People get far more doctrinaire about their drinks in summertime than at any other time of year. Some must have champagne chilling in a bucket on the terrace. For others, it has to be Pimm's No 1 Cup, or a good G&T. The edible component of the drinks hour may vary from a bowl of crisps to smoked-salmon sandwiches, but the drinks themselves - well, they're non-negotiable.
I do have my own preference among these three classics. For a family gathering, a jug of Pimm's can do more to ensure smooth interaction than a year's supply of therapy. But if you prefer fizz or gin, you'll get no argument from me. I just think you can do better - or at least introduce an element of surprise into your outdoor festivities. For me, the top summer alcohol choice is, and always will be, a raft of hot-weather cocktails. And cocktails that your guests might not have expected.
As always with home cocktail making, the first keyword for summer fun has to be simplicity, both of ingredients and of method. The last thing you want to be doing is searching around for obscure and rare ingredients. And on a hot summer's day, you surely don't want to spend loads of time making elaborate drinks.
The second keyword is refreshment. Some cocktails are deep, weighty, and warming, and these are not the cocktails you're looking for here. No Old Fashioneds, no Manhattans, no Whisky Sours. These are quintessential winter drinks. But it's easy to avoid them, and many people just look for refreshment all year round. According to barman Simon Yardley of the outstanding Mojo bar in Leeds, "There isn't much change in summer drinking." But the hot weather does bring out drinkers who come in and, "Ask for something refreshing. We try to guide them in the right direction." Such guidance leads to drinks such as Dark and Stormy, for which you'll find a recipe overleaf. Another one is the Summer Breeze, built from Wyborowa vodka, elderflower cordial, cranberry juice and apple juice, in proportions of 5:2:8:4, with a final squeeze of lime juice. This is the kind of cocktail that's perfect for making in a pitcher. Just have lots of fresh ice on hand.
When I asked Ben Reed what his perfect summer cocktail was, he replied by telling me a story. A family member recently got married, and he was in charge of the bar. He took along a colleague from Ipbartenders, the consultancy firm in which he's a principal member, and they set up "Collins HQ": a table loaded with everything you need to make these classic cocktails. The beauty of the Collins is that you can create one with any spirit you like, white or brown; you will find the basic procedure overleaf. What Ben and his associate made for the wedding was a succession of "Collins-plusses": the basic drink, plus a load of fruit purées for making lots of variations.
I think that this story was his way of telling me his views on the perfect summer cocktail.
Ben's lavish use of fresh fruit points the way to another keyword for summer cocktailing. Bartenders make fruity drinks throughout the year, usually relying on purées. Those purées - such as the popular Funkin brand, now available in some supermarkets - are very useful things. But I prefer to follow the example of Igor Beaulieu, head bartender at London's Met Bar, who emphasises the importance of using really good seasonal fruit. He castigates bartenders who insist on making raspberry Martinis in February, rightly pointing out that if you don't use good fruit then the drink won't be any good either.
In summer, obviously, there's a lot on offer. Even so, you have to taste the fruit before you start working. You can't tell just by looking at them. If strawberries or peaches are too acid, add a little more sugar. If they're full of colour but naked of flavour, make another drink.
One common error is the assumption that hot-weather drinking calls for light spirits (gin or vodka). It isn't necessarily so. Bourbon can be deployed successfully (think of the Mint Julep), and takes particularly well to the quintessentially summertime flavour of peaches. If you want to see just how well, try this: peel six ripe peaches and purée the flesh in a blender with 10ml (2tsp) of a good brown sugar (such as Billingtons Light Muscovado). Pass it through a fine sieve. Add the juice of one lime. Fill six tall glasses with ice, pour in 40ml (8tsp) of good Bourbon, then divide the peach juice between them and top with fizzy water. Add another squeeze of lime, and garnish with a sprig of mint. This drink has no name, but I know it's good because I made it very recently.
But rum is even better than Bourbon. And it is a particular favourite of most bartenders, who regard it as a much more interesting spirit to work with than vodka. When mixed in the right way - think punches and Daiquiri-type concoctions - it is just as capable of providing refreshment as any clear liquid. You just need to add fresh accents of fruit to lift the deep richness of the rum. The lift is exemplified perfectly in a drink called the Peach Melissa, which comes from Fred McKibbin of the Grace bar and restaurant in lower Manhattan. Use 40ml (8tsp) of dark rum, 15ml (2tsp) of sugar syrup, 25ml (4tsp) of orange juice, 10ml (2tsp) of lemon juice, 25ml (4tsp) of peach purée. Shake them all about with lots of ice, then strain into a large, chilled Martini glass. This is a good drink for making in a pitcher - but add lots of ice. It could even be served on the rocks, in tumblers or small wine glasses.
These suggestions merely skim the surface. Once you get started on summer cocktailing, you'll discover that it's more fun than croquet and more varied than Pimm's. And almost as easy as popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly. Just remember the keywords: simplicity and refreshment. You won't go wrong, I promise.
RECIPES FROM BEN REED, OF IPBARTENDERS
To make simple syrup (also called gomme), mix equal parts of sugar and water and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Leave to cool .
50ml/2fl oz vodka 1 slice fresh, ripe watermelon Dash sugar syrup (to taste)
Muddle the watermelon in a mixing glass, add vodka and ice, and shake. Add a dash of sugar syrup and strain into a pre-chilled Martini glass.
50ml/2fl oz gin 25ml/4tsp Roses Lime Cordial
Pour ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a pre-chilled martini glass.
50ml/2fl oz gin 20ml/4tsp fresh lemon juice 10ml/2tsp sugar syrup Soda water
Put all ingredients in a highball glass filled with ice. Stir gently, and garnish with a lemon slice.
50ml/2fl oz light rum 1/2 a lime, cut into 4 pieces 10ml/2tsp dark Muscovado sugar 3 ripe strawberries, sliced Dash sugar syrup (to taste)
Muddle the lime, sugar and strawberries in a rocks glass. Fill the glass with crushed ice and pour in the rum. Stir and add the sugar syrup.
Dark and Stormy
50ml/2fl oz dark rum 3 lime wedges Spicy ginger beer
Put all ingredients in a tall highball glass filled with ice. Squeeze and drop the lime wedges into the glass, and serve with two straws.Reuse content