NEW YORK — When Jennifer Smith heads to the farmers market, she quickly starts dreaming up recipes for whatever bounty of fresh fruits and veggies is on hand.
Her concoctions, though, have an added kick — liquor.
“What better way to stretch those bright, fresh — and fleeting — flavors of summer than to add them to a cocktail?” said Smith, a mixologist who leads a popular course, The Bartender’s Garden: Cocktails from the Greenmarket, at the Astor Center, the teaching arm of Astor Wines & Spirits.
While it may be a stretch to call them health drinks, adding seasonal fruits and veggies to cocktails is an easy way to boost the taste, color and aroma of a refreshing summer drink, mixologists and bartenders said.
At Smith’s July class, she taught 16 budding and seasoned mixologists how to muddle, infuse and puree a variety of farmers market ingredients such as raspberries, strawberries and even green-pea shoots and chamomile into fun mixed drinks.
“Those local strawberries you buy are bursting with flavor, but they don’t last long,” Smith said. “Why not add them to vodka or gin and make that last indefinitely — or, at least until you drink it all.”
Smith’s simple recipe for homemade strawberry-infused vodka is made using one quart of fresh, local strawberries, though raspberries or other fruits can also easily be substituted.
Hull the berries, place them in a container, like a large mason jar, add a liter of vodka. Screw the lid on tight and leave it alone in a cool, dark place. The jar should sit for at least three days, but the berries can stay in there for up to a couple of weeks, Smith said.
Once the color has been sucked out of the fruit, it’s time to strain the berries out — and you’re left with a naturally sweet and bright vodka.
For added spice, vanilla beans or even black peppercorns can be added to the vodka.
“There are so many possibilities, it’s a fun way to experiment with flavors — and impress your friends," Smith said.
But there are also plenty of places across the city to simply grab a summery fresh cocktail, without having to work for it.
The restaurant has a host of summer cocktails, but a favorite this season includes their summer sangria. The local cucumber, mint and cilantro-infused sangria is made with organic cucumber vodka and organic wine.
“It’s a really refreshing drink,” said Rick Hickman, Green Table’s longtime beverage manager. “I usually just walk the Greenmarket and see what looks appealing, then try it out in a cocktail. This has been a hit.”
Hickman said an easy way for the home-bartender to kick up the flavor of their drinks is to make a herb-infused simple syrup, like the one he uses in the sangria.
To make the syrup, bring equal parts water and organic sugar or agave nectar to boil. Once it gets bubbling, turn it off and add a handful of chopped mint and let the mix cool. Strain out the mint after tasting your concoction to make sure you've gotten as much flavor as you want.
Williamsburg restaurant Aska, also known for using seasonal, local ingredients, has captured some of the fleeting early summer flavors in a drink called the "Sunburn," which combines freshly made rhubarb juice, lemon juice, a bit of sugar and bourbon.
"Fresh rhubarb won't be available much longer, and this drink really highlights the special sour taste of the rhubarb," said Shiraz Noor, the restaurant's mixologist.
Farther uptown, you can find a slate of seasonal summer mixed drinks in Harlem’s 67 Orange Street. Owner and mixologist Karl Franz Williams has created a drink that he says “tastes like a hike in the summertime.”
His special concoction involves smoking local pine needles — from nearby Morningside Park — into gin, and adding some sparkling wine, for his seasonal Deep Woods Falls Drink.
"We like to play with ingredients here," Williams said. "It's a popular drink, and something that's certainly local, since we use ingredients right from around the corner.
"Summer drinks are meant to be fun, light. Why not use what nature gives us, really capture that seasonal flavor?"