The Bartender's Garden

The Freshest Cocktail Ingredients Come From the Garden

Cocktail in the Garden

Aneduard / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Fresh ingredients create the best cocktails and drink recipes offer numerous possibilities for garden-fresh mixers and garnishes. Planting a cocktail garden is a great way to customize and improve your drinking experience, especially if you enjoy gardening.

From tomatoes for a bloody mary to fresh mint for mojitos, it's fun to design a portion of your garden to match the drinks you enjoy most. Useful in nonalcoholic drinks as well, there are many easy ways to use your backyard produce. Turn it into fresh juice, use it in homemade spirit infusions, syrups, and drink mixers, or muddle it with other drink ingredients. The best part is enjoying one of those drinks in the middle of your garden on a sunny day.

illustration of herbs you can grow for cocktails
Illustration: Chelsea Damraksa. © The Spruce, 2019

Home-Grown Fruits

Your area's hardiness zone will determine which fruits you can grow for beverages. The list is limited in colder climates, but these fruits are pretty universal, especially if you select a suitable variety. Many don't take up garden space or require much maintenance and can add edible interest to your landscaping.

With a shorter growing season, you'll need to harvest fruits as they ripen, which will change throughout the year. In spring, pick cherries, enjoy berries and melons during the hot summer, then start fall with fresh apples. To preserve their fresh taste and enjoy off-season drinks, juice or freeze the fruits or use them in infusions and syrups.

  • Apple: With a mature apple tree, you can process the autumn bounty into fresh cider or juice for apple cocktails. Apple slices make a great garnish (a squeeze of lemon juice prevents browning), and a simple infusion can produce apple vodka or liqueur.
  • Blackberries: Whether harvested wild or grown in your yard, the sour flavor of blackberry cocktails is a nice change from sweeter berries. They're often muddled for their juice and look great as a garnish.
  • Blueberry: The blueberry bush provides summer fruits with a sour-sweet taste that easily muddles into blueberry cocktails. They also make enjoyable syrups and shrubs (or drinking vinegars).
  • Cherry: Popularly used as a garnish, preserve the tree's fresh fruit as brandied cherries. They're also fun for homemade syrup, infused spirits, or liqueurs.
  • Grapes: A backyard grapevine is excellent for fresh juice, infusions, and homemade wine. Grapes make a nice garnish and become an ice cube alternative when frozen. 
  • Melon: Melons are naturally very juicy, so they're easy to juice. Several melon drinks simply require a quick muddle, and the fruit makes terrific infusions. Watermelon is most common, though other varieties are fun to use as well.
  • Raspberry: Raspberries are easy to grow, fruit after a few years, and like to spread, so give the bushes space. The harvest is not long, but raspberries freeze well so you can have raspberry cocktails year-round.
  • Strawberry: Enjoy the sweet taste of fresh strawberries in juices, infusions, liqueurs, purees, and syrups. Depending on the variety, strawberry plants may fruit just once or a few times, getting better after the first year. The fresh berries muddle well, and frozen strawberries can work in several strawberry cocktails.

Herbs From the Garden

Fresh herbs are a fantastic way to elevate the taste of any drink with an extra layer of flavor. They're easy-to-grow annual and perennial plants; some spread quickly and should be isolated in the garden. Plant a container herb garden for year-round freshness and bring the pots in when the temperature drops.

Herbs are perfect for custom spirit infusions, homemade bitters, shrubs, and syrups, as well as garnishes and muddling.

  • Basil: Sweet basil has a subtle peppery-mint flavor that is versatile for drinks, and other varieties have more of a citrus or spice profile. An annual herb, pick leaves as the plant grows and muddle the basil or make basil syrup.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile is a perennial with flowers most often dried for tea. They can also be used to make liqueurs, infusions, and homemade bitters.
  • Dill: This self-seeding herb's stronger taste is best left for infusions and homemade bitters and shrubs. The feathery tips make an excellent garnish for savory drinks.
  • Lavender: The fragrance makes harvesting lavender the most enjoyable garden task; cut it before the buds open, then hang upside down to dry. The herb adds a lovely light floral flavor to drinks, whether muddled, infused into vodka, or transformed into lavender syrup.
  • Lemon Balm or Lemon Verbena: Both herbs are so easy to grow that they can become invasive. They're often used as tea and add a lemon flavor to infusions and homemade mixers.
  • Lemongrass: While not hardy in all zones, lemongrass grows well in containers. It's a fun option for tequila infusions and syrups. Dried lemongrass is a common botanical ingredient in homemade mixers like tonic water.
  • Mint: Mint is the most popular herb used in drinks, including the mint julep and mojito. Try different varieties of mint but remember that it's notorious for taking over a garden, so plant it in a controlled space or container.
  • Rosemary: With a darker floral flavor, rosemary's a natural companion for lavender. Use the two herbs together for infused spirits and syrups, or enjoy rosemary on its own. The plant won't survive in cold climates but makes a great houseplant. Cut a sprig for muddling and garnishes, or light it on fire to smoke a glass.
  • Sage: A thriving perennial herb, the savory taste of sage is interesting in cocktails. It pairs surprisingly well with fruits, including pineapple and mango. Fresh sage leaves are often muddled into drinks and make interesting homemade infusions, shrubs, and syrups.
  • Tarragon: Used more often in food than drinks, tarragon has a fresh anise (or licorice) flavor, and French tarragon is milder. It's a hassle-free perennial herb often muddled with whiskey and other savory or bold flavors. Tarragon's also great in multi-flavored infusions, including bitters and shrubs.
  • Thyme: A pretty hardy perennial that also grows well in pots, thyme's versatile herbal flavor is great in drinks. Use whole sprigs when muddling or infusing to avoid picking off the tiny leaves. Try the old thyme sour or use it as a substitute for other savory herbs.

In the Vegetable Garden

You likely think more about how to cook with your home-grown veggies than ways to add them to drinks. However, some of the most common plants in a vegetable garden create fascinating beverages.

  • Carrot: Plant seeds and run full-grown carrots through an electric juicer for a lighter substitute to tomato juice.
  • Cucumber: Cucumber drinks are cool and refreshing on hot days. Try to plant seedless varieties to make muddling, infusing, or blending the fruit easier.
  • Peppers: You do have to be careful, but by muddling or infusing chile, jalapeño, or habanero peppers, you can create some great spicy cocktails. Bell peppers are a surprisingly pleasant drink ingredient in recipes like the sweet pepper spritzer.
  • Peas: Muddle or puree the sweet peas to create unique drinks such as the green giant.
  • Tomato: Transform medium-sized, juicy tomato varieties into tomato juice for the freshest bloody mary. Cherry tomatoes are an excellent option for muddling.

Edible Flower Garden

Edible flowers are a varied group of blossoms that add beauty to drinks. As decoration, floating a small flower in the glass makes a lovely garnish. You can also freeze blooms into ice. Some, such as borage, pansies, rose, and violets, are used for their soft flavor and aroma when infused into beverage ingredients.

Bunching flowers are fun to harvest for drinks, too. For instance, elderflowers are popular in English beverages like elderflower cordial and liqueur. Similarly, lilacs are a pure delight when transformed into a syrup for lilac lemonade and spring-worthy martinis.

Not every flower is suitable for drinks (or food). Pick only from chemical-free plants, and properly identify all flowers because some are poisonous.

Growing Tropical Fruits

If you live in a warm climate zone, you can grow tropical drink ingredients. This includes the most-used citrus fruits like lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruit. Mangoes, peaches, and pomegranates are also often found in drinks. Most of these grow on trees, so you'll need the space and patience to wait for fruits unless the plants are already established.

Growing tropical fruit plants indoors likely won't yield enough fruit for drink uses. Dwarf varieties produce fewer and smaller fruits, and you'll find that even perfectly healthy plants take years to fruit when planted in a pot. Enjoy these tropical beauties as house plants and head to the market for fruit instead.