Most members of the liquorati sip spirits neat or, if absolutely necessary, with a dash of water and a barely perceptible sniff of mostly-hidden derision. One ice cube if a mere acolyte. But even these elite yield to the sweltering summer days. When the sun is high, evening slow-sipping defers to afternoon guzzling-hydration and loads of ice. After all, when was the last time you saw a snifter at noon on the patio next to the trampoline? Probably the same day you saw a waistcoat and pocket watch.
July is the time for tall drinks stacked with ice. Now is the time for heavy, infused flavors diluted with geysers of chilled, carbonated water. However, now is not the time for chemical-ridden, corn-syrup, synthetic-colored, bullshit-laden reduced-calorie claiming, ready-to-drink bottles of whatever. Now is not the time for plastic buckets or bags one is supposed to partially freeze and scoop out with a desert spoon into Red Solo Cups (even though Red Solo Cups are totally awesome). Here we offer some better, smarter things you can do.
1. Garnish Your Gin-and Tonic with Authentic Lemon… (even gin haters will love it)
Gin-and-Tonics are an enormously fashionable and timeless summer drink. Despite a fair bit of sugar in the tonic water, iced down these drinks are refreshing with a faint whiff of juniper (after all the dilution).
The easiest trick in the book is getting one single, lonely lemon. Or grapefruit, orange, lime… anything citrus to dress up this historic drink. It’s less than a dollar.
Pour in a measure of gin (count of 2 on the pour) over ice. Top with tonic water. Taste it. It’ll be… just okay. Next, take a carrot peeler, hold the lemon (or whatever) over the top of the drink, and pare off one slice allowing it to fall into the drink. Now taste it! Notice the world of difference… the scent will permeate the whole room and/or deck. People will clamor for it.
Pro Tip: buy fresh basil instead of lemon—mint if you’re feeling particularly daring. Hell, any fresh herb if you’re adventurous and out of basil. Put a leaf in one hand and clap just once. Then drop in the newly-spanked leaf into the drink. That spank releases the oils in the herb without pulverizing the leaf and releasing the ugly smelling/tasting plant matter.
2. Mix Sweet Tea Vodka with Lemonade… (or mix limoncello with your iced tea)
Arnold Palmers are another summer classic. One of the greatest cocktail mixes of all time was summed up by one of our older relatives who used to try something and say, "This tastes great… now put a stick in it!" This meant, drop in a measure of whiskey or vodka or anything else that was handy. Our recommendation for the Arnold Palmer falls right into this camp.
Sweet Tea flavored vodkas were the absolute rage about 5 years ago but are getting a little harder to find. Nonetheless, most were decently made and mix shocking well with lemonade. It’s refreshing; it has a little blast of caffeine; it has a lot of chill… plus, you can make it in a pitcher or else mix in whatever ratio you like to taste. Equally easy, regular old unsweetened iced tea can get sweetened and a blast of lemon with the equally popular and in vogue limoncello. Better yet, the limoncello can sit in the freezer and then served as shooters to really get the party started. Limoncello is also a great palate cleanser after a bunch of grilled, charred meat brazenly offered by half-drunk but beaming fathers.
Pro tip: another great place to slice off a bit of lemon, you can also garnish with some fresh raspberries, peaches, herbs, or anything else you have available. The aromas coming off the drink will be a hit. A stray vitamin might also find its way into your digestive system.
3. Use Skittles to Make Red and Blue Drinks… (but don’t eat the skittles)
It’s Independence Day after all, so often times people want drinks that showcase the flag’s colors: navy blue, crimson red, and opaque white. Candy is a notorious college trick that can be employed with at least a shred of dignity by suburban family backyard barbeques on this special day.
Find some colorful jelly beans or skittles. Select a handful of colors that you like. Then, toss a half dozen or so of them into a bottle of vodka. (Rum, moonshine, even tequila… anything clear will do.) This isn’t really about taste, so expect to mix these with some kind of something: soda water, lemon-lime pop, tonic, even tap water and ice. This is more about the color than the taste. But even a single day’s worth of soaking is generally sufficient to put bright colors in the spirit. Oftentimes, one hour will work.
Pro tip: if candy infusions aren’t your thing, then use natural fruit. This takes longer but the results are far superior. Blue can be achieved with blueberries or blackberries (even if the drink ends more purple than blue) and red can be established with cranberry, raspberry, cherry, or many other things. Believe it or not, coconut flakes will make clear vodka an opaque white. Be ready to sweeten the final result after you strain but the aromas will likely be gorgeous. Still, this is a lot of work and jelly beans might be easier and the color will be better.
Food coloring is for lazy bums.
4. Infuse Some Whipped Cream with Booze for Dessert… (careful with the kids)
Backyard parties feature a lot of tasty dishes but some of the best are the tables groaning with homemade (or hastily bought) desserts. Pies, cakes, ice-cream, coffees… just about all of it can accept whipped cream. If it accepts whipped cream, then you’re in business with a little infusion.
You can buy some kind of pre-packaged, store-bought whipped cream… but why? Purchase some whipping cream. Pour that and a measure of some kind of liquor in a mixing bowl. We find that spiced rum works wonders here but any sort of higher proof liqueur works great too. Now pull out those mixers you received as a wedding gift and beat away. 5 minutes is all that this will take. Soon you’ll achieve a whipped cream that gives that wonderful, boozy aroma and a significant burn on the palate. That’s going to spice up any dessert, anywhere.
Pro Tip: it might be obvious, but this is a great place to play around with cream liqueurs. Rum Chata or other cream liqueurs are tough to serve in the backyard as drinks but they sure go nicely in whipped cream. Merely be aware that the ABV or proof is quite a bit lower so it may not carry the burn you’re looking for.
5. Set Your Drink on Fire… (duh)
Fireworks! Who doesn’t adore fireworks? Sadly, due to the overreach of an ever-encroaching and freedom-desecrating government, they’re increasingly questionably-legal or downright illegal in many places. That’s okay… celebrate our independence by setting your drink on fire instead.
Buy a high-proof spirit. Anything north of 120 proof will do nicely. Many cask strength whiskeys fall into this category. So do overproof rums and some very interesting liqueurs. Now, most importantly, fill a shot glass to the absolute top with the spirit! This is important because otherwise the heat from the flames will heat the glass, potentially cracking the glass, and most definitely burning the lips and mouth of the imbiber. That’s a sure-fire buzz-kill. Filling to the top guarantees that the flame will go straight up leaving the glass (and the mouth) completely unharmed. Make sure you have appropriately sized shot glasses.
Light the liquor with a match, lighter, sparkler, or whatever. Turn the lights off. You’ll see a beautiful, blue-burning blaze shooting up from the glass. Gorgeous! Let it go for anywhere from 20 to 60 seconds. In every case, the "burnt" liquor will taste better. This is because some of the booze has burned off and the sugars present will have caramelized.
Pro tip: some idiot will always claim that you can drink the thing while it’s still on fire. This is not recommended. Blow the flame out like a birthday candle before drinking. Don’t let your idiot friends burn themselves.
by Neal MacDonald, editor