Herbal and vegetable cocktails have evolved beyond the mojito and the Bloody Mary. These days in Philadelphia, bartenders are greening (and purpling) drinks with things like tarragon, thyme, celery juice and beets. So pull up a stool and get ready to drink your vegetables.
“One of the best ways to create fresh, bright flavors in a cocktail, especially one that pairs well with food, is to use herbs,” says Colin O’Neill, bartender at the city’s eminent oyster salon. This season, Oyster House is featuring a pair of herb-accented drinks. The Hotline Bling, named for the Weekend song, starts with green tea infused with lemongrass and spearmint that’s sweetened and mixed with Cognac, Tanqueray No. Ten and grapefruit bitters. The House Martini, meanwhile, gets its herbal profile from the house-made vermouth. “I’ve always been fascinated by fortified wine; vermouth is just that: fortified and aromatized wine.” O’Neill takes a basic dry white wine and packs it full of spices and herbs, among them tarragon, thyme and mint. After sitting at “cellar temp” for a week, the infusion is strained and bottled, after which it joins Martin Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, orange bitters and a lemon twist to create “the best martini I've ever tasted. One of my favorite combinations of food and drink is a well-made martini and a dozen fresh oysters.” Oyster House is the right place to be for them. 1516 Sansom St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.567.7683
It’s non-negotiable: You go to Barclay Prime for meat. With its mod library looks and stacked wine list, Stephen Starr’s upscale steakhouse is one of the city’s best. Sure, you could balance your 28-day-dry-aged ribeye or Wagyu filet mignon with jumbo asparagus or creamed spinach, or you could opt for bartender Bob Caskey’s preferred method for consuming vegetables at this swank spot: drink them. A signature drink, Beet the Heat, “is a playful demonstration on how to use vegetables in a variation of a classic margarita,” says Caskey, who introduces Don Julio tequila to fresh beet juice, fresh lime juice and agave nectar infused with habanero pepper. “The unique earthiness of the beets provides a depth of texture, beautiful aesthetic and addition dimension to the traditionally citrus-forward, tequila-based [margarita]. Using vegetables in cocktails is a fun way to for the restaurant to add complexity and lengthen cocktails for guests to enjoy.” Compared to a hulking steak, you could almost consider it a detox. 237 S 18th St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.732.7560
Like its neighbor, Barclay Prime, just up the street, vegan Latin spot Bar Bombòn digs deep into the dirt and pulls up beets for its cocktail program. Instead of tequila, bartender Jackie O’Hare blends magenta beet juice with mezcal, tequila’s Oaxacan cousin. “The unique earthy taste of beets complements the smoky flavor of the mezcal,” says O’Hare, who originally created the Beeting Heart for Valentine’s Day. She prefers the premium organic Vida del Maguey brand, which gets shaken with beer juice, Berentzen apple liqueur and lemon juice, strained into a coupe glass and garnished with a lemon twist. “The flavors work in harmony, and the plant-based ingredients help complement the bold, zesty flavors on the Bar Bombòn menu.” 133 S. 18th St., Philadelphia, PA, 267.606.6612
In Michael Solomonov’s native Israel, pitchers of lip-smacking Lemonana are as common on the tables at the seaside Tel Aviv restaurants as water. So when he and partner Steve Cook opened Zahav, there was no question the mint-and-verbena-infused lemonade would be part of the cocktail program. “The bar program at Zahav mirrors the food, which tends to be light and produce-driven,” says beverage manager Jeff Bartash. “We use a ton of fresh herbs in our cooking; the cocktails should serve as a compliment to those bold flavors. And because of that our cocktails tend to be herbaceous and fit for easy drinking, pairing not only with the food but with laid-back Israeli dining culture.” As in the motherland, many of the tables at Zahav support a pitcher of Bourbon-spiked Lemonana. You can also try it in slushy form across town at Solomonov and Cook’s hummus shop, Dizengoff. 237 St. James Pl., Philadelphia, PA, 215.625.8800
“Herbs create an extra and interesting dynamic to drinks,” says George Reilly, owner of and cocktail creator-in-chief at bistro and whisky parlor The Twisted Tail in Society Hill. “It is the same philosophy as adding them to food; you need something to bring out the best flavors in the dish.” In his Thyme After Thyme, the titular ingredient lends a woodsy, herbal scent to gin, ginger puree and lemon juice. Shaken and served up, it’s “a simple but effective cocktail that is approachable to everyone, satisfying those who are looking for punch to a drink but also refreshment. You get a spicy zing from the ginger root, but immediately cooled down by the citrus component.” The thyme ties it all together, catching the botanical notes of the gin and “lending a great aroma [that adds] freshness to the drink before it has even reached your lips.” 509 S. 2nd St., Philadelphia, PA, 215.558.2471