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Happy hours in the garden: Grow your own cocktails

DEAN FOSDICK
The Associated Press
Modified: March 26, 2013 at 5:38 pm •  Published: March 26, 2013
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Gardening can be an intoxicating hobby, especially if the botany is booze-related.

Consider the possibilities: grapes fermented into wine, corn distilled into bourbon, hops used to flavor beer and fruit to sweeten liqueurs.

Why run to a liquor store when you can savor the harvest from your own cocktail garden?

Three processes are involved in converting plants into serviceable drinks: fermentation, distillation and mixing, according to Amy Stewart, author of the new book "The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great Drinks" (Algonquin Books).

"Virtually anything that produces sugar — fruit and grains — can be used distilled, fermented or drunk," Stewart said in an interview. "Most people get involved with the mixers."

Fermenting — adding yeasts to turn plant sugars into alcohol — came first, she said. High-proof beverage alcohol (20 percent and above) came later with distillation, or heating fermented liquids into a vapor and then re-condensing that into a more concentrated mix.

A cautionary note: It's illegal to distill anything in the United States without a license.

"You can ferment but you can't distill without the feds knocking on your door," Stewart said.

In addition, know your plants. "Understand what you're doing if you're out there gleaning," Stewart said. "A lot of plants become solvents when mixed with alcohol. Don't pick anything that might become potentially deadly."

A dizzying array of plants has been converted into alcohol over the ages, everything from agave (tequila) to yams (beer and vodka). Many plants are used primarily as garnishes, such as spearmint (mint julep), olives (martini) and cherries (Manhattan).

The marketplace is untapped for this emerging type of niche gardening, said Tim Russell, a spokesman for Territorial Seed Co. in Cottage Grove, Ore. Territorial is teaming with Stewart to sell a cocktail-friendly line of herbs, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

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