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Grow Your Own Cocktails
updated: Jul 18, 2008, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Grow Your Own Cocktails
by Billy Goodnick

I was at 7-Day Nursery recently, picking people's brains for story ideas. A snappy looking guy who I'd seen arrive with his wife was poking around the herb section, just killing time.

I introduced myself and told him I write for edhat.com. Being a member of the cognoscenti and a regular Edhat reader, he actually knew what I was talking about! "So what brings you to the nursery today?" I queried, using my best cub reporter opening.

"I'm just here to carry the plants for my wife," he says. "She buys the plants and works with the gardener," implying that I wasn't going to get anything useful out of him.

Bolstered by his high esteem for my journalism creds, I pressed on. "But you're fondling a 6-pack of mint. Dreaming of Mojitos?"

Gaping with wonderment, you'd think he'd met the Amazing Kreskin, or Madame Rosenka herself. I'm not psychic - it was a complete shot in the dark, but my arrow found its mark. Indeed, he was toying with the idea of cultivating a patch of mint so he'd have fresh sprigs for le cocktail du jour. I provided unsolicited horticultural tips for growing mint, including its Genghis Khan-like propensity to invade its neighbors and its unquenchable thirst for water. Thanking me, he set off in search of his wife, mint in hand.

I got to thinking. How many ingredients for popular cocktails can we grow in Santa Barbara? Immediately, I ran into one minor problem - I don't drink cocktails. I'm a pretty light drinker to begin with, but when I do imbibe, it's either a beer (maybe two) with spicy Thai food, a glass of any wine that won't stain my shirt, or my true joy on a cold winter night, a straight-up shot of peated single-malt Irish whiskey like Connemara (it'll make you dump out all those scotches in your cabinet and slap yo mama). Mixed drinks just don't do it for me. In my former life as a night-club musician, I would down the occasional White Russian or Harvey Wallbanger, but those files have been zipped and archived.

A little internet digging revealed ThatsTheSpirit.com, boasting 3000 drink recipes. I'll assume that today's bartenders have some kind of bluetooth device with voice recognition software, connected to a central data bank, that flashes a holographic 3-D projection of the drink and its ingredients. How else can they keep track?

ThatsTheSpirit's top ten list includes some enticing names. Imagine sidling up to the bar and, with a straight face, stating in a clear voice, "I'd like Sex on the Beach" (cranberry juice plus orange or pineapple juice, peach schnapps and vodka) or, "I think I'll have an Orgasm (Irish Cream and peppermint schnapps)." For those with additional stamina there's a variation named the Double Orgasm. [Excuse me. I need to breath into a paper bag for a moment.]

Those were listed in the top two positions. Filling out the list were the Alabama Slammer, Shirley Temple (really!), Grinch, Pina Colada, Manhattan, Tequila Sunrise, Kamakazi, Bull Shot, and our minty-fresh pal, the Mojito. I cheated - that's eleven.

Thinking about the chap at the nursery -- and clever names aside -- the ingredient list for the top ten provides a daunting test for those who might want to expand the definition of "home grown." Many of these drinks use various citrus juices, which are no-brainers in our benign Mediterranean climate. Just reach out the kitchen window, pluck a fresh lime, and you're on your way to your favorite Tequila hangover.

Other relatively easy-to-grow ingredients include the genus Saccharum (sugar cane) which will grow in our subtropical climate, as long as it gets about 24" of water a year. To turn it into rum, just process it into molasses, ferment, age for a year, and presto - you're just a mint sprig away from an awesome Mojito.

Looking for something to wile away those Jimmy Buffet lazy afternoons around the pool? That'll take a bit of pineapple juice (which comes from pineapples! - members of the Bromeliad family). Good news here, too! It's easier than you think. If you cut the top off of a store-bought specimen, trim away all the fruity bits and strip a few leaves off the base of the remainder, you're on your way. You can help it sprout roots by suspending the stem ½" deep in a glass of water (just like an avocado pit), then plant it in loose, fast-draining potting soil. Keep it in a bright room, water when dry, and you'll be rewarded with your very own runt pineapple in a mere two years!

I've got good news and bad news regarding your tequila drinks. Although we know we can grow some pretty damn good succulents around here, why isn't the local landscape dotted with fields of those formidable, spiny Blue Agaves (Agave tequilana azul)? These are the raw material for tequila and mescal, but we're wasting all that space on lemons and avocados. Tell me the last time you copped a buzz from an avo liqueur? Speaking from a landscape design point of view, blue agave would make a great accent plant in most Mediterranean landscapes, but after reading up on how this magical liquid is made, you don't want to get involved. Between the pressure cooking, mashing, distilling and aging, it ain't worth it.

So here's my plant palette for getting your home landscape into the act.

Pomegranite: For a non-alcoholic Shirley Temple you'll need grenadine, which is derived from pomegranite juice, which comes from the pits of Punica granatum (which lives in the house that Jack built). The plant is a beautiful big shrub or small tree with muscular trunks and mottled bark. The flowers are a brilliant scarlet, and the yellow tint of fall foliage enlivens the garden starting around November. Bonus - it's very drought tolerant and pretty much disease free.

Potatoes: Once you have a potato plant in your yard, you'll never be without one. A few spuds always escape harvest and new plants will pop right up. Though its ornamental landscape value is questionable, it is very easy to grow (no, you don't have to move to Idaho) and is the traditional basis of vodka. So that takes care of the fuel source for a Kamakazi, number 9 on the list. The other ingredients are lime juice and orange liquer. We KNOW you can grow citrus.

I've been wracking my brain, trying to figure out what we can do for number 10 - the Bull Shot. Tabasco is doable - we can grow pretty good peppers in these parts, but nothing like the deserty southwest. Celery seed - plausible. Horseradish - easy peasy. It's the beef consumme that would pretty much get you kicked out of the neighborhood for zoning violations. I'm pretty sure most of us are prohibited from raising Texan Longhorns on our little quarter-acre suburban plots.

But like I said, these drinks hold no interest for me. Guess I'll stroll to my peat bog out back and start work on my next barrel of Irish whiskey.

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Billy Goodnick is a teetotaler who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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