Give Ross Harding the option, and he’ll pour Maker’s Mark into a tall glass over ice, place a sprig of mint alongside the cubes and stir in his choice cocktail ingredient: his own Verdant Kitchen Ginger Syrup, made with ginger he’s managed to coax from the sandy soils of South Georgia.
Harding’s plan to grow ginger was initially born from a fateful conversation about superfoods with Howard Morrison, a Savannah businessman residing on a sweeping antebellum estate named Lebanon Plantation. Repeatedly, ginger came up: the root is an anti-inflamatory, long heralded for its soothing effect on the digestion tract, and purported to battle ailments like arthritis, migraines, morning sickness, asthma, anxiety and even the common cold. (It’s also been a favorite flavor for Harding—many of his most treasured memories of a childhood in Brisbane, Australia revolve around the smell and taste of it, and the joys of visiting ginger processing plants when he’d visit his grandparents as a boy.)
In Savannah, Harding identified the climate to be much like that of his boyhood: the oppressive, wet heat reminiscent of subtropical Brisbane. It occurred to him that this weather would be conducive to growing ginger. So, Harding and Morrison decided to go into business together.
It was easy enough to find land: Morrison’s Lebanon Plantation had many a field gone fallow over decades of neglect. Still, the plantation seemed to hold mystical properties, seeped in over its long history as an experimental farm. It was the first food plantation given to French colonists by King George II in 1756, and on it, they grew mulberries, olives and indigo. In later research, Harding uncovered journals describing the colonists’ attempt to grow ginger. Through persistence and backbreaking work, the farm was revived for its first crop of ginger in hundreds of years.
“We grew it, and we learned a lot,” says Harding. “We learned that we’re terrible farmers. The hardest thing I’ve ever done is farming; it’s just brutal, physical, expensive and risky as well, but very satisfying.”
After the first harvest, the men began to make the gourmet ginger products that were the stuff of Harding’s childhood dreams, from ginger syrup to ginger beer to candies, chocolates, powders and teas.
Ross Harding holds his 2015 Flavor of Georgia award.
In time, they expanded their farm to include turmeric and galangal (a root similar to ginger). From the beginning, they’ve grown all three organically. Their products are certified organic as well, although many ingredients must be sourced from elsewhere. Above all, they’ve prioritized excellence in what they make. “We sort of see ourselves as curators in many ways, most of our ingredients are local but not exclusively,” says Harding. “We’re more interested in finding the very best in the world that we can find and putting it in our products.”
At Verdant Kitchen, they also take great care in how they handle ingredients. “We just don’t grab Chinese ginger and stick it in the sugar syrup; we go to a great deal of trouble so that our products are dehydrated 48 hours after they’ve been harvested in raw food controlled conditions,” he says. “And so we try to bring very interesting flavor profiles to these products.” Harding has seen bartenders in Savannah at favorite local spots like Green Truck Pub put his products to use in cocktails, and fancy hotels in the area stock mini bars with their ginger ale. But he doesn’t just want to see bartenders use Verdant Kitchen products for customers– he hopes they’ll employ them to their own gain.
The ginger syrup, specifically, was developed with cocktails in mind, but it can serve many purposes.
“You can put it in cocktails and then the next morning you put it in tea and you have a hangover cure; it’s a really versatile product,” says Harding. “I would recommend that all bartenders out there start their day with our ginger-turmeric green tea, and that’s probably the pinnacle of health for the day.”
Harding has always appreciated what ginger can do for a drink—in fact, his own strongest nostalgic attachment to ginger exists in drink form. “You know as soon as you’re weaned off of mother’s milk in Australia, you go straight into dark and stormies,” he says. “There’s nothing in between.”
In a time when craft and artisanal products appeal to many in the place of ingredients that are more chemical than they are whole food, Verdant Kitchen is a welcome addition—in fact, they may make it impossible to put a Canada Dry can to your lips ever again. The flavors are potent and rich (the aptly named Artillery Hot Spiced Ginger Ale could knock an unprepared imbiber on their ass), and represent a world of possibility for those behind the stick. “My wish is for the bartenders to take some of these products and experiment,” Harding says. “Don’t just make the traditional products; it’s a big wide flavor palette. Try them out.”