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Basil gives summertime cocktails culinary cool

Emma Janzen

If your basil plants are surviving the dog days of summer, it's time to put them to good use.

Pesto is always a good standby, but muddling a few leaves into your afternoon tipple can elevate a summer cocktail from simply achieving its purpose of refreshment, to making your taste buds dance with delight.

Herbs have long had a place in the world of mixed libations, and for good reason. They impart a slightly sweet, slightly savory, vibrant flavor to cocktails that is difficult to mimic otherwise.

Basil in particular imparts a suggestive botanical quality that lightens the weight of spirits and deepens the sweetness of fruits and sugars. It also pairs well with just about any base spirit you choose, from gin and vodka to whiskey, sake and rum.

There are several ways to integrate basil into your glass. Muddling gently will express the herb's organic flavor and disperse it throughout the drink. Making a homemade syrup will dull the brightness and impart a more subtle flavor. Or you can use it simply as a garnish, to effect the sight and scent of the first sip.

Many local bars incorporate basil into their summer menus. Here are a couple to seek out or try to make yourself at home.

At Sagra Italian Trattoria, they've adopted a "farm-to-tumbler" approach for the summer. Bartender Mason Popp, created a cocktail program that incorporates herbs grown in the restaurant's greenhouse. Doesn't get much more fresh than that. Here's the recipe for his Basil Ginger Martini:

Basilco (Basil Ginger Martini)

3-4 large leaves fresh basil torn into pieces

3 oz. vodka

1/2 oz. ginger simple syrup (see recipe below)

2 oz. prosecco

Reserve one basil leaf for garnish and tear the rest into pieces. Muddle the torn basil in a cocktail shaker. Fill shaker with ice and add vodka and ginger simple syrup. Shake vigorously. Pour prosecco into a chilled martini glass. Pour basil, vodka mixture into the glass. Garnish with one whole basil leaf.

Ginger simple syrup

1 cup water

1/2 Tbsp. diced ginger

1 cup sugar

Bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Add ginger and let steep for 5 minutes. Strain out the ginger and add sugar and stir well until all the sugar is dissolved. May be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Another summer refresher with a decidedly more Southern flair is the Kentucky Peach from Cassie Stewart of Frank. The incorporation of basil into this cocktail balances out the tartness of fresh peach lemonade, and the vanilla notes of the bourbon provide warmth and spice. Perfect for sipping on a porch swing or back patio.

Kentucky Peach

Basil

1.5 oz. Maker's Mark bourbon

Peach lemonade

Muddle several basil leaves with Maker's Mark in a glass. Add ice, and top off with peach lemonade. Garnish with additional basil leaves.

ejanzen@statesman.com; 445-1772