Cocktails from the garden

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Now is the best time of the year, when fruit and vegetables and herbs are in such abundance.

If you don’t have them in your garden, you can get them at a farmers market, a produce stand or a grocery store.

From left, Honeydew Basil Spritzer, Lime Vodka, Chasing Basil Cocktail, Minty Cucumber Melon Drink, and Thyme Lemondade. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

What to do with such bounty? Salads, desserts and entrées are the obvious answers, of course, but why not use fresh produce to punch up your cocktails, too?

Nothing is more refreshing on a hot summer’s day than a drink of cucumber, honeydew, mint and lemon vodka. Or how about a limeade with gin and cilantro?

They’re easy to make and delicious to drink. And they must be good for you (right?) because they mix fresh produce with the alcohol.

Gin is a good place to start, because it is so summery and also because it goes so well with botanical ingredients.

Gin-and-lemon  is a drink you sometimes see referred to in old books and movies, though no one seems to make it anymore. Still, the idea is as sound as it ever was, particularly if a simple syrup is involved (which would make it a cocktail called a Bee’s Knees).

It’s just a little step from a Bee’s Knees to our summertime sample, a Thyme Lemonade. Martha Stewart, of all people, came up with this one. You simply mix up a batch of thyme-infused simple syrup (it’s just sugar dissolved in water) and stir in fresh lemon juice, water and gin.

It’s a delightful concoction, and just the thing to beat the summer’s heat. The essence of thyme brings an unexpected complexity and depth to the drink that keeps it from being overly frivolous. Thank you, Martha.

Gin is also the spirit of record in a drink unfortunately called the Cuke. Vodka is said to be an acceptable substitute, but the sort of people who would put vodka in this particular mix are also probably the sort who think the Cuke is a good name for a drink.

As you have guessed, it has cucumbers in it, muddled together with limes and mint. Sugar plays a role, too, along with just enough sparkling water to keep it light and enliven the muddled ingredients. A spear of cucumber in each glass adds just the right touch; it’s whimsical, but the aroma also adds to your enjoyment of the drink.

Wine spritzers had their day in the sun — the hot summer sun — in the 1980s, but they fell out of favor when people decided they were too sweet. Still, the idea is solid, particularly at this time of year.

A Honeydew Basil Spritzer is just the thing. Honeydew and basil are a natural summer combination, two different sides of the same idea of fresh and cool. Add a healthy dose of light, crisp and fruity sauvignon blanc, and just enough simple syrup to make it lightly sweet, not Bartles & Jaymes-sweet.

A splash of soda water is all you need for a bit of effervescence, without diluting the flavors.

Just as refreshing is a Lime Vodka, a deceptively simple combination of limeade and vodka, plus a sprinkling of minced cilantro. Gin could be used in place of vodka, but here I think vodka is the better option; this drink requires a cleaner, less fussy taste. Also, it’s called Lime Vodka.

The cilantro is the deceptive part, grounding the drink in a kind of herbal reality and adding a hint of earthiness. Cilantro is not what you think of when you think of cocktails, but maybe it should be.

In contrast to the other drinks, a Chasing Basil Cocktail is fairly complex in taste. The difference is a single ingredient, elderflower liqueur, such as St. Germain, which had a spasm of popularity a few years ago and can still be found in quite a few liquor cabinets.

It doesn’t take much, just a tablespoon of the liqueur to add a touch of sweet mystery to a drink featuring the now-familiar blend of cucumber, basil, lime and gin. But there is one more ingredient from the garden, too, that makes this drink special: freshly made watermelon juice.

Watermelon juice is easy to make; all you need is the red part of a watermelon and a blender. It is certainly an ingredient that deserves attention when you’re making summertime drinks.

The final drink I made, Minty Cucumber Melon Drink, was different from the others because it wasn’t as light. It’s more of a smoothie with an alcoholic kick.

All you do is blend together a cucumber and a couple of cups of honeydew. Then you muddle some mint in the bottom of a glass, pour in the juice and add a shot of lemon vodka.

Don’t have lemon vodka? Just add regular vodka and a couple of squeezes of lemon.

It’s summer. You’re relaxing. Don’t worry about it.



Yield: 8 servings

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

1 bunch fresh thyme, plus sprigs, for garnish

2 cups fresh lemon juice (from about 10 lemons)

1 cup gin

In a medium saucepan, bring sugar, thyme and 1 cup water to a boil. Stir until sugar is dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, gin and 6 cups of cold water. Strain into a large pitcher. Refrigerate until cold, at least 1 hour and up to 1 week. Serve over ice, garnished with thyme sprigs, if desired.

Recipe from


Yield: 6 servings

6 limes, rinsed, divided

1 cup packed mint leaves, no stems, plus 6 sprigs for garnish

3 cucumbers, divided

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 cups gin or vodka

Sparkling water

1. Thinly slice 3 limes and place in a pitcher. Juice the rest and add juice to the pitcher. Add mint leaves. Peel and slice 2 of the cucumbers and add; add sugar. Muddle ingredients (a potato masher works well). Add gin or vodka. Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer for flavors to blend.

2. Cut remaining cucumber lengthwise into 6 spears. Fill 6 highball glasses with ice. Strain mixture from pitcher into each. Top with sparkling water. Garnish each glass with a sprig of mint and a cucumber spear, and serve.

Created by Adam Frank, adapted by the New York Times


Yield: 4 servings

1/4 honeydew melon, diced

1 small package of basil (about 12 to 16 leaves)

4 to 5 ounces simple syrup, see note

1 bottle sauvignon blanc

Soda water

Note: To make simple syrup, heat 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small pan, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves. You will not need the entire amount of this syrup for this drink.

Muddle together the melon, basil and simple syrup. Divide among 4 glasses. Divide the wine among the glasses and top each one with a heavy splash of soda water.

Recipe by

Lime Vodka. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)



Yield: 1 drink

1 cup limeade, see note

2 ounces vodka or gin

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro, finely minced

Note: To make limeade, heat together 1/4 cup granulated sugar and ¾ cup water, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Add 1/4 cup lime juice, from about 11/2 limes.

In a cocktail shaker, shake together limeade, vodka and cilantro with some ice. Strain into a glass. Add fresh ice and serve.

Adapted from

Chasing Basil Cocktail. (J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)


Yield: 1 serving

3 basil leaves, torn, plus a sprig for garnish

2 slices cucumber

1/2 lime, sliced into wedges for easier muddling

1/2 teaspoon raw or granulated sugar, if necessary

1 1/2 ounces gin, or rum or vodka

1/2 ounce elderflower liqueur

2 ounces fresh watermelon juice, see note

Soda water

Note: To make watermelon juice, remove large seeds from the red part of a watermelon, and then purée in a blender. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer to remove any fibrous parts.

In a cocktail shaker, thoroughly muddle the basil, cucumber and lime wedges; include the sugar if the watermelon juice is not especially ripe and sweet. Add the gin, elderflower liqueur and watermelon juice, plus a handful of ice. Shake until cold. Pour into a tall glass, finish with soda water and garnish with a sprig of basil.

Recipe by


Yield: 2 servings

1 (7-inch) cucumber, peeled

2 cups honeydew melon, seeds scooped and chopped

1 tablespoon fresh mint

3 ounces lemon vodka

Blend the cucumber and honeydew in a blender. Place the mint in the bottom of 2 highball glasses and add a little of the juice to each. Muddle the mint leaves. Add the rest of the juice and the vodka and fill to the top of the glasses with ice.

Adapted from