With the country’s vaccine rollout speeding up, this summer is shaping up to be a lot more enjoyable than last. Food and beverage folks are especially raring to go. “We’re going to hit the ground running this season— people are excited to go out and celebrate,” says Sam Levy, co-owner and bar program director of Fern Bar in Sebastopol, California. “We’re going big on flavor with fun, refreshing, and beautiful drinks.”
Indeed, after more than a year of bars and restaurants either being shut down entirely or having to adjust their service formats, bartenders are ready to get back to serving the public and doing what they love. Plus, summer is simply a fun time to make cocktails, notes Christian Shaum, beverage director of The Bristol in Chicago. “The plethora of seasonal ingredients combined with people’s cocktail palates expanding after a cold, Bourbon-filled winter is always exciting,” he says. “Recently it seems that bar directors are incorporating more interesting fruits, vegetables, herbs, and other seasonal ingredients in their summer cocktail menus.”
Shaum adds that this creativity is likely to reach new heights this year. “I foresee a cocktail renaissance this summer since last summer was all about takeaway and pausing bar culture,” he explains. “I think we’re going to see the bar world throw a year’s worth of pent-up creativity at the wall.”
Joe Love, bar manager of Oddwood in Las Vegas, notes that summertime cocktails are constantly growing and transforming as trends evolve, but certain things remain tried-and-true. “You want a simple, cooling, and tasty cocktail to sip on a hot day,” he says. “From a classic Mojito to a bright and bitter Spritz, the focus should be on refreshment and fun.”
Fern Bar’s Levy echoes this sentiment, noting that summer cocktails are all about refreshing, fruity flavors. He adds that today’s consumers tend to be more health conscious and also favor local ingredients. “We aim to reduce the added sugar content by using peak seasonal ingredients,” he says. “You can also reduce the sweetness by adding a splash of soda or tonic, or serving your drinks over crushed ice. This helps people not get dehydrated and overindulge when enjoying cocktails during the day or after a long time in the sun.” His Guera ($13) is a twist on the classic Paloma, blending Campo Azul Blanco Tequila, St-Germain liqueur, Aperol aperitif, grapefruit and lime juices, house-made Thai pepper shrub, and Fever-Tree tonic water. His Spa Day ($13), meanwhile, is a frozen Gimlet-style drink, mixing Thai basil-infused Spirit Works gin, cucumber and lime juices, and house-made Thai basil syrup.
“Historically, summer cocktails have drawn inspiration from the tiki era that gained popularity around the 1930s, with bartenders using tropical fruits like pineapple, passion fruit, and lychee as main cocktail ingredients,” says Mishi Torgove, beverage director of The Halyard in Greenport, New York. “Over the past five years or so, we’ve seen a modernization of these types of cocktails where bartenders are adjusting the flavor profiles to make them less sweet and more drinkable.” He adds that the recent popularity of the Aperol Spritz indicates a general movement away from overly sweet summer drinks. The Bristol’s Shaum agrees, noting that he’s happy to see the Aperol Spritz having its long overdue day in the sun. “It’s always interesting when one recipe sparks new interest in a whole category of cocktails, which is what’s happened with the Aperol Spritz,” he says. “Nothing against the original recipe, but this summer I think we’ll see a lot more variations on it with people using everything from amari and vermouths to sparkling sake to make their mark on the cocktail category.” His Not an Aperol Spritz ($16) blends Fukucho Junmai Seaside sparkling sake, Cocchi Americano Rosa aperitif, Apologue Saffron Spiced liqueur, yuzu and lemon juices, saline solution, house-made lychee tea tincture, simple syrup, and Bittermens Hopped Grapefruit bitters. “I always like to jump right into gin, rum, and sake cocktails in the summer,” Shaum adds. “I want my drinks to feel fresh and full of energy this time of year, and not ever weigh someone down with too much alcohol or sugar.”
Levy also notes a preference for lighter and brighter spirits in the summer, including gin, vodka, Tequila, Pisco, and silver rum. “And there will always be twists on classics—like the Vodka Soda, Gin & Tonic, Gimlet, Margarita, Daiquiri, and Whiskey Sour—on our list,” he says. Bar manager Matt Katzin’s @Wimbledon ($13) is a take on the Pimm’s Cup, comprising a house-made version of Pimm’s No. 1 liqueur, as well as house-made ginger gum syrup, lemon juice, fresh cucumber and raspberries, and Angostura bitters. Similarly a spin on the Pimm’s Cup, the Juice Cleanse ($15) at Highway Restaurant & Bar in East Hampton, New York by wine director Dominika Perkowska blends Crop Organic Cucumber vodka, Pimm’s No. 1, house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, Bittermens Orchard Street Celery shrub, and muddled fresh cucumber and mint.
“Elevated classics are a trend that we’re excited about,” Oddwood’s Love notes. “New presentations and exciting, fun garnishes are why these drinks are, quite literally, on the edge of everyone’s lips. The names might be old news, but these drinks aren’t going anywhere.” At Jaleo by José Andrés at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, the Ultimate Gin & Tonic ($20) comprises Hendrick’s gin and Fever-Tree tonic, plus fresh juniper berries, lime wheel, lemon peel, and lemon verbena sprig. “Summer cocktails have evolved to showcase more floral and refreshing flavors,” says Rico Velasquez, bar lead at Jaleo. “New variations of gins and different flavors of tonics have emerged over the past few years. Their combinations are endless and pair perfectly with a summer sunset or sunrise.” At The Aquifer tasting bar at New Riff Distilling in Newport, Kentucky, the Wild G&T with Grapefruit Shrub ($8) features New Riff Kentucky Wild gin, house-made grapefruit shrub, and Q tonic water, garnished with fresh lime and rosemary. “This is one of my favorite summer cocktails,” says bar manager Katie Tobin, who created the drink. “The Kentucky Wild gin is incredibly floral, citrusy, and botanical, and it pairs perfectly with the acidity and sweetness of our grapefruit shrub. Since we taste with all of our other senses even before bringing something to our lips, I garnish the drink with a juicy lime wedge, which offers a welcoming brightness to the nose, and a rosemary sprig, which melds with the piney botanicals in the gin and provides woody, evergreen aromatics.”
Jaleo’s Velasquez notes that in general, guests seem to be gravitating toward more herbaceous components in drinks these days. “I think this is because people like familiar flavors that spark special memories,” he says. “Roses and lavender remind people of the scents from the family garden, while basil and thyme smell like tomato sauce cooking for a Friday night meal.”
Ashley Akers, beverage director of Osteria Langhe and Testaccio in Chicago, favors using a fresh garden element to enhance her summer drinks. “A crushable lemonade is always satisfying, but you can take it a step further by adding floral herbs or bitter greens to give it a little more energy,” she says. “I’m excited that people are receptive to trying more experimental flavors now. I’ve been playing around with acid-adjusting citrus to give cocktails more of a zip without compromising flavor.” At Testaccio, her Amica cocktail ($12) is a summertime twist on the Negroni featuring City of London Dry gin, Contratto aperitif, Dolin Genepy le Chamois liqueur, and acid-adjusted grapefruit juice. “The idea is to create a multi-dimensional drink that’s thirst-quenching without sacrificing flavors,” Akers adds.“I want my cocktail to take you on a journey, to interact with the palate through the entry, the finish, and the aroma. One way to do that is to incorporate hydrating components that complement the flavors of the drink, like refreshing fresh cucumbers in my matcha latte-inspired Viridi.” This drink ($12 at Testaccio) is also reminiscent of the classic Daiquiri, blending Denizen rum, Dolin Genepy le Chamois, Apologue Celery Root liqueur, lime juice, honey syrup, matcha powder, and muddled fresh cucumber.
“I think folks today are generally more adventurous in their cocktail choices, and summertime cocktails have become more reflective of that,” says Perkowska of Highway Restaurant & Bar. “A simple summer Spritz now more frequently utilizes esoteric or non-traditional ingredients.” Perkowska’s summer cocktails are often classics to which she’s added an original, unexpected element. Her Cruel Summer ($15) is a Gimlet riff featuring sugar snap pea-infused Beefeater gin, lime juice, and house-made basil syrup, while her Beach Water ($15) is a Margarita variation comprising Arette Blanco Tequila, lime juice, agave syrup, and a hefty serving of Fee Brothers Rhubarb bitters. At Oddwood, Love’s Last Wood ($13) is a take on the traditionally gin-based Last Word—it mixes Ilegal mezcal, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Green Chartreuse liqueur, Ancho Reyes ancho chile liqueur, and lime juice. His Yerba Santa ($15) is an original recipe that blends Cenote Blanco Tequila, John D. Taylor’s Falernum liqueur, house-made passion fruit syrup, pineapple and lime juices, and basil. “The Yerba Santa is easily a guest favorite this time of year,” Love says. “The passion fruit and pineapple add sweetness and then the falernum and basil bring in some balanced floral notes—it’s verdant meets tropical.”
The Halyard’s Torgove likes to experiment with mixing ingredients that you might not think would go together. “For example, our new Rich and Famous cocktail incorporates simple ingredients like passion fruit and vanilla, but then we milk clarify it, creating a more complex mouth feel and palate experience,” he says. The drink ($16) features 360 Madagascar vanilla vodka, Albariza Manzanilla Sherry, house-made vanilla cordial, acid-adjusted passion fruit juice, and saline solution, then milk is added and after it curdles, is strained out (this is the milk clarification process), and lastly, the drink is topped with Caves Navaran Cava. “I love taking what would be considered a basic, easy cocktail and making it more relevant to our industry and what our guests are currently looking for,” Torgove adds. “Although milk clarification has been done for a very long time—since the early days of milk punches—it’s also a trend in the industry right now.” His Love at Midnight ($16) is a take on the Piña Colada that’s also milk clarified, comprising El Dorago 8-year-old rum, Clément Mahina Coco rhum agricole, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, Demerara simple syrup, lime juice, and acid-adjusted pineapple juice that’s been juiced at a high speed to aerate it and make it “fluffy.”
At The Bristol, Shaum enjoys finding new esoteric flavor combinations and notes that his current favorite is Yellow Chartreuse liqueur and black summer truffles. His Summer Truffles cocktail ($50) features a base of Fukucho Moon on the Water Junami Ginjo sake, Yellow Chartreuse, Barr Hill Tom Cat gin, saline, house-made Rare Tea Cellar Emperor’s Osmanthus Oolong tea tincture, house-made Rare Tea Cellar Litchi Noir tea tincture, and Truffe Amère Black Winter Perigold Truffle bitters. The drink is served with a spoonful of shaved black summer truffles that have been topped with a few drops each of house-made Okinawa black sugar syrup and V.E.P. Yellow Chartreuse. “This cocktail progresses you through the evolution of paring truffles with Chartreuse, from savory and edible to sweet and drinkable,” Shaum says. “Is it a little over the top? Absolutely. However, it’s truffles and Chartreuse—this is a cocktail tasting experience that’s meant to pamper your palate and also expand it.”
At Cured in San Antonio, Texas, general manager and beverage director Robert Rodriguez seeks inspiration from locally produced spirits when making drinks. “The summer cocktail landscape has changed dramatically in recent years due to the sheer number of new distilleries opening in any given region,” he says. “It’s very exciting to try new spirits with noticeably different flavor profiles and use them to rework existing combinations or create new pairings altogether.” He adds that sotol is an exciting new spirit for U.S. drinkers and cocktail makers. “It seems that trends are often the recurrence of ancient tradition, and this is certainly true of the sotol produced in West Texas, where hundreds of thousands of sotol plants dot the scenery,” he says. His Porch Sittin’ ($13) features Desert Door Texas sotol, Cocchi Americano aperitif, watermelon and lime juices, and muddled cucumber.
“Bourbon is also a summertime favorite here in Texas, complimenting the smoky sweetness of a summer barbecue,” Rodriguez adds. “I also like to incorporate Texas Wildflower honey in my drinks—honey harvesting a family tradition that I’ve resumed with my own honeybees in Fredericksburg, Texas.” His Far from the Tree ($13) comprises Balcones Texas Pot Still Bourbon, Nonino amaro, Texas Wildflower honey, peach and lemon juices, and house-made orange bitters. “The ingredients we use in our cocktails at Cured conjure up childhood memories of Texas in the summer and are a true celebration of the abundance of produce in Texas Hill Country,” Rodriguez says. “Spending time in Fredericksburg as a child, we enjoyed peaches right off the trees and made hand-churned ice cream and iced sun tea. Hot afternoons were spent snacking on cold watermelons and spitting the seeds off the porch. By incorporating these flavors into my cocktails at Cured, I’m able to share those memories of some of my favorite summer days.”