Fresh mint lends a smack of herbal goodness to a range of cocktails, but it’s easy to mishandle. To help home bartenders avoid some of the common missteps, Hendricks Gin ambassador Charlotte Voisey and Chicago barman Peter Vestinos shared their best practices at the recent Chicago Cocktail Summit. Here are some of their tips and tricks to help you make the most of your summer mint crop. Once you’ve got the basics down, mix up a classic Mint Julep (pictured) or try one of these recipes to show of the summery herb.
Grow it yourself
Spearmint is the most common type of mint used in American cocktails (there are hundreds of species within the family), though Voisey says the plant grows pretty much anywhere in the world. “It’s not very fussy, so it can grow in a variety of climates,” she says. “It just prefers the environment to be warm and moist with plenty of sunlight.” Mint is a low-maintenance herb to grow in a bar, garden or even apartment window, but she also cautions that it’s best planted in a defined bed or box by itself, because it will spread rapidly. Prune it regularly to keep it at bay; otherwise it will spread like wildfire.
Pick at the right time
“You’ll see recipes in a lot of old cocktail books referring to the use of tender sprigs of mint,” Vestinos says. “So it’s best to use it while it’s fresh and not too old.” If you’re growing mint at home and not using it regularly, be sure you prune regularly to preserve its flavor, as mint can taste woody if it’s too old.
Prep before storing
Once mint is plucked from the plant—or unwrapped from its packaging if you bought it from the store or farmer’s market—Vestinos came up with a clever way to ensure it stays fresh and sprightly for days at a time. At home, he suggests cutting the bottom of the stems at an angle and cleaning the rest of the length of the stems by plucking loose leaves from the middle and lower ends, but keeping the crowns intact. Then dunk the bundle in an ice bath for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, prep a julep cup or jar with 115 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit hot water. Place the mint, stems down in the water and let it sit for a few hours at room temperature. The mint will not wilt. You can either leave the mint in the jar on a tabletop for a few days, or wrap the exposed leaves in plastic and storing in the fridge (still in the water). Make sure you keep the jar away from the fan, as the cold air could burn the leaves.
For cocktail parties, consider mint syrup
Vestinos recommends Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s mint syrup recipe for when you’re making large batches of cocktails. Instead of being stuck in the kitchen all day prepping, muddling and smacking mint leaves, batch up syrup and adjust your recipes accordingly. “We were a little skeptical of the recipe, just because we thought cooking the mint might make it bitter, but it’s a great technique. It comes out really beautiful and vibrant,” he says.
To shake or to muddle?
When mixing cocktails that call for muddling, consider a hard shake instead. Muddling can be effective, but it needs to be done lightly, so the plant doesn’t become too bruised and bitter. Voisey prefers to shake mint to avoid the risk of over-muddling, but she says it’s important to shake vigorously to agitate the flavors and aromas properly.
Smack that garnish
A mint garnish is all about adding aroma to the final cocktail, so it’s important to know about the oil on the underside of the leaf. Ever seen a bartender slap mint in their hands before adding it to the drink? This movement is the quickest and easiest way to express those oils. “We’re allowing the oils to release and make the general environment around the top of the drink great,” Voisey says.