Rejoice, my fellow Americans: The season is upon us when men sporting jocular T-shirts — “Body by brisket,” “It’s all fun and games till someone burns their wiener” and other such classics — gather around blackened metal containers of fire to exchange ancient wisdoms and argue the comparative virtues of apple wood vs. mesquite, wet mop vs. dry rub, Big Green Eggs Are a Game Changer vs. Big Green Eggs Are For the Weak.
Please, don’t send me indignant notes pointing out that it’s not just men who enjoy playing with fire. Having once, as a curious preteen, accidentally on purpose turned a canister of hair spray into a very cost-effective flamethrower, I know that well, and I send salutes to fire-tenders of any gender. For some reason, though, the cookouts in my world have tended toward my husband or friends’ husbands or my dad manning the grill while I’m womanning the drinks. I don’t know why that is, but probably our local fire department is more relaxed because of it.
Whether you’re a fire-cooking newbie, an old charred hand, or just one of the lucky, lightly smoked hungry hordes waiting for the bounty to come off the grill, cooking out is thirsty work.
Beer, of course, enjoys a long-lived hegemony as the traditional quaff of cookouts, and no wonder — a cold bottle of lager while you’re sweating over a fire is a pleasure, whether tipped down your gullet or pressed against your forehead. But I want to make the case for taking advantage of the presence of fire to make some cocktails that you’re not likely to whip up on the average weeknight.
The skills required for cookout cocktails are not primarily culinary, especially if you’re not the person in charge of the fire. What you’re likely to need most is negotiation skills, and a sharp eye to spot the moment a sliver of space over the fire opens up — that little dead zone behind the burgers where a skewer of strawberries can land, the holes between ears of corn just big enough to drop a half lemon where it can soften and blacken without interfering with the rest of the meal. If you ever wasted any hours playing “Tetris,” sliding the right shapes into the voids they match, you’re going to be great at this.
Beefing for turf between the brats and the zukes is worth the trouble, because even a few minutes over fire or gathering smoke inside a closed grill can do great things for summer fruits. And those fire-smooched fruits can then move along to do nice things in cocktails.
The juice that comes out of a charred lemon or grapefruit slice is smoky and richer. A ripe tomato that’s been softened up on the grill gets sweeter and more intensely umami, cuing it up to play the lead in a sweet or savory drink. Stone fruits like peaches and plums absorb a little smoke and their sugars start to caramelize, bringing out new flavors that will play differently with spirits than the raw fruits do.
I wasn’t able to lay hands on ripe peaches to play with for this story (it’s a little early for them yet), but from past experiments I can tell you this: A ripe half-peach or nectarine, brushed with melted butter — for the flavor and so it won’t stick — laid face down on a hot grill till it’s well-striped, is a beautiful thing, whether sliced up in a summer salad or muddled with mint and a little sugar into bourbon. Keep it in mind for when good peaches arrive later in the summer.
I was able to get some ripe strawberries, and the flavors they took on when macerated in balsamic vinegar and then grilled were terrific. They still held a bright, tart note, but they got richer and jammier, and the slight bitterness of char stood out pleasantly in the herbal white vermouth I used for the base of the Smoked Strawberry Aperitif. (I used Martini & Rossi, but Dolin Blanc would work nicely here as well.)
If you want to experiment with fruits and fire, here are a few tips:
Think about complements and contrasts. The caramelization that can happen when fruit cooks over fire echoes flavors you find in barreled spirits like whiskeys, aged tequila and rum. Many mezcals have a smoky, roasted note that’s emphasized by mixing it with grilled fruit. Other tones that will create a spark to stand out in a mixture of caramel and smoke: The notes from fresh herbs like mint, the tartness of citrus, a little peppery heat. (Both the Golden Brown Sour and the Spine and Spice incorporate chile pepper; you get char and smoke flavors from the grilling and spicy heat from the pepper, balanced with sweet and tart fruit.)
Look for the ripest, juiciest fruits. Overripe is better than underripe, especially if you’re using pineapple or stone fruits. Don’t even bother with underripe fruits — they aren’t going to be as juicy to start with and will get less-so over the heat. You want to make sure you’ve got plenty of juice left to squeeze or muddle into your drink, even after the fire’s had its way with the fruit.
Protect your produce. Fruits may stick to the grill, so rest them gently on the grill surface and turn them occasionally to make sure they’re not getting seared in place. (Don’t be tempted to use a foil wrap here — if you do that, the fruits will cook, certainly, but your ingredients won’t get any char and will take in less smoke.)
Skewer the little guys. You can use well-soaked bamboo skewers for the fruits too small to set directly on the grill. The skewers will probably char anyway but without the soak, they may actually catch fire. A grill basket with narrow slats also can be a useful tool when dealing with fruits or pieces small enough to fall through the grill.
Save some for later. Yes, grilling is thirsty work, and maybe you’ll want to share everything you make with your guests then and there. But if you take some of those grilled strawberries or charred pineapple chunks and put them in a jar with a complementary spirit to infuse for a couple of days, you’ll be able to whip out fired-fruit booze for cocktailing later on, even if there’s no fire in sight.
Spine and Spice Cocktail
Agave and pineapple are both spiny, intimidating plants, but humans have learned to coax delicious stuff out of them. Here, sherry and an ancho chile liqueur add richness and spice to grilled pineapple, cut back with a little brightening lime. (Ancho Reyes also comes in a green poblano version; you’re looking for the original red ancho version for this.)
Active time: 10 mins; Total time: 20 mins
Where to Buy: Ancho Reyes can be found at Total Wine in Maryland, as well as in the District at Batch 13 and Calvert Woodley.
- 2 ounces ripe pineapple, cut into chunks
- Ice (cubes for shaking, one large cube for the drink)
- 1 1/2 ounces reposado tequila
- 1/2 ounce PX sherry
- 1/2 ounce Ancho Reyes chile liqueur
- 1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
- 2 dashes pimento or Angostura bitters
- 1 lime wheel, for garnish (optional)
Grill or broil the pineapple over a hot grill fire or under a broiler, 5 to 10 minutes, enough to color the fruit (it should have some blackening). Let cool.
Place a large ice cube in a rocks glass. In a cocktail shaker, vigorously muddle the pineapple. Add the smaller ice cubes, then the tequila, sherry, chile liqueur, lime and bitters. Shake hard, 20 seconds, to chill and dilute, then strain into the glass, garnish with the lime wheel and serve.
Smoked Strawberry Aperitif
Here’s a light, summery sip to make when you’ve got the grill going. Grilling brings out the flavor and sweetness of the strawberries and the balsamic. White vermouth is a sweeter, herbal variation of the fortified wine; we used Martini & Rossi Bianco. You’ll need wooden skewers for the strawberries.
Active time: 10 mins; Total time: 1 hour 20 mins
- 8 ripe strawberries
- 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
- Crushed ice and ice cubes
- 12 ounces white vermouth
- 8 ounces tonic water
About 1 hour ahead of grilling, set the wooden skewers in water to soak. At the same time, wash the strawberries. Slice off the crowns and refrigerate them for use when serving. Set the berries in a bowl, then top them with balsamic vinegar and stir to coat. Marinate for 1 hour.
Skewer the berries and set the skewers toward the edges, or cooler part, of the grill. Grill until softened but not falling apart, 5 to 10 minutes. Transfer the skewers to a platter and let cool, about 5 minutes.
For each drink, fill a highball glass with the crushed ice and set aside. Add 2 grilled strawberries and 3 ounces of white vermouth to a cocktail shaker, and vigorously muddle the berries in the wine. Add ice cubes to the shaker, shake hard to combine, and double-strain into the glass. Top with 2 ounces of the tonic water, stir gently and garnish with a strawberry crown.
Golden Brown Sour Cocktail
It’s best to make this drink, a spicy hybrid of a Brown Derby and a Gold Rush, when you’ve got a little extra grill space during summer cookouts, enough to slide some fruit on. The fire caramelizes the sugars in the fruit and adds a nice smoky flavor. Note that the honey syrup is zippy — if you want less spice, reduce the ratio of hot honey to regular honey in the syrup.
Active time: 15 mins; Total time: 1 hour
Storage Notes: The spicy honey syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 month.
Where to Buy: Mike’s Hot Honey can be found at well-stocked supermarkets and online.
For the spicy honey syrup
- 1/2 cup hot water
- 1/4 cup Mike’s Hot Honey
- 1/4 cup clover honey
For the drink
- 1/2 grapefruit, plus an additional slice for optional garnish
- 1 lemon, sliced in half, plus an additional slice for optional garnish
- Ice (cubes for shaking, one large cube for the drink)
- 3/4 ounce spicy honey syrup
- 1 1/2 ounces bourbon
Make the spicy honey syrup: In a heatproof container, stir together the hot water with both types of honey until thoroughly combined and syrupy. Let cool completely, then use right away, or cover and refrigerate until needed.
Make the drink: Put a slice of lemon or grapefruit, a half grapefruit, and two halves of a lemon cut side down on grill grates and grill for 10 minutes, ideally with the grill closed to capture the smoke, until the fruit is softened and charred. (Alternatively, position a rack 4 to 5 inches from your broiler and preheat to 400 degrees. Place the fruit on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 10 minutes or until softened. Turn on the broiler and roast the citrus for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the cut side begins to caramelize.) Let the fruits cool, about 10 minutes, then juice them into separate containers and refrigerate until ready to make the drink.
Add a large ice cube and a slice of grilled citrus to a rocks glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice cubes, then add 1 ounce of the grilled grapefruit juice, ½ ounce of the grilled lemon juice, the honey syrup and bourbon and shake to dilute and chill, about 20 seconds. Strain into the glass and serve, garnished with a smoked citrus wheel, if using.
Recipes from Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan. Recipes tested by M. Carrie Allan.