The long, hot days of summer are perfect for slowing down and spending time with good friends. A good drink enlivens any social gathering, and some cocktails fit summer mode perfectly with their light, bright, refreshing flavors.
If you’re hosting people in the sun, here are three cocktail recipes built on fundamentals that are trustworthy for both beginners and pros alike. But there’s a lot more to learn about these recipes than just what to mix together. Included in each section is an orientation to the type of liquor it uses, as well as what to consider when you’re building a bar around these drinks.
Rum: summertime in a glass
Rum is a delightful summer tipple because much of it comes from the Caribbean, where the sun shines on the beach and the livin’ is easy. And while there are dozens of types of rum on the shelves, each reflecting its country of origin, there are four main types that are available in even the smallest liquor stores: white rum, amber rum, dark rum, and spiced rum.
If you can, I suggest actually avoiding the largest brands (e.g., Bacardi, Captain Morgan), and picking out one or two bottles that have real character. Appleton Signature Blend is an excellent and widely-distributed amber rum that has a bit of the characteristic Jamaican “funk” that shines through many strong-flavored mixers, including in the classic “Cuba Libre” cocktail — an upgrade to the old rum & Coke:
● ½ lime
● 2 ounces rum
● 4 ounces Coca-Cola
- Squeeze the juice of ½ lime into a tall glass.
- Add ice cubes and pour the rum into the glass.
- Fill with Coke and stir well.
- Garnish with the spent lime shell.
The Cuba Libre is from a class of cocktail called a highball. Highballs consist of any base spirit and a cola or otherwise sparkling mixer served in a tall and narrow glass (which is, coincidentally, called a “highball glass”). The 7&7 — Seagram’s 7 whiskey topped with 7-UP — is another popular highball, as is the scotch-and-soda. Change either the base spirit or the mixer, and you have a different cocktail with a completely different character. Mix one up and give it a try!
Tequila: so much more than shots
Tequila is another one of those spirits that reflects the character of the place where it is made. Unlike rum, however, which can be made anywhere that sugar or molasses can be grown or imported, by law all tequila is produced from the juice of the blue agave plant, and only in certain regions of Mexico. Many people associate tequila with doing shots accompanied by a sprinkle of salt and a lime wedge, but that’s selling it short: tequila is a delicious spirit that offers so much more.
There are two main types of tequila: 100-percent blue agave (a type of succulent plant); and tequila mixto (or “mixed”), which contains 51 percent or more of blue agave, with the balance being neutral spirits of dubious origin and colorants. You really should only purchase tequila made of 100 percent blue agave for sipping and for fine cocktails. Look for the phrase, “tequila 100% de agave” or “tequila 100% puro de agave” on the label. If it says only “tequila,” then you’re holding a mixto and need to try again.
Tequila is further subdivided into silver (or blanco), reposado, and añejo — all of these designations reflect whether and how long the spirit is aged after distillation. Silver (blanco) is unaged and reflects the purest flavor of the agave. Reposado is rested or aged between two months and 11 months in wooden barrels or tanks. Añejo is aged for at least one year in wood; if it says “extra añejo” or “ultra añejo,” it has aged for more than three years. Reposados and añejos are excellent sipping tequilas, though they can be used in premium cocktails as well.
The margarita is the most popular tequila-based mixed drink in the United States. If you’ve had a margarita at a restaurant, chances are that it was made with mixto tequila and given a whiz-up in a blender, or it was poured out of a Slurpee-style machine — not exactly the way to highlight all that tequila can be. Upgrade your experience by offering your guests a delicious citrus-tinged paloma:
● 2 ounces freshly-squeezed grapefruit juice
● ½ ounce lime juice
● 2 teaspoons simple syrup
● 2 ounces silver tequila
● 2 ounces sparkling water
- Combine all ingredients except the sparkling water in your mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled, about 60 seconds.
- Strain into a glass filled with ice. Top off with club soda and garnish with a grapefruit or lime slice.
- Optional: before filling glasses, moisten the rim of the glass with a lime wedge. Pour kosher salt onto a small plate and dip rim of glass into salt, rotating the glass as you go.
The Paloma cocktail is part of a class of cocktails called a sour. The basic sour recipe is liquor, citrus juice, and sweetener. Other popular sour-class cocktails include the whiskey sour (bourbon or Canadian whiskey, lemon juice, simple syrup); the pisco sour (pisco brandy, lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, Angostura bitters); and the Ward 8 (rye whiskey, lemon juice, orange juice, grenadine, sparkling water). They’re all delicious!
Gin: refreshment and sophistication
There are many people out there for whom gin is unexplored territory, but if you’re ever going to make it in the world, you ought to dive right in. Gin, like vodka, is clear as crystal, and even starts from the same base ingredients as vodka, but that’s where the similarity ends. Vodka is, by definition, a characterless clear spirit, but gin smells and tastes like… well, in many cases, like a Christmas tree!
Gin gets its name from the Dutch word for “juniper,” which is genever. It is the inclusion of juniper that gives gin the distinctive aroma and flavor that sets it apart from all other spirits. It was first produced in Holland (specifically in Flanders) in the 13th century as a medicine, and by the 1600s there were hundreds of gin distilleries in the city of Amsterdam alone. It made its way across the English Channel in the 17th century, and it is estimated that at one point, a full one-quarter of the households in London were producing their own gin from various combinations of herbs and spices (called “botanicals” in the trade). England’s love affair with gin has a wacky history!
There are multiple styles of gin, with the most popular being London Dry Gin — this is the most juniper-forward. Plymouth gin is sweeter and earthier; Old Tom has less juniper and a malty character; Genever, the O.G. of the gin world, is savory and lemony. All are worth seeking out, and all will bring their own character to your glass. The gin and tonic (made with London Dry or Plymouth gin) is one of the most iconic cocktails, and it is simply a version of a highball like we discussed above. One classic gin cocktail that is quickly making a comeback is the Fitzgerald, which is another cocktail borne from the sour class that’s worth your time:
● 2 ounces gin (this is a great place to try a type other than London Dry)
● ¾ ounce lemon juice
● ¾ ounce simple syrup
● 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice. Shake hard for 15 seconds.
- Strain into a low glass half-filled with ice. No garnish.
So there you have it: Soon you’ll be ready to try a hand at creating your own infused vodkas, collecting various types of bitters, and exploring the wide world of specialty liqueurs and limited-release whiskeys. Bottoms up!