May 20, 2020

Elliott Papineau

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How to Bottle Your Garden

A guide from a farm in northern Illinois

Our family farm supplies a pair of Chicago restaurants, Smyth and The Loyalist. The relationship began in 2015, when chef John Shields put out a call for black walnuts on Twitter. We responded. Today, we grow more than 200 different edible plants in Bourbonnais, Illinois. We call our experiment in heartland agriculture The Farm.

Making the most of each harvest requires year-round planning and preservation. Consider our herbs. This year’s plantings will thrive until the end of the summer. Then, we’ll begin to notice the sun setting earlier each day. We’ll check the weather report more often, waiting for the first frost of autumn. It’s a pivotal time in our growing season. The soft herbs and flowers that we’ve tended all spring and summer will cease to exist once temperatures plunge below freezing. When we think that day is near, I’ll gather my harvesting containers and descend on the fields to take every herb, flower, and stem I can with my favorite pair of steel bonsai trimmers.
How to Bottle Your Garden - Quote

When the room was full, the aroma was so intoxicating that I decided to make it into something that would intoxicate us later—an herbal elixir that we call The Farm Spirit.

My clippings go into the Dry House, a ten-foot-square space where we preserve Illinois flavor and aroma starting in October. Hanging herbs and flowers crowd the half-inch tubing on the ceiling. The first year, when the room was full, the aroma was so intoxicating that I decided to make it into something that would intoxicate us later—an herbal elixir that we call The Farm Spirit.

Our 2018 vintage is an infusion of marigolds, basil, dill, lemon verbena, and Sweet Annie. We thought it would taste like absinthe, because Sweet Annie is a cousin to one of absinthe’s key ingredients, grand wormwood, grown by distillers in Switzerland and France. Instead, the sweet, green flavor of the first bottle we opened in early winter evoked another place-based infusion from across the Atlantic: Chartreuse, a botanical liqueur produced by French monks since 1737.

Most of all, it tastes like our twenty acres in northern Illinois. The assertive perfume and bitterness of our Sweet Annie mingled with other sweet and spicy flavors from our property transports us to the Dry House as we plant the herbs and flowers that will flavor this year’s Farm Spirit.

The Farm Spirit

Makes 1 750-ml bottle


1 750-ml bottle 80-proof vodka, preferably local
1 whole dried stem, including leaves, flowers, and seeds, of each of the following plants: dill, citrus marigold, fennel, lemon verbena, Sweet Annie, and Thai basil


Place the dried herbs, flowers, and seeds into a clean, quart-sized glass jar. Pour the alcohol into the jar, submerging the botanicals. Infuse for at least a week in a cool, dark place. The longer the herbs infuse, the more bitter the end product will be. We’ve infused for years. Once you are satisfied with the infusion, which should be fragrant and tinted a light yellow, strain it back into the original bottle.

You can also preserve your herb and flower harvest with single-varietal infusions, separating each herb or flower in its own jar. Try bottling fresh citrus marigold or rugosa rosein the summer. Shiso, basil, oregano, hyssop, lovage, coriander, and even parsley all make delicious infusions. Start building your botanical barstock. When the days shorten, you’ll be grateful for the sweet, herbal flavors of summer.

The Farm Spirit Cocktail

Makes 1


1½ oz. The Farm Spirit
¾ oz. simple syrup
Tonic water, to top


Fill a tall glass with good ice. Pour the spirit over the ice, followed by simple syrup, and stir ten times. Top with tonic water. Garnish with a fresh herb or flower if possible and sip while the sun goes down. Repeat.


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