Three weeks ago, Derek Nielsen was exploring the jungles of Maui, craving a margarita.
The mixologist weighed his foreign Hawaiian surroundings: passion fruit vines, lime trees, natural cane sugar and a run-down grocery store up the road with a modest tequila selection.
He could work with this.
“You get inspired by what’s around you,” Mr. Nielsen explained last week from behind the bar of The Cuddy, formerly known as Phao, in Sag Harbor. “I just used what was around me. Like, literally, plucking passion fruits and I made Mason jar margaritas. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
But those who enjoy a cocktail made with fresh ingredients don’t need to be out in the wilderness to experiment with their favorite summer elixirs, he said. The best drinks can get their start in the backyard.
Modern-day cocktails have evolved beyond the Long Island Iced Tea, and so can the garnishes found in them—beginning with fresh fruits, leaves, herbs and edible flowers, according to Jessica Koenig, beverage manager at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton, who illustrated her point over a glass of pomegranate lemonade garnished with fresh mint.
“It’s funny because people come and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a flower on my drink. What am I supposed to do with this?’” she said, fiddling with the fragrant herb. “It brings another depth of flavor. Everyone’s had vodka and lemon juice, but boy, add thyme to that and it just takes on this whole new character.”
Certain herbs and fruits can tease out unexpected flavor profiles in liquors, according to Topping Rose House bartender Danny Zuleta. Take cognac, for example. The powerful aged brandy is not the most popular drink on a bar’s top shelf, he said. But add in gently muddled sage, pomegranate syrup—reduced, in house, from the fruit juice—orange-flavored Grand Marnier and a splash of lime juice, and the spirit is reinvented as the Topping Rose house drink Wilkenson’s Horse.
“Shake it like a salt shaker,” Mr. Zuleta grinned, mixing his original concoction over his head before pouring it into a cold martini glass and topping it with a sage leaf. “I’m a cognac guy, that’s why I came up with a drink like this. Summertime people come out and we have some cognac drinkers here and there, not a lot. So I’m trying to put it out there again.”
The key is trial and error, Ms. Koenig said. Her favorite drinks—mixing vodka with ingredients from lemon basil, club soda and lemonade to fresh figs muddled with thyme, lemon juice and a hint of simple syrup—all have one commonality, she explained: they bring what is growing on the East End into the bar. And the restaurant’s most recent signature drink is no exception.
This past season, Topping Rose had an overabundance of beets, she reported. And thus, the “Beeta-Rita” was born.
“We use a lot of vegetables in general. Ironically, people are like, ‘Ugh, no thank you!’ but the Beeta-Rita, with Antiguo Blanco Tequila, is a huge hit,” she said. “We fresh squeeze beet juice and do a jalapeño agave nectar syrup. That’s about a three-day infusion with those jalapeño peppers in there. And then after we juice the beets, I take the beet pulp, I dehydrate it, pulverize that and I cut it with salt so it’s a beet-salt rim.”
The Living Room c/o The Maidstone barman and personal gardener Henri Santaren grows his own jalapeños at home and incorporates them into the East Hampton restaurant’s Spicy Margarita, which gives the cocktail a “real bite,” according to manager Adam Lancashire.
“There’s obviously a slight kick, but it doesn’t drag on, so it’s a clean finish,” he said while muddling the green peppers in a glass. “As opposed to using Tabasco or something like that, which can have artificial flavors.”
Typically, the bar pulls its herbs straight from the chef’s garden out back, which grows the title ingredients of the Lemon Thyme Tom Collins and Cucumber Ginger Mint Martini drinks, Mr. Lancashire said. But no matter the drink, it must be balanced while playing with different flavors—sweet, sour, salty, savory and bitter, according to Mr. Nielsen.
That process begins with smell.
“I start with my ingredients,” he said, “and then I just start taking all the bottles of liquor on my shelf and smelling those, finding one that can really do it justice. That really gets the creative mind going and I can come up with a cocktail. And then it’s experimentation and you start adjusting.”
Between six and seven hours a week, Mr. Nielsen can be found in the kitchen, cooking for the bar alongside the chefs, he said. The cocktail menu is inspired by “old-school” styles, he said, with a modern and personal twist.
The Gin Daisy is topped with edible lavender. The sparkling Peachy Keen will use homemade peach preserves, once the fruit comes into season, and the Gentleman’s Favor—Mr. Nielsen’s take on an old-fashioned and Manhattan—sticks to its classic bitters, rye and vermouth, while mixing in homemade black tea syrup and cherries.
“I use a black tea and dried apricots, and I make a little tea bag. Then I heat simple syrup up and throw the tea bags in there, soak it overnight to get all the flavor out so it can compete with the bourbon,” he said. “And when we’re making really good cocktails, I didn’t want those crappy neon red cherries that everyone gets. So I decided to make my own.
“I cook them back for about an hour and a half with a special spice blend I came up with,” he continued. “It’s got black peppercorns in it, cinnamon and clove. These cherries are actually used for making pies, but I use them for making cherries for old-fashioneds.”
Mixology is a science that revolves around seasonal ingredients, Mr. Nielsen said, and he draws from his surroundings, whether he’s on a tropical island or the East End. It can be as simple as going out into the backyard and plucking some rosemary, basil or cilantro—”no-fuss herbs,” he said—from the garden and pairing them with a favorite spirit.
“It can be really easy-drinking types of cocktails,” he said. “You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself, but if you’re a vodka drinker, you can mix it with basil and lemon juice and create a cocktail that way. That’s what I do.”