A Preview of Summer Drinking
While we enjoy a contemplative cocktail and nuanced nip, it’s time to lighten up and have some fun. Our cocktail crystal ball shows a spring and summer high on whimsy and low on pretension.
“It’s like music,” explained Eclipse bartender Seth Wahlman. “There are periods where what’s popular is heavy music with intricate melodies and intense lyrics. Then, five or six years go by and people just want to dance again.”
And dance we shall. Lower ABVs and tiki drinks are back, but this season will also show stereotypical winter sippers adopting a tropical tone, college spirits getting schooled, slushies that aren’t for kids and variations on mules that may come in a tin can or garnished with a paper umbrella.
Brandy goes to the beach
Bartenders are stashing the snifters and breaking out the swizzle sticks because brandy isn’t just for fireside sipping. Cognac and Armagnac are both distilled from white wine with grapes grown in their namesake regions of France. The more familiar cognac is distilled twice, while Armagnac is oak barrel-aged after one trip through the still. Each is unique, but their shared grape base lends both to the juicier flavors of summer.
“They blend really well with passion fruit, orgeat (a French almond syrup) and bitter components because they’re naturally sweet with fruity, grape flavors,” said Elijah Barnes, bar manager at Cleveland-Heath.
Richard Vagnino, cocktail and spirits director at Reeds American Table, is also crushing on the grape-based spirit, featuring it in the gingery refresher It Takes One to Know One and the bitter yet bright rye-based CCR.
The collegiate affection for Everclear is no great mystery: It’s 190 proof and can be set on fire. Perhaps Everclear’s questionable reputation has more to do with unimaginative undergrads than its actual properties.
Like vodka, Everclear is a neutral spirit – a blank canvas waiting for a master’s brush stroke. Enter capable barkeeps who, with far more creativity than your freshman roommate, can infuse the spirit with fruit and herbs or whip up house-made limoncello.
Sip some at Planter’s House where co-owner Ted Kilgore has infused Everclear with strawberry, kiwi and pineapple, then added a little water and simple syrup to decrease the proof and increase sweetness. He combines the mix with two kinds of rum and citrus, and serves it up in a tin can for an Urban Jungle Juice.
Remember “mixing” bad white rum and blue curacao? So fun, so festive, so awful. The Libertine beverage director Ben Bauer is making his own blue-colored, orange-y liqueur. He steeps botanicals in Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum and steeps orange zest and dried orange peels in cognac. After a few days, the infusions get strained, sweetened and colored (with wood sorrel when he can find it). Look who’s all grown up.
“You drink first with your eyes,” said Terry Oliver, bar manager of Frazer’s. “If it’s appealing when it comes out, you’re more likely to enjoy it.” He would know; this south side barkeep has long featured playful presentations of his creations. “I take the ingredients seriously but presentations are fun. It shows we’re not so stuffy.”
Look for whimsical and ironic presentations outside the realm of tiki drinks during this anti-stuffy season. Oliver’s Shandy Quaid is a thoughtful mix of Big O ginger liqueur, bourbon and lemon garnished with a 7-ounce bottle of Miller High Life, a paper umbrella and a bendy straw.
Alongside the fun and frivolity, look for summer sippers served up in thoughtful glassware. The pretty rhubarb and cream cocktail at Blood & Sand comes in an equally fetching long-stemmed glass that bar manager Matt Osmoe chose to complement this specific cocktail.
Grown-up big gulp
Skip the gas station and head to the bar where boozy slushies abound. Porano Pasta offers a refreshing Negroni, Mission Taco Joint has a regularly rotating selection of frozen libations like the rum-based Lava Flow or classic margarita, and Peacemaker Lobster and Crab Co. offers a bourbon punch along with a rotating seasonal offering (currently The Grapefruit Mule).
Ride the mule
A spirit, some citrus and ginger ale makes a member of the buck family. Using ginger beer instead? That’s a mule you’re riding. Spicy and sparkling, it’s no wonder ginger beer is a go-to topper adding sass to cocktails.
The team at Katie’s Pizza and Pasta splashes it atop rye whiskey, mint and orange in the Mint Mule. Ginger beer also makes an appearance here in the Blackberry-Sage Pimm’s Cup.
The Big Trouble in Little China at The Preston is a riff on a dark and stormy featuring the addition of Chinese Five Spice to blackstrap rum, lime and ginger beer.
The Young Buck at Retreat Gastropub gets a lift from ginger beer. Sweet and smoky, it features bourbon, lemon, strawberry, floral hibiscus, Byrrh and an adobo tincture.
Grab a straw, pack the cognac and saddle up for a season of well-crafted cocktails stirred and shaken with 100-proof fun.
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