The Day of the Nectarine was otherwise unremarkable — late August, an average Wednesday at work full of meetings and emails with a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I have no idea what else I bought there. Bread, trash bags? Nothing stands out, except for this: Having paid up, I crossed the parking lot and settled in the hot front seat of my car. I poked into the grocery bag, found the nectarine I’d bought, wiped it down on my pants leg and took a bite.
I’m not prone to having sensual experiences in grocery store parking lots, so this was a first for me. I sat there, dipping my face into the flesh of this fruit, rivulets of juice oozing down my arm, making out with the best nectarine I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. I’m grateful, in retrospect, for the illusory privacy of the car; had someone filmed me eating this thing, any future political aspirations of mine would have ended right then.
Nectarines can be woody or mealy in texture, but this one was so toothsome, sweet and tangy that I can only call it Edenic. It made the long work day slip away. It made me want to be a better person — a person who was to People what this nectarine was to Nectarines. I went back inside to the produce section to buy more, half expecting to find a talking snake draped across the pile offering some insight into the whole good-and-evil picture. But if one had been there, I would have just hooked it out of the way to load up on more nectarines.
We’re a long way from August. But we are into the sweet season, these months when much of the fruit coming out of the ground and out of the trees is so good it should be carried on a gilded litter and polished gently with silken scarves — prior to being eaten, of course. In fact, these warm months mean that it’s smart to double up on fruit purchases. I would never have sacrificed the experience of eating that nectarine — it was that plush. But I wish I’d had more of it to muddle into some bourbon. Such a combination would have needed little else.
With several months ahead to read lazily under shade trees or picnic with friends at beaches and parks, it’s the right time to be turning to fruit-at-its-best as a ready-made cocktail ingredient. And it’s the wrong time for sweating fussily over drinks.
Whether you’re in your own back yard or toting something sweet and boozy to a barbecue across town, fruit-centered punches bring the season’s ripest offerings to the fore in an over-and-done-with format; as in, your work is finished for the afternoon. Pick your fruit and then think about what booze would deepen or brighten it. Stone fruits such as nectarines, cherries and peaches marry beautifully with bourbon; lime, ripe melons and mezcal can make for glorious margaritas; strawberries and Campari match up in color and complement each other’s flavors perfectly. Vodka, of course, is a blank page waiting for a dozen fruity hues.
Citrus fruits’ intense juiciness makes incorporation easy. The fruits require nothing more complex than a reamer to reap their bounty. Other less-liquidy fruits, or those with a lot of seeds, are more of a chore to work with. But there are so many ways to get at their flavors: Drop slices of them into your chosen alcohol overnight, using the booze to draw out their flavor. Blend them with spirits and juicier fruits, then strain out solids and seeds as needed. Cook them gently with vinegar and sugar to make a shrub, adjusting sweetness and tartness as you please. And remember that preserves can play a role, too — they need a strong shake and strain to break up the jellied pectins, but when that’s done right, preserves add a nice, silky quality to a drink.
The accompanying five pitcher-friendly fruit punches will get you started. Several of these are flexible in terms of the spirit you can use, and some also can be stretched with the addition of something nonalcoholic, in case you’re serving a crowd or just drinking a whole lazy afternoon away. If you’re drinking a batch over time, you’ll want to make sure you have a long spoon at hand, to stir it up in case any ingredients settle or separate, and if you’re going to be hanging around outdoors, the more you can chill the drinks in advance, the better, so the ice doesn’t melt too quickly as you and the pitcher sweat in the sun.
Here’s hoping the upcoming stretch of warm weather brings you your own Day of the Nectarine (or watermelon, or fig or honeydew), and that you have some left over for sipping.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.