Cocktail Culture: Warm Weather Classics
The warm weather is mercifully on its way, and it is at times like this that many an Iowan’s thoughts might turn to beer. There are, however, more refreshing libations to be had. They come from the world of cocktails, and they come with all the history, tradition and lore of the best brews. There are of course dozens of cocktails that would fit the bill on some hot summer afternoon on your patio, but we shall concentrate on just five.
The first of these archetypal summer sippers got its start as medicine some 50 years before it was considered a posh cocktail by anyone. Gin, a juniper-flavored distillate itself originally created for medicinal purposes, was popularly mixed with quinine water by British soldiers in India to smooth the quinine’s bitter flavors.
Quinine, in turn, had been invented in 1858 and quickly popularized for its ability to ward of malaria among Her Majesty’s troops in the tropics. When it arrived in more temperate zones, like the bars of London and New York, it got dressed up with ice and lime wedge, served in a highball, and the classic Gin & Tonic was born.
The next is a cousin to the G&T, and although people will argue as to whether to use gin or vodka (or I’ve even heard rum!) in a Tom Collins, it is fairly well documented that the original cocktail was made from a sweet gin that is no longer available called “Old Tom,” from which the drink also apparently took its name.
Although now made with dry gin, it is sweetened with simple syrup (equal parts by volume of sugar dissolved in water and briefly boiled), and mixed with lemon juice before being poured over ice and topped with club soda. For a more refreshing (though more complicated) version, refer to the recipes below.
Bacardi Light Rum is the number one selling distilled beverage in the world, and there is a reason for that. When Don Facundo Bacardi Massó invented the world’s first light (clear and colorless) rum in 1862, his method of distilling five times then charcoal filtering and oak mellowing would create a beverage high in alcohol, but so light and smooth that nearly everyone could enjoy it. After the Spanish-American war, revelers celebrated their independence from Spain by drinking a concoction called the “Cuba Libre” – now the single most popular cocktail on the planet – and today referred to simply by its ingredients, Rum & Coke. Purists will emphasize that it must be Bacardi light rum (not Myers or Captain Morgan) and it must be Coca-Cola (not Pepsi or RC).
Quickly gaining on the Rum & Coke in popularity, especially among the 20-something set, is the favorite cocktail of Ernest Hemingway during his storied days in old Havana. The Mojito is one of those cocktails that people obsess over, argue about, and everyone seems to know the bar the makes the best one. Some things are sure though. Ingredients should include light dry rum (never dark), spearmint – what the Cubans call yerba buena, not peppermint – and sugar, not simple syrup. The granulated sugar aids in the process called “muddling,” in which ingredients are crushed together in a glass using a tool that resembles a small baseball bat (see the recipe, below).
One last popular warm weather refresher is the Margarita, and this is the one that I tend to get very picky about. It’s history is quite disputed as well, having been credited to a Mexican Hotel manager in 1936; a Jose Cuervo distributor and his bartender buddy in L.A. in the ‘50s; a San Antonio Socialite named Margarita Sames who claimed that she didn’t like weak drinks or weak men; a taco bar owner in Taxco, Mexico; and Danny Herrera, then manager of the Ranch La Gloria in Tijuana in 1948.
Regardless of who invented it, there can be no doubt that in order for it to truly be a Margarita, it must be made high quality tequila such as Patrón or Herradura Ligero, it must be made with real, fresh lime juice (never with sour mix) and it must be served on the rocks. The salt on the rim is quite tasty, but optional. Cheap tequila will show through both in the flavor and the next morning, and a fine orange liqueur like Grand Marnier will taste better than ordinary triple sec.
Any of these would make a cool, bracing alternative to the same old light beer or wine cooler while gathered around the grill on your next hot summer Sunday.