It was winter in New York for the past 25 months, or at least it seemed that way. But gray skies finally made way for blue, dappled with pink cherry blossoms, kickstarting our yearnings for tall pitcher drinks and fresh herbs to rouse us from our long slumber.
Like most herbs, mint is sold year-round, but it still makes us think of spring, thanks to Derby Day juleps and fancy restaurant dishes featuring mint and the season's sweetest peas. But there are many ways to harness mint's refreshing flavor without being repetitive.
Before we get started, there are a few things to note about making drinks with mint. First: remember to only purchase healthy, vibrant looking mint. If you buy old or brown herbs, your drink will taste swampy and look horrible, so be picky! When you arrive at home, trim the stems and wash and dry immediately, using a salad spinner or drying over paper towels, removing any brown or bruised leaves. It's great to get fresh mint the day you make these drinks, but if you need to store it, place the mint stems down in a jar or quart container with an inch of water in the bottom. Cover with a lid or plastic bag, changing water every few days. (Read more about Kenji's tricks for storing fresh herbs here.)
When you're ready to prepare your cocktails, set up a little mint mise en place. (If you're only making a single cocktail, you may not need to go this far, but if you're prepping for a party, be prepared!) Pluck the lower leaves from the mint and place in a glass or bowl on your counter, leaving a shapely mint sprig (with four to eight leaves) on the stem. Pluck all of the mint this way, so you have just leaves in one bowl, and just sprigs in another. Cover the leaves with a damp paper towel until they are ready for use, and place mint sprigs stems up (leaves down) in a bowl of ice water. I've found that this makes it easier to grab one stem at a time and also helps to rejuvenate all but the saddest wilted mint.
We use plenty of ingredients in cocktails that don't offer much of a scent, but it's worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of what we perceive to be flavor is actually aroma. In addition to its distinct taste, mint offers intense fragrance from the oils in its leaves, and imparts a cooling sensation directly on the nerves, which contributes to its refreshing properties.
To best harness mint's greatest assets, you'll want to release those fragrant oils from the leaves, pair the herb with complementary flavors, and incorporate it in a way that showcases its brilliant color and vibrant aroma, while avoiding oxidation and discoloration. Don't worry, it's not complicated: we're going to do a little muddling, a little syrup making, and a little gentle infusion as we whip up three delicious minty drinks.
Muddling is perhaps the most common technique used to incorporate fresh herbs into cocktails, and it's what we'll employ for the Shiso Fine, pairing our mint with shiso (an herb in the mint family that's often called for in Asian cuisines.) If you don't have a dedicated muddler on hand, you can use either end of a clean wooden spoon. Really, anything that's blunt and comfortable and fits in your pint glass or mixing tin will work.
When we're muddling herbs like mint and basil, the goal is to gently extract the oils from the leaves without bashing and tearing them. If you tear or over-muddle the leaves, you'll start to extract bitterness, not the clean flavor you're looking for. For this reason, I'd recommend avoiding serrated muddlers with 'teeth' on the end. Muddling herbs in syrup also helps: the sugary syrup provides a cushion and helps carry the oils from the herbs. How do you know when to stop? Let your nose guide you: when you smell an intense mint aroma, you're good.
Along with the bright mint and shiso, this alcohol-free drink gets its complex flavors from a mixture of sweet and tangy green apple juice and a delicate rice wine vinegar that is briefly infused with cooling cucumber. Don't let the infusion scare you off; all you need to do is soak some sliced cucumbers in the vinegar for five minutes.
When it's mixed, this drink is made for warm afternoons: cooling, refreshing, bright and tangy. It's perfect for teetotalers, but you may find that your cocktail-loving guests hog it all to themselves.
I Dream of Greenie
Ever since the weather has warmed, thoughts of the classic pairing of peas and mint have been rushing through my head, and it turns out this combo works wonderfully in cocktail form.
Instead of muddling, we're incorporating the mint in an easy two-step syrup that's flavored with sweet peas and spicy arugula. You can make the syrup with fresh mint leaves, or substitute mint tea bags if you don't have a lot of fresh mint available. Mint tea actually makes a delicious syrup with intense mint flavor, but isn't quite as bright and aromatic as syrup made from fresh leaves.
A clean, herbaceous London Dry Gin (such as Beefeater or Bombay Dry) provides the perfect backbone to this cocktail; a pinch of kosher salt intensifies the flavors, and the cracked black pepper garnish contributes a complex floral scent.
When you're entertaining, you might just want to choose the easiest option. But that doesn't mean a compromise in deliciousness. This drink gets its subtle mint flavor by simply steeping the leaves in your serving pitcher, mixed with bergamot-scented Earl Grey tea, lemon, and spicy ginger syrup. You can make it boozy with vodka, or just dial up the tea in its place. Feel free to prepare the tea and syrup up to a week in advance; you'll want everything chilled before you use it anyway. The lemon juice, though, should be squeezed the day you're serving the drink.
The Lady Grey is an excellent drink for parties and picnics, whether you serve it in a pitcher or punch bowl. Add a block of ice when the party begins, and the drink will retain its flavor (and chill) for hours. The mint flavor layers delicately over the spicy ginger and bright lemon, and the tea adds a little floral flavor and tannic bite.