I don’t know about you, but now and then I kind of regret developing high standards. I can still enjoy movies that fall into the so-bad-they’re-good category (I’m looking at you, “Con Air”), but it has become harder with food and drink.
Nowhere is this more the case than with summer lemonade, which these days I typically feel morally and gastronomically compelled to make the old-school way: juicing the bright yellow fruit by the dozens, a fragrant but messy and time-consuming process.
But once upon a time, I was ecstatic about powdered Country Time Lemonade mix — a blend of sugar, fructose, citric acid and various multisyllabic chemicals and stabilizers. If juicing real lemons is the old-school way, Country Time is the elementary school one. Per the ingredient list, it includes “natural flavors”; I tend to think the last time that product saw a lemon, it was the beater driving past the Kraft Foods factory window.
Man, I loved that stuff. It was yellow. It was sour. It had sooooo much sugar.
And it was so easy to make: scoop of mix, add water, add ice when you had time, but no biggie if the creek or the softball field was waiting, slurp it down, run outside barefoot and climb a tree. I still feel affection for that pale yellow powder and the faint cloud of aerosolized mix that would hit my nostrils when I unscrewed the plastic tub. Most likely, much of my affection is bound up in a memory of the freedom of the childhood summer afternoons when that lemonade seemed like the perfect drink.
But I can’t go back to it. These days, what I want in lemonade is different: I want brightness, the tartness, followed by the sweetness. I want to taste real lemon, which does taste different from the approximations made with powdered acids. And sometimes I want to bedazzle my lemonade with booze. But when I am incorporating alcohol, I don’t want its flavor to obscure the refreshing, sweetly sour blast that makes lemonade (or limeade) so great for the steamy season.
I won’t go so far as to recommend that you turn back the culinary clock and take a powder to make these summer sippers. But neither will I drink-shame you into making lemonade from scratch if you don’t have the time or inclination. Limes especially can be stingy little suckers, reluctant to give up their juice, and when you’re trying to batch up a boozy limeade for a big neighborhood cookout, juicing enough of them to satisfy your slavering hordes takes a while.
Thankfully, these days there are acceptable grocery store options that will make good drinks, though sometimes they’ll benefit from a little balancing out with a boost of fresh-squeezed juice. Look for refrigerated juices, which are more likely to have real, fresh fruit in them, and check the labels for ingredients; you’re not looking for much more than fruit, sugar and water. (For the accompanying recipes, I used Newman’s Own Old Fashioned Roadside Virgin Lemonade and Simply Limeade.)
While many of these juices have real citrus in them, they can still lean pretty sweet. When I opt for store-bought varieties of lemon or limeade, I typically buy extra citrus fruits to have on hand to balance them out. Even when I don’t, they’re great to use as garnishes. Zest a little of the peel into the drink and you’ll add both color and flavor.
As mixed, the primary recipe here, Once, Twice, Three Times a Lemon, is a spiked lemonade for purists, tripling the citrus with lemonade, the Italian liqueur limoncello and citrus vodka (you can go for a decent lemon vodka like Absolut or Grey Goose, but the Buddha’s Hand Citron from Hangar 1 and the citrus vodka made by St. George are both top-notch).
As lemony as it is, it’s also the most open to adulteration: You can make minor tweaks to the spec and get lovely results. For example, if you’re batching it for a gathering, try muddling raspberries at the bottom of the pitcher, or add a fresh herb such as thyme, lavender or basil to infuse flavors into the mix. Slice some thin wheels of cucumber into the drink. Add a spoonful or two of some other liqueur — a dry curacao for a different citrus note, a red bitter like Campari or Aperol, or something that hits herbal or floral notes, like elderflower, yellow Chartreuse or genepy (keep in mind that any addition of sweetness may require additional lemon to balance it out). You can fiddle with the base spirit, too, swapping out the vodka for a citrusy gin such as Tanqueray 10 or Malfy, or a spicy option like Bombay Sapphire East.
The other two variations here go in different directions. Summer in Padua incorporates dry sherry to bring in a different kind of acidity and an almost salty note, but sweetens the mix with bittersweet orangy Aperol and slices of strawberry (you’ll want to nosh on the berries after they’ve been sitting in this brew for a while). And the Monks’ Picnic takes advantage of the terrific pairing of herbal green Chartreuse and lime in a drink that’s easy to make and light enough for sipping over an extended cookout — but tastes elegant and strange, thanks to the Chartreuse.
Both of these are about as far from that powdered stuff as you can get. In the summer heat, they’ll come to your ’ade.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
We used Newman’s Own Old Fashioned Roadside Virgin Lemonade, but make your own lemonade if you like.
Recipes from spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan
1 ounce citrus vodka
1 ounce limoncello
5 ounces chilled lemonade
Extra lemon juice and sugar, as needed (optional)
Lemon wheels, for garnish
Fill a Collins glass with ice. Add the vodka, limoncello and lemonade and use a barspoon to stir the ingredients together. Taste the drink, and add a bit of lemon juice or sugar if needed. Garnish with a lemon wheel or two, twisting them over the glass as you drop them into the drink.
Look for a good, tart limeade that isn’t artificially flavored, or make your own if you like. In testing, we used Simply Limeade.
1 ounce gin (see headnote)
1 ounce green Chartreuse
5 ounces limeade (see headnote)
Pinch of salt (optional)
Lime wheel, for garnish
Fill a Collins glass three-quarters full with ice.
Add the gin, Chartreuse, limeade and the pinch of salt, if desired. Use a barspoon to stir the drink, then add the lime wheel garnish, giving it a little twist above the drink right before you drop it into the glass.
We used Newman’s Own Old Fashioned Roadside Virgin Lemonade, but you can use homemade lemonade instead. This can easily be scaled up to fill a pitcher as well — just multiply the ingredients for the number of servings you want, and add the citrus wheels to the pitcher; they’ll infuse a bit of flavor into the drink as it sits.
Two strawberries, cleaned, hulled and cut into slices from top to bottom
Lemon wheel, for garnish
4 ounces lemonade (see headnote)
2 ounces fino sherry
1½ ounces Aperol
Add a few ice cubes, the slices of strawberry and a wheel of citrus to a large goblet or wineglass.
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add the lemonade, sherry and Aperol; stir briefly to blend. Strain into the goblet or wineglass.
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