like fresh mint, cilantro or basil, as they will just wilt in the hot syrup. Save those for an aromatic garnish. Once the syrup is cooled, remove the herbs; strain; filter through cheesecloth if you’re fancy; and make some lemonade. There are other uses, of course, but it’s 117 degrees outside, so just make the darned lemonade—with equal parts fresh lemon juice and syrup, adding water to taste. I like it strong, so I go equal parts all the way, and let the ice melt a bit for the extra dilution. This is normally where I would talk about how to put it in a pitcher or punch bowl with fresh herbs and thinly sliced lemons to serve at your next party—preferably with ice balls frozen with herbs inside them, you domestic deity, you—but parties aren’t a thing right now. If you want fall off the wagon, you can spike with vodka, gin or tequila.

Elderflower is another herb that is popular in cocktails. I haven’t always been kind to requests for elderflower cocktails in recent years (it’s a personal problem; I am working on it!), and you don’t need a commercially made liqueur to enjoy it. However, if you want to make a syrup with it, and you do, it is a slightly different process. You’ll want to make a strong tea with the flowers in the water first, then pour it through a cheese cloth, before adding in the sugar in equal parts to finish the syrup. Try it tall, with soda and lemon. You can also use the tea, consumed hot, to break a fever, and it has many other benefits for immunity as well. I believe a tincture made from the ripe, dried berries can help reduce the severity of a flu if taken early, and it’s easy to make, too. It can be as simple as adding the berries to some neutral grain spirits and leaving them for some weeks—or just buy one from a reputable store. I’m not sure if elderflower helps with COVID-19, but I can say that believing that it did would be safer than taking medical advice from a certain president.

Dried seed herbs are also excellent in syrups. My favorite is coriander, but cumin or fennel—or all three together—are fantastic, too. Just make a strong tea, as with the elderflower, and follow the rest of the process. The tea made from all three is great for digestion; I have been enjoying it regularly as of late. I made a coriander-lime soda as a bar special once; if you don’t have a carbonator to play with, you could probably come close with a quality mineral water, a slice or two of jalepeño, fresh cilantro and a little lime juice.

Did you know you can make non-alcoholic bitters? They can be made with glycerin—food-grade, of course. I have some I have prepared in my pantry, and they’ll be ready in a couple of weeks. I am not going to get into recipes here, but I am currently working with things like blue cornflower, dandelion root, orange peel, chamomile, fennel and coriander. Will it work? I will let you know in a future column.

Until we can meet again, stay safe out there, people.

Kevin Carlow can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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