The pungent flavor of candy canes, peppermint is also favored for ice cream, toothpaste, and tea.
Whether it be the bright flavor of candy canes or the zing of peppermint schnapps that warms up your hot chocolate, for many people peppermint is often associated with winter and the holidays. The most popular member of the mint family, peppermint is also the flavor found in those red and white striped starlight mints that finish off many a restaurant meal.
Peppermint was originally classified in 1753 by Carolus Linneaus as its own species, but eventually scientists determined it was a hybrid plant derived from a cross between spearmint and watermint. The failure to produce viable seeds, however, does not prevent this plant from spreading aggressively via underground rhizomes, thus earning the reputation as a highly invasive plant in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.
Peppermint leaves, although delicious in tea, are not always a convenient form for the flavoring, so the plant is processed in several ways to provide that minty fresh taste. Peppermint’s essential oils, which include menthone, menthyl esters, and trace components such as limonene, eucalyptol, and pinene, can be concentrated through steam distillation to yield oil of peppermint. The oil is the most concentrated form of the flavoring, so only a drop or two is needed in making candy, chewing gum, and toothpaste. Peppermint extract, isolated by alcohol distillation of either the leaves or of the oil, is a more dilute preparation, which is often used in baked goods.
The peppermint-flavored liqueur, crème de menthe, is traditionally made by steeping dried peppermint leaves in grain alcohol for several weeks. This naturally green liquid is then filtered and sweetened with sugar to make the basis of cocktails such as the grasshopper. A stinger martini uses brandy and white crème de menthe, which is made from the extract rather than the leaves.
More information about the use of peppermint as a natural medicine is available at http://www.umm.edu/altmed/articles/peppermint-000269.htm