Urban farming expands one’s culinary repertoire and palate, often paving the road for new homesteading practices in the backyard and in the kitchen. Learning how to grow and cook with new fruits, vegetables and herbs is exciting but can be daunting when working with them for the first time. The truth is, once you have a handle on kitchen basics, there’s an infinite number of ways you can relish in your harvest. In fact, much of what’s harvested for your dinner plate can also be adapted for drinks, both distilled and fermented. The A-to-Z guide below offers a cheat sheet of practical tips on what to explore (and avoid) in the adventurous world of botanical brewing.
Apples grown for cider are classified into four flavors: bittersharp, bittersweet, sharp and sweet. Cider apples are a good “starter” tree for novice home gardeners, as they’re usually more resistant to damage from pests and grow biennially if not thinned.
Infuse pure alcohol with black currants, beet sugar, and water to make crème de cassis. Black currant shrubs grow well in full to partial sunlight, but need about a year to start producing fruit that can be harvested. Check with your local Department of Natural Resources prior to purchase because the shrubs are illegal to grow in a handful of eastern states.
Cranberries can be a fun addition to homebrews, particularly ales. Having fresh fruit on hand is almost always best, however, the U.S. is currently in a major cranberry surplus. So if you’re not up for growing your own, help out another farmer by buying from him or her.
The combination of dill and cucumber make tasty additions to a lime and vodka cocktail or a standard gin and tonic. Dukat dill will offer more prolific growth than Fernleaf, a compact varietal.
Elderflowers blossom on elderberry bushes, a hearty plant that lives year-round in most climates, assuming the temperature does not dip below 30 degrees below zero. Whereas elderberries can be toxic if not fully ripe, elderflowers can be mixed with just about anything to create cordial, wine or liqueurs.
Fig trees are a locavore’s best friend. There’s an abundance of varietals distinctly suited to the regions where they are domesticated. Eaux-de-vie, infusions and simple syrups lend themselves nicely to fig infusions.
Grapes are necessary staples of wine-making. In fact, most types can be dried and compressed to make “fruit bricks,” which if later mixed with a fermentation yeast and warm water, make a basic wine starter (a practice common during Prohibition).
Although hops are widely sought for homebrewing, you’ll want to avoid ornamental varieties if drink-making is your main goal. “Green hops” (those freshly plucked in the fall) can make eclectic seasonal beers.
Colubrina elliptica is one of the two species of tree bark used to make mauby, a thick licorice-flavored syrup that is a common additive to Caribbean cocktails and “wild coffee” in Florida.
Juniper berries are the key ingredient in gin. Although the majority of American distillers import the juniper they use from Europe, the native juniper plants in the Pacific Northwest and Washington Island, Wis., are a comparable substitute. Avoid growing or foraging juniper without adequate prior research, as several types (ashe, redberry and savin) are poisonous.
If infusing vermouth for herbal spirits, be sure to stay away from Kalmia latifolia, aka mountain laurel, which is a toxic. Instead, opt for bay laurel or Oregon myrtle—two safe options.
Lemons have an array of uses in the kitchen and behind the bar. A gardener (or brewer) with space restrictions can grow Meyer lemons (and even limes!) in containers, which can live indoors as long as there is plenty of bright, direct light and their soil is kept relatively warm during colder months.
Maraschino cherries are excellent additions to cocktails and mocktails alike and can easily be made at home. Add sour, pitted cherries to a mason jar, then fill with brandy, bourbon or maraschino liqueur. Tightly secure the lid and refrigerate for up to a month. If looking to DIY from start to finish, pie cherry trees are a good varietal for backyard gardens.
This is a walnut liqueur first made to use up a surplus of unripe walnuts in Italy a few centuries ago. It’s probably one of the easiest alcoholic beverages to craft at home, as the only necessary ingredients are soft, green walnuts, a spirit of your choice (vodka works well) and sugar. Mix and flavor with any spices you have on hand (clove, orange zest, star anise, et cetera).
Oak barrels lend their distinctive finish to an array booze, including bourbon, chardonnay, rum, sherry and whiskey. The White oak and Garry oak are two native species.
Peaches and Plums
These two stone fruits have strong, sweet notes and are underutilized by bartenders, brewers and distillers. If interested in planting your own crop, Big Mackey or Jam Session plums were bred within the U.S. and dwarf, combo trees are a nice beginner varietal for peaches.
A natural compound in cinchona tree bark, quinine has been touted for centuries for its medicinal attributes (it was the first documented effective treatment for malaria in the 1600s) and is now best-known as the bitter agent in tonic water, bitters and some aperitifs.
Rose Hips and Rhubarb
Rose hips are the fruit is that is revealed when eglantine (sweet briar) roses lose their petals. High in vitamin C, they are frequently steeped into jams, schnapps, teas and syrup. Rhubarb also makes an excellent simple syrup for mixing cocktail mixing, just be careful to only use the stalks, as ingesting the leaves could be fatal.
Seeds, Skins and Stems of Grapes
These wine-making byproducts are used as a base to create spirits like grappa, pisco, and samogon (Russian moonshine).
Thyme is subtle addition to gin and vodka cocktails. If growing your own for homemade infusions, opt lemon thyme to give your drinks a bright note.
This corn beer, which originated in South Africa, can be replicated at home by mixing malt, brewer’s yeast, mielie meal and lukewarm water during the homebrew process.
Distilled in any sort of solvent or liquid alone, violet is unlikely to yield any detectable scents or flavors. Instead, combine it with rose petals or orange blossoms for a more noticeable effect.
Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) is the fabled additive to absinthe that’s said to produce the drink’s potent effects. Although it’s impossible to make absinthe without a still, the herb can be grown simply for decorative purposes or infused into vodka to make bitters.
Xanthones are organic compounds (and antioxidants) that give gentian liqueurs their yellowish luster. Gentian is a flower whose bitter flavor is the standout characteristic of Aperol, Campari and Suze.
Yuzu is a robust citrus tree that produces a fruit with sour flesh and a fruity-scented rind. Although it’s often a component in sake, it’s also used as a tea and drink mixer. Yuzu grows best in mountain areas or temperate climates.
Zea mays is the Latin name for corn, arguably the most irreplaceable material in the world of alcohol consumption. A cornerstone of numerous of beers, bourbons, vodkas and whiskeys, this traditional crop should be sourced locally and organically—if not homegrown—whenever possible for your homebrewing and distilling purposes.
For more information on gardening for drinks, pick up Amy Stewart’s book, The Drunken Botantist (Algonquin Books, 2013)—a phenomenal resource (and inspiration for this article). In addition, universities across the country have added brewing and fermentation courses, certificates and degrees to their program offerings. If you’re interested in turning your homebrewing hobby into a career, check out the Brewers Association’s listing of brewing schools and organizations.
About the Author: Rachel Werner is a fitness instructor, personal trainer, freelance writer and blogger. Her passionate commitment to holistic wellness and sustainable agriculture makes Madison, Wis., a wonderful place for her to call home.