Light and Boozy: How to Mix the Best Summertime Drinks
I try not to care too much about the seasons when it comes to drinking. Big imperial stouts, bold Cabs, boozy Sazeracs—these are always delicious and I enjoy them year-round.
But even I have to admit I start gravitating to slightly different libations when the weather warms up. All of the sudden I’m drinking a lot more gin and tonics, tropical drinks, and anything served in an ostentatious tiki mug.
It’s obvious we drink differently once summer arrives and it seems self-evident why that’s the case, but what else is there to it?
“In the summertime we're looking for long drinks, drinks that are tall and served over ice—as opposed to more spirit-forward slow sippers,” John McCarthy of Cedar Local in downtown Manhattan told me. “In the summer people tend to start their cocktail hour a bit earlier, so you want something a little less alcoholic, since you're going to have more than one.”
McCarthy cites his own creation, Cuatro Vides—recipe below—as the perfect elixir. Meaning “four vines,” the drink is made with four grape-based products: Pisco (unaged grape brandy from Peru), Cappelletti, (Italian wine-based aperitif), Carpano Bianco (a floral dry vermouth), and verjus (unfermented grape juice of unripe wine grapes).
“It's perfect for those late afternoon, summer cocktail hours,” he notes.
Ivy Mix, a top former bartender at The Clover Club and now co-owner at Leyenda in Brooklyn, agrees with the need for tall drinks. “We all tend to want refreshing and light drinks in the summer. The heat makes anything heavy seem unbearable!”
Helping customers beat the heat in the summer is imperative to drink-slingers and, no surprise, ice might perhaps be the most crucial ingredient to a summer cocktail.
“As the weather changes from hot to hotter, I always want to look for something that's going to make me feel cold,” notes Danny Neff, the bar director at Holiday Cocktail Lounge. “Something crisp, somewhat tart, but something that leaves me exhaling cold air.” Neff calls his ‘The Ocean Club’ “my go to drink when I really want to cool down.”
Bruce Weinstein is an expert on icy cold cocktails. Based in Connecticut, along with Texan Mark Scarbrough, he’s the co-author of The Boozy Blender, a book on how to make sophisticated blended drinks.
“There are two words that can be used to differentiate a summer drink from a winter drink: your blender,” Weinstein says.
He thinks winter drinks should be simple and served up. “But summer drinks need to be slushy, frozen concoctions designed to beat the heat.”
His personal favorite this summer is something he calls the Cherry Italian Ice, a vodka-packed snow-cone of a beverage. (He warns me, though, “Just remember, there’s not enough fruit juice in the world to cover the taste of cheap vodka.”)
Regardless of the ice situation, Shawn Chen of RedFarm in New York believes, “With the right balance of ingredients and flavors, a summer cocktail should be a great thirst quencher.”
Lighter spirits are typically a must when crafting a good summer drink.
“Gin is popular in the summer because of its crisp and refreshing botanical elements,” Chen adds.
Jason Cousins, bartender at the Langham Place hotel in New York, agrees, noting, “Summertime drinking is all about lighter-style drinks, often using lighter spirit bases like gin, vodka, or un-aged rums and tequilas.”
Not everyone necessarily agrees on the “light” liquor aspect though.
Eryn Reece of Death & Co. has just released a summer scotch cocktail of all things. She thinks her Front Porch Punch is perfect for making a big batch of during warm, July evenings.
However, though it may include the malty and boozy The Famous Grouse, she tempers that blended scotch by infusing it with chai tea, then mixing it with fresh lemon and pineapple juices (among other things).
Fresh fruits and herbs are crucial for summertime drinking. PRESS in St. Helena, California, a high-end restaurant in the Napa Valley, focuses on using whatever produce is currently in season for their tasting menu.
They’ve taken this same approach to their equally adventurous cocktail program this summer, using atypical drink ingredients such as basil, cucumber, and melon, all picked straight from their own farm.
General Manager Spencer Weiss notes, “These ingredients lend themselves to the lighter and fresher style of cocktail that people would typically want to drink during the hotter months.”
The restaurant’s favorite cocktail this summer has been Summer Smoke, a mezcal-like margarita where the smokiness of the spirit is balanced out by fresh cucumber.
Paula Lukas, a bartender at Barramundi on the Lower East Side agrees with PRESS’s summertime approach. “Fresh fruit needs to be in abundance!”
As Orson Salicetti of Lumos bar explains further, “Fresh fruits and citrus help hydrate the body from the heat.”
Still, that can sometimes lead to people not always ordering the most sophisticated drinks.
“Unfortunately people always order mojitos!” jokes McCarthy.
“Summer is when people want to drink silly,” notes Sam Treadway, bar manager and co-owner of Journeyman in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Crimson Krier-Glading, the beverage director at Mission Dolores in Brooklyn, has a theory why that is, at least in New York.
“There's no private outdoor space here, so bars are the only way to get out of your house in the summer. So you typically have lots of people who don't always come to bars during the rest of the year.”
Salicetti has noticed the same thing. “In general tropical cocktails are very popular in summer. Mojitos, caipirinhas, margaritas, tiki cocktails. No surprise, most of these are from places with hot weather.”
Mix calls these—as well as piña coladas, daiquiris, and pisco sours—“vacation drinks,” wondering, “Maybe it's the need to feel like it's an escape?” Personally, she notes, “I like a drink that's easy sipping and doesn't take a lot of over-thinking.”
For Mix, the simple, two-ingredient paloma is the perfect summer libation. She makes one at Leyenda with a housemade grapefruit soda which is then individually bottled with blanco tequila so it’s always ready to serve without any additional prep work.
Tse Wei Lim understands that need for summertime simplicity. “It's hot and everyone is in the summer holiday mindset. You don't necessarily want to think too hard about what you're drinking. You're looking to drink the equivalent of summer beach reading.”
A chef and the co-owner of several bars in the Boston area like backbar, Ames Street Deli, and Study, he recommends sparkling rosé and lighter beers, particularly Brooklyn’s Summer Ale, his employees’ favorite.
On that point, Krier-Glading probably summed up summer drinking the best.
“Anything with ‘Summer’ on the label, people want to order. It doesn't really even matter what it is.”
Summertime drink recipes
(courtesy of John McCarthy, Cedar Local)
1½ oz. Pisco Portón
½ oz. Cappelletti Aperitivo
½ oz. Carpano Bianco
½ oz. Kokomo Vineyards verjus
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass over ice and stir until well-chilled. Strain and pour over fresh ice in a Collins glass. Add 2 ounces of club soda and stir. Garnish with an expressed lemon peel.
The Ocean Club
(courtesy of Danny Neff, Holiday Cocktail Lounge)
1½ oz. Santa Teresa 1796 Rum
1 oz. pineapple cordial
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. Amaro
Shake and pour over crushed ice, with a toy and an umbrella to relax on the top.