Summer drinking: some suggestions

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

Gin-and-tonic-fb-1The first lecture I got on summer drinking was accompanied by my first real job offer and my first real marriage proposal. All three were delivered by an elderly Sikh man, sitting next to me on a London-Delhi flight. His fondness for me emerged early, when I agreed to ask the air hostess for extra whiskies and pass them onto him; he'd already swallowed three and was cautious about attracting attention. He began by telling me that while he lived in London, he still spent part of the year in Riga, where he used to arrange prostitutes for East Asian businessmen, and he was looking for someone to take his place. Later, after a few more drinks, he asked how old I was (I was 18) and then told me that his daughter needed to get married to a reliable man, and asked me to consider her. Having taken care of these social pleasantries, he spent the next hour or two explaining to me the trouble with drinking in hot weather (makes you feel hotter1), and his theory about the appropriate balances necessary for drinking in the summer. His approach was simple: he drank only whisky and beer in the summer, and he drank only rum and brandy in the winter. He never quite explained to me where this particular seasonal partitioning came from, or whether it was primarily physiological (to balance the humors?) or aesthetic (in case inventing drinking conventions is the only thing that separates us from the beasts)2. But I was left deeply moved, at the very least by his consistency, and I think of him towards the beginning of every summer, especially if I'm transgressing his rules and drinking rum or brandy.

Every curated summer drink list should include some manner of gin and bitters combination, to clarify the senses and lighten the flesh. At the simplest, you could roll bitters around a glass (pop it into the microwave for a few seconds to open up the flavors, if you like), drop in a measure of gin (always make it a generous measure) and top it with ice (crushed, if you're feeling fancy). That suffices, but you could add tonic water and lime or, if you're lucky enough to live in a place where coconut water is readily available, gin and bitters and coconut water is a classical tropical summer drink and the coconut water will keep you suitably hydrated.

Despite the advice of my plane companion, everyone should also have some preferred rum, fruit juice and lime combination in their summer inventory. For a while, mine was rum and sugarcane juice; apart from being utterly delicious, it pleased my sense of order to mix sugarcane juice with fermented and distilled molasses, so disassembling and reimagining sugarcane. Rum and pineapple juice is also classically tropical and with little effort can be turned into a piña colada. Rum with ginger beer and lime (the Dark and Stormy) is also sublime. In all of these, there is a distressing tendency to underestimate the amount of rum required, leaving the drink too sweet. One part rum to several parts of fruit juice is pleasant, but increase the proportion of rum and you will rapidly approach the transcendent.

Summer is also the season for the Negroni and its many permutations and variations. The classical Negroni is an equal triad of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, often with some sort of citrus peel added, and is sweet and bitter and refreshing, with a lovely prickle of juniper. But you should tweak, of course, and more gin makes for a drier and more modern drink. And if you're thinking structurally, the Negroni is a great template to riff off of. You could swap out the ingredients for others in their family, so that Campari can be replaced by Aperol or the sweet vermouth can be swapped for another aperitif wine, and you can even take the gin into brown spirits (bourbon or rye are good choices). You can also replace part or all of the gin with soda water (Americano) or sparkling wine or grapefruit juice. Most of these variations exist and have names, but I can never remember them.

Finally, summer is the perfect time to accumulate a library of syrups. These can be infused with fruits and herbs and the other children of the sun, and then deployed in splashes in cocktails, or added to simple alcohol-and-soda highballs or even just drunk by themselves with ice and soda, like a more complex soft drink.

Simple syrup is a common sweetener for drinks, since sugar doesn't dissolve easily in alcohol, and it is used in a variety of cocktails, from the various Old-Fashioned type cocktails (spirit, bitters and syrup) to the various sours (spirit, citrus and syrup). To make simple syrup, mix sugar with an equal volume of hot or boiling water, stir till it dissolves and let it cool. Once you can do this, the syrup variations are all quite straightforward. At the simplest, you can just add herbs or spices to the mixture of hot water and sugar, let it steep while the sugar dissolves and then strain. A few sprigs of rosemary or thyme is a great way to get started, and so are vanilla beans or cloves or cinnamon for a lusher feel. If you're feeling more elaborate, a few mashed up or chopped figs will make a syrup that transforms a bourbon or brandy sour. You can also steep herbs and fruits in hot water before making the syrup or steep them in simple syrup for several hours, rather than during the heating. Or you can steep them in alcohol for a few hours for more extraction and then mix the alcohol with simple syrup. Vodka or high-proof neutral alcohol is a good choice, but you can do interesting things with brown spirits too. Steeping vanilla beans and figs in brandy for a few hours, then straining and mixing it with simple syrup leads to delicious things. Adding chillis to an alcoholic simple syrup is also surprisingly delicious, though go easy at first.

Of course there are many other, simpler summer drinks that need no assembling: wheat beers, crisp white wines, pastis and the other anise-flavored alcohols, sparkling wines of various sorts. All are wonderful ways of letting hot afternoons fade into long warm evenings and all should be drunk enthusiastically. But it seems a shame to let the aesthetic and imaginative possibilities of summer slip by without trying to capture them in a glass. The making of drinks allows us to evoke both the alchemist and the artist, but much less seriously. And summer evenings are the perfect times to play at making potions, to imagine little ephemera that wander seasonally across the palate and then are gone.

1As we know, alcohol is warming / choleric, creating an excess of yellow bile, and summer drinking must struggle against this. At the very least, summer drinks need to be lighter and contain cooling flavors. Though alcohol only makes you feel warmer and doesn't actually warm you, which is a possible source of philosophical confusion and a subject to be discussed after several drinks.

2We didn't get to finish our conversation. Our flight was diverted to Istanbul when a passenger mistook indigestion for a heart attack. Our passports were taken away for safe-keeping and we were sent to a hotel for a day and a half with strict instructions not to leave. I lost track of my companion and found myself in a room with very little to do. That evening I drank my first (and second and third) anise-flavored alcohol, the beginning of a long series of associations between the ouzos and pastis and rakis of the world and dying summer evenings. When we got back on the flight, we were assigned new seats and I didn't see him again.