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Elevate Your Cocktails With Summer Fruit

Ballard Lesemann is the bar manager of Five & Ten. Credit: Jessica Mickey

The summer season provides a fantastic opportunity to get creative with classic drinks and spirits, especially when using seasonal ingredients and out-of-the-ordinary spirits. As one can feel, Athens has transitioned from spring to summer, and the muggy Classic City heat will linger well into early autumn. For the cocktail enthusiast hoping to stir and shake some refined refreshment and thirst-quenching rejuvenation, fresh is absolutely the best. 

Summer harvests in Georgia bring a variety of berries, citrus, melons and herbs, and learning to utilize and experiment with fresh ingredients in cocktail recipes can be quite rewarding. Enhance a margarita with muddled blueberries and honey; enrich a Bellini with lightly grilled and pureed peaches; amp up a daiquiri with homemade basil or rosemary syrup; electrify a Brazilian caipirinha with fresh blackberries and lemon bitters.

Only a few years ago, most bars tended to mix most of their cocktails with generic, plastic-bottled mixers, neon-colored syrups and canned juices—pre-made stuff packed with artificial flavors, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup. Fortunately, the best bars around town these days avoid the dull, store-bought stuff and bring their classic cocktails to life with freshly squeezed lime, lemon, orange and grapefruit juices, among others. Imagine a classic mimosa, mojito or margarita made with juice from a paper carton and a sugary mix. Now imagine those drinks made with freshly squeezed juices, house-made syrups and crisp garnishes—all carefully balanced by your own portion preferences.

For the home bartender without access to a commercial-grade mechanical citrus press or electric press, the hand-held citrus press comes in most handy. Squeezing plump fruit with smooth skin and a bit of weight yields the best results. These bar tools work best with halved lemons, limes and oranges and quartered grapefruits.

Taking it a step further, incorporating fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables with purees, compound syrups, specialty bitters and teas can effectively enhance classic cocktails and create new recipes. Consider a bright-red hibiscus tea with raw cane sugar, using a half-ounce in a whiskey sour or a margarita. A squeeze of pureed honeydew melon goes well in a gin fizz. Muddled cucumber, thyme, sour cherries and lemon wedges intensify a Pimm’s cup. Fresh strawberry happily embraces fresh mint, rosemary or basil in just about anything.

Another fun and simple approach to playing around with summer cocktails is to swap one base spirit for another in a classic recipe, especially an exotic, rarely used spirit or liqueur. It can be something simple like substituting smoky mezcal for tequila in a margarita or paloma, grassy cachaça from Brazil for silver rum in a traditional daiquiri, Dutch genever for dry gin in an elegant French 75, or blood orange juice for your usual orange juice in a screwdriver. Adjusting a summer cocktail recipe to include a bit of bitter amaro (like Campari, Montenegro, Averna or Fernet Branca) will certainly wake up new flavors and textures in a drink. Try out a dark and stormy with a dash of your favorite bitter amaro and a splash of freshly squeezed lime juice. 

Jotting down your measurements and methods as you test out new recipes and experiment with classics is always a good habit. With such an abundance of fresh summer produce, you’ll be glad you documented every step.

Red Devil

1.5 oz Cimarrón Blanco tequila

.5 oz Ancho Reyes chili liqueur

.5 oz Cointreau

.25 Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur

.5 oz sweetened hibiscus tea

.75 oz lime juice

.25 oz simple syrup

1 dash Angostura bitters

Build in mixing tin, shake with ice. Double strain into a tall rocks glass with fresh ice. Salt rim optional.

Garnish with lime wedge. 

Watermelon-Basil Gin & Tonic

2 oz Beefeater gin

1 oz watermelon puree

.25 oz fresh lime juice

.25 oz Green Chartreuse 

2 basil leaves

2 oz. Fever Tree tonic water

Build in a shaker tin with all ingredients except for tonic water.

Shake well and double strain over fresh ice in a large wine glass.

Top with 3 ounces of tonic water.

Garnish with two thin lemon wheels and a sprig of fresh basil.