If you had asked me in early March what makes for a great summer drink, I might have listed such qualities as brightness, lightness, low ABV. Bubbles and herbal notes, perhaps. I would have named my favorite summer classics: the gin and tonic, crisp and fizzing; a daiquiri as balanced as Philippe Petit; tart margaritas made earthy with mezcal and spicy with chile peppers; the herbal, tea-toned Pimm’s Cup beloved by the Brits. I would have mentioned white spirits such as gin and vodka and light rum, and summer fruit, strawberries and pineapple and especially watermelon, whose cool, crisp flesh is difficult to sacrifice to drinks but absolutely delicious in them.
Four months later, I’m thinking about the question differently, in ways that are far more philosophical than compositional. Right now, talking to people about their favorite summer drinks feels like asking Roy Scheider about his favorite beach vacation. I mean, come on: Read the room.
So I ask instead: Can a summer drink even exist right now? I mean, for thinking people? What is a beach book, a summer song, a summer drink when the usual circumstances of their consumption are so utterly lost to us?
Summers, I make drinks when my husband decides to invite a mess of folks over for barbecues. I make big batches of herbal, lightly boozy lemonade when my family has a big get-together in the backyard or at the beach, or when my workplace does a company picnic. In any season, I make drinks largely in hopes that they’ll delight not only me but other people.
And right now … other people?! Are you crazy?
I find myself longing to sit beside a large body of water somewhere, but I’m unwilling to commit to a week at the shore without knowing I won’t find it clogged with tipsy anti-maskers, slathering one another with coconut oil and coronavirus. Mexico, where my husband and I have spent many a relaxed, margarita-enhanced week wandering the beaches and sampling the street food, tightened its borders before the Fourth of July to prevent partying Americans from hauling more of the virus south. Only recently have we even started figuring out ways to see the friends I’d usually delight in making drinks for. On Memorial Day, we projected theatrically to one another across our backyard, the grass taped off to keep each couple safely within our own hyperlocal biome.
Even our yard, a green and welcome refuge from work and news stress, cannot drown out the sounds of our failings: The tinny little jingle of the ice cream truck, silent through most of spring as the nearby park closed because of the virus, has recently started jingling again, and hearing it made me feel both nostalgic for childhood and a little more summer-normal — until I realized that one of its most frequent tunes is the old minstrel song “Camptown Races.” Now, especially with the virus still booming, watching our neighborhood’s multihued children come running for Popsicles just feels too loaded.
Heck, even as I began testing drinks for this column, I hesitated as I remembered that the Stiggins’ Fancy pineapple rum I enjoy is part of the Plantation Rum brand, whose bottles have long featured romantic images of tall ships and tropical foliage, and none of the enslaved people on whose backs the rum trade was built.
Watching people around the country march for racial justice has provided moments of hope in an otherwise distressing season. But even those signs of change don’t exactly inspire the kind of lighthearted summer tippling that this season typically prompts. Still, the heat is upon us, feral and thirst-inducing, and so I return to the compositional characteristics of a great summer drink: brightness, lightness, freshness. The drinks that accompany this column are all bright fruit tweaks on refreshing summer classics: a bright, grassy daiquiri; a strawberry and cucumber long drink made complex with Pimm’s liqueur; and a spicy margarita that leans on watermelon, the fruit that, for me, defines summer.
Years ago, my husband and I were sitting on a secluded beach in the Yucatán reading and sipping a couple of drinks, when two boats loaded with a more festive crowd from nearby Cancun trawled by. We could hear the music, see the neon drinks and all the kids on board bumping and grinding, and at one point the call of the species came echoing across the calm water: “Paaaaaaaaarteeeeee!” Now and then, my husband and I will still quote this hedonistic bellow at each other, but our recitations have rarely dripped with the degree of irony they seem to this summer.
This year, this is how I’ll drink on my summer vacation: Quietly, thoughtfully, hopefully with some modest degree of enjoyment, while we work and hope for our country to get better. To hope that we manage to pull it together on the social distancing and masking front, so that more lives are saved and, far more trivially, so we can look forward to being able to go to bars, hug friends, make drinks for them. Maybe even have a drink in Mexico again someday. There are signs of a genuine shift — the statues of white-supremacist figures have started to come down, the D.C. football team is finally going through a name review, and Plantation Rum recently announced it will change its name.
It’s a start. Cin cin. Let’s hope we make it to another summer when we can clink glasses up close, a summer that looks better than what the gloss of mere nostalgia can ever provide.
Click on the name of each drink to scale and print each recipe and to see nutritional analysis.
Spicy Watermelon Margarita
A zippy take on the classic margarita. Adjust both the pepper and the sugar to your liking — serranos are likely to be hotter, and the lesser amount of sugar will give you a drink that’s closer to the classic tart margarita. You can do a classic salt rim, but this cocktail is nice rimmed with Tajín, a Mexican spice blend of chiles, lime and salt that’s widely available at Latin American markets.
Salt or Tajín (optional), for rimming the glass
1 wedge lime (optional), for rimming the glass
1 to 2 thin slices jalapeño or serrano pepper
1 to 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
2 ounces fresh watermelon juice
1 1/2 ounces blanco tequila
1 ounce fresh lime juice
Chill a cocktail glass.
If you want a salted rim: On a cutting board, make a small mound of salt/Tajín. Take the lime and run the pulpy part of the fruit around the exterior rim of the cocktail glass, then gently roll the rim over the mound of salt so that the salt sticks to the lime-moistened edge. Set the glass aside.
In a cocktail shaker, muddle the slices of pepper in the sugar. Fill the shaker with ice, then add the watermelon juice, tequila and lime juice. Shake hard for 30 seconds, then double-strain into the cocktail glass.
The cachaça in this daiquiri riff adds a subtle, grassy note, cutting the richness of the pineapple rum. If you don’t have it, you can substitute rhum agricole (or even a dry Cuban-style white rum, such as Bacardi or Havana Club). If you can’t find demerara sugar to make the syrup, you can substitute turbinado or even basic light brown sugar.
Storage Notes: The sugar syrup can be refrigerated for up to 2 months.
Where to Buy: We found Plantation Pineapple rum at Total Wine & More and other good liquor stores.
1 1/2 ounces Plantation Pineapple rum
1/2 ounce cachaça
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
3/4 ounce demerara syrup (see NOTE)
2 dashes Angostura or pimento bitters
1 small fresh mint leaf (optional), for garnish
Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the rum, cachaça, lime juice, syrup and bitters. Shake hard for 30 seconds, then strain into the glass and float the mint leaf on top.
NOTE: To make demerara syrup, in a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 1 cup of demerara sugar with 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil, and let the mixture boil for 30 seconds, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from the heat and let cool completely. Transfer to a 12-ounce bottle and refrigerate until ready to use.
The Pimm’s Cup is a classic cocktail of English summer, drawing its name from Pimm’s liqueur, one of those mysterious herbal concoctions whose makers guard its ingredients zealously. Everyone makes a Pimm’s cup a little differently; this variation pulls in the flavor of strawberries and cucumber. Hendricks gin will bring the latter out more strongly, but any London dry will work. If you can get your hands on some Mr. Q or Dry cucumber soda, great; if not, using lemon Pellegrino or ginger ale is fine.
If you want to add the cucumber ribbon garnish along the inside of the glasses, which will not impact the drink’s flavor but will look cool, position it before adding the ice; the ice will help keep it in place.
1 large English cucumber
3 large ripe strawberries, stemmed
2 ounces gin, preferably Hendrick’s
2 ounces Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur
2 to 3 ounces chilled cucumber soda (may substitute lemon soda or ginger ale)
2 sprigs fresh mint
Cut a 2-inch chunk off the cucumber, peel and set aside. Using a y-shaped vegetable peeler, cut thin strips from the remaining cucumber, making sure there is a thin line of green peel on both sides of each strip. Set aside for garnish.
Fill two highball glasses with ice and set them aside. In a cocktail shaker, add the strawberries and the 2-inch cucumber chunk, then top with the gin and liqueur. Muddle the strawberries and cucumber vigorously to squeeze out the juices. Double-strain the mixture equally into the two glasses, pressing lightly on any solids to squeeze out the liquids. Top each glass with the cucumber soda, stir gently and garnish each with a mint sprig and a cucumber ribbon, if using.
Recipes from M. Carrie Allan, who also tested them; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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