Kathy Green’s garden of spirited delights
By Cynthia Adams • Photographs By Amy Freeman
Ask anyone their idea of the perfect summer cocktail, and more often than not, the whisper of the exotic-sounding “mojito” will tumble from their lips. The zesty, rum-based concoction, which as one devotee allows, “makes you want to Salsa,” owes its roots to clever Cuban mixologists. Food & Wine magazine reports the mojito first appeared in a 1929 Cuban cocktail book titled Libro de Cocktail. If you’re a purist, you can travel to the source (though it’s trickier to do so these days) with a stop at the famed El Floridita, the fish and cocktail bar in the older part of Havana (or La Habana Vieja) that serves up the classic Cuban libation, as well tas its more touted bigger sister, the daiquiri, a favorite of Papa Hemingway. I’ve a well-traveled friend who did just that, but that is a story best told on her dock with something strong in the glass.
Yet for those lucky enough to know Greensboro resident Kathy Green, a trek to La Habana Vieja or even a rum run isn’t necessary. A mighty satisfying mojito can be had right in her very own cocktail garden. The space that Green has created offers both colorful and unexpected lush options for a visually striking departure from the standard Cuban classic. Green’s particular version of the cocktail requires vodka, flavored water, fresh fruit, limes and good guests — plus a hefty helping of summertime banter and laughter.
It all began four summers ago, when friend Ashley Simpson served Green a vodka mojito during a beach trip. Since then, Green has created her own variations on the pleasurable concoction. She likes mixing it up with fresh, tangy ingredients at the ready in the garden. Green even has her own Key Lime citrus tree.
When friends drop in on her Irving Park home for drinks, Green simply steps out onto her patio and up to the bar — one fashioned from a rustic potting bench — colorfully set up for cocktails.
“I have a little bar indoors. But I found I was always inside tending bar,” says the amateur mixologist. Green wanted to be free to socialize with her guests and decided to innovate, even leaving a recipe card at the bar “so people could make their own.” It liberated hostess and guests to experiment.
The classic rum-based version is typically made from five ingredients (white rum, simple syrup, club soda, mint and fresh lime.) But in Green’s hands, variations occur just as organically as the plucked-from-the-garden ingredients. Mint and basil, which flourishes in raised beds, are in easy reach for muddling into the mix. When in season, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries are ripe for picking from Green’s backyard.
She credits her gal pal who first served her the vodka-infused beverage as her source of inspiration. “Ashley is so good at creating beverages — she has a great knack for it,” Green says. “And, I’ve always enjoyed having girls over, groups over, so when the patio’s looking pretty, or it’s a great night, or the weather is looking good, I’ll send out some texts. It’s not a real planned out thing, it’s a fun thing with girls when I know a lot of people are together, especially in the summer.” The vodka mojito has become her signature for summertime entertaining.
“I always have a bottle of vodka and flavored water. I can grab some limes, berries or mint and can throw something together. You don’t have to run to the grocery store,” Green explains. A boon for anyone juggling work, family, volunteering and summer activities.
She has gradually developed her own go-to faves. She loves berries, so they are the basis of her preferred elixir. But Green also finds her guests gravitate towards a tangy, citrusy version, which has the unexpected zing of grapefruit and herb.
“I have two different cocktails. I call them my berry mojitos with vodka and the grapefruit basil drink, also with vodka,” says Green. Her mojito menu keeps evolving, as tastes and preferences alter the mix.
Green explains that the secret is in the muddle. “I have a muddler, which is a kitchen tool,” she says. (One that looks very much like a pestle.) “With my basil drink, I use a wedge of cut grapefruit, with a basil leaf. Muddle it [all], and add vodka and ice.” For her berry concoction, Green likes to mix blackberry and strawberry with mint, all muddled together. “The type or flavor of the Mojito depends upon what I’ve got in the garden,” she says. “Strawberries are in season first, then blackberries. And then, after that, I get blueberries. Right now, the blueberries are just starting to come in.”
She muddles in the berries, then adds more for good measure. The more the merrier, she says, “because I love berries.”
“I do it on the bottom of the glass,” she says of the muddling process, before making a confession that would, ahem, shake up any bartender: “I sometimes use the bottom of a martini shaker.”
But to Green’s way of thinking, throw out the rules if you want to have a Barefoot Contessa kind of cocktail party.
Which is why, when asked if her recipe calls for one jigger of vodka — or two, or more — Green pauses. The guests dictate the terms. “I add the vodka to the guest’s liking,” she answers. She personally prefers to use two shots —just the right amount to allow her time to sip and enjoy the drink over an evening, as the ice slowly melts and the flavors merge. “You’re putting it into an eight-ounce glass. All that water dilutes the vodka. I can enjoy it with my guests without having to get up and leave them to refresh my drink. With all the insulated glasses today, I can leave a drink out and the ice survives, even overnight,” she says.
“Next, I add the flavored water, a carbonated flavored water, [Green likes the Harris Teeter brand], as you don’t need simple syrup required in the classic mojito recipe.” More often than not, Green uses the lime-flavored water, but raspberry and other flavors are also tasty. This little trick not only saves calories but adds more subtle notes The sweetness of the carbonated flavored water adds just enough sweetness, Green says. Perfection in a glass.
But no two palates can agree on perfection, where mojitos are concerned.
“My friend, who invented the recipe, still likes to use the simple syrup,” Green says. (Simple syrup is a boiled mixture of sugar and water, frequently used in cocktails, particularly mint juleps.)
Finally, the grand gesture: the voilà touch that whispers summertime fun. “You can throw a berry on top or a mint leaf as a garnish,” Green suggests.
And what about her other signature, the grapefruit mojito?
The makings are similar but with a twist.
“Cut a wedge of grapefruit; add a basil leaf torn up and muddled with the grapefruit,” Green explains. “To this, I add about two jiggers of grapefruit juice, ice, vodka and lime-flavored water.” Green then fills the water to the top of the glass, with specific measurements not required.
And here again, she tailors the amount to suit her guests’ tastes: “If the vodka’s too strong, add water to dilute it. I find the girls sometimes want more grapefruit juice; it becomes a very personal drink. It’s not like a vodka tonic (made a very specific way). You personalize it.”
As the Green’s dog, Alli, and Lila the cat, one of her rescues, stroll past a rock wall with trailing plantings overhanging the stone pathway, the stage is always set for cocktails on the patio. Flagstone paths meander through the enclosed garden to separate seating areas where friends can sit and chat or just regroup. There are recliners and Adirondack chairs, too, inviting guests to linger with drinks and their thoughts. Pink flowers spill from tall urns, dappled by the shading trees. A fountain flows into a pond stocked with goldfish and Koi.
There may not be a banana tree, as you would see in La Habana. But there is everything needed to summon up the good life as re-imagined by the Green family, in their own small slice of heaven, best enjoyed with a sweating mojito in hand, a photo-ready mint sprig right on top. Even if you don’t feel like dancing the Salsa, you’ll definitely want to stay awhile. Go ahead and help yourself to another mojito. The recipe card is right there on the potter’s bench bar — unless, like Kathy Green, you’d rather improvise. It’s summertime, after all, when the livin’ is easy and rules were made to be broken. And if you break a few, we promise not to tell.
8 mint leaves, plus 1 mint sprig for garnish
2 ounces white rum
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce simple syrup
1/2 ounce chilled club soda
*Source: Food & Wine magazine
Cynthia Adams is a Greensboro-based writer and contributing editor to O.Henry.