What do you imagine when you think of summer drinks? For a certain generation it might be Hi-C and the “bug juice” you drank at sleepaway camp—then, years later, it’s frozen strawberry daiquiris (and shoulder pads, of course). The sweetness is what we remember, but summer drinks can be so much more. Think of your favorite summer tastes—mint, berries, basil, melon, rosemary, cucumber, lavender, or thyme—and imagine them in an elixir of your making. You don’t have to be a mixologist to make a unique and delicious drink tailored to your taste buds.
While sweetness is desirable, it shouldn’t take over a drink’s flavor. This isn’t just a grownup thing: give my ten-year-old son a choice between super-sweet lemonade and one that’s only a bit sugary and has verbena and lavender added to it, and he’ll always take the latter. I have always been drawn to savory drinks, even when I didn’t know to call them that. One of the most memorable cocktails I ever had was on a sultry June evening at a little place in Los Angeles. It was basically a gin martini, but with fresh muddled dill and just a hint of lime. Oy. One of those why-didn’t-I-think-of-that drinks.
I can’t say enough about using fresh herbs in drinks—alcoholic or not. Chopped and muddled mint adds freshness and clarity to almost any drink. “Muddling” is basically combining raw ingredients in the bottom of a glass by crushing them together, pretty much like a mortar and pestle. Muddlers can be purchased at many kitchen and bar supply stores. If you don’t have a muddler in your kitchen, the handle of a wooden spoon or a mini-whisk (and a bit of elbow grease) will do just fine. Here’s a simple muddled sparkling water that my six-year-old son loves. This is a great alternative if you’re craving soda.
Mint-Lime Sparkling Water
In a pint glass, muddle 5–10 mint leaves with the juice of a lime (more or less to taste). Add crushed ice, sparkling water, and a mint sprig for garnish.
For more complex mixes, there is one essential ingredient, whose name says it all: simple syrup. You know why it’s simple? Because it’s just sugar and water! But add mint, rosemary, sage, or basil, and all of a sudden you have a beverage addition worthy of alchemists.
Simple syrup is, well, simple to make: add equal parts sugar and water to a deep saucepan, and cook—stirring constantly—over a medium flame until the sugar dissolves, then remove from heat and let cool before using. It replaces sugar in any drink recipe and blends quickly so it’s easier to control your desired level of sweetness.
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
Place ingredients in deep saucepan over medium flame and stir constantly until sugar dissolves. Remove from heat and let cool before using.
Herb Infused Simple Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 small handful of herbs, whole spices, or flavoring of choice (rosemary, sage, basil, mint, cardamom pods, whole cloves or peppercorns, sliced ginger, citrus peel, lemon grass, etc.)
Place ingredients in deep saucepan over medium flame and stir constantly until sugar dissolves. Reduce flame to low and continue stirring another 10 minutes. While the syrup cooks, it becomes saturated with the heavenly aspects of the herbs or other additions. Remove from heat, strain, and let syrup cool before using.
Storage: Refrigerate simple syrup in an airtight container. Will keep for 2 weeks.
Some of my favorites:
- Citron Pressé: Make French-style lemonade by serving the juice of one lemon in a glass with ice, a pitcher of cold water, and a small pitcher of simple syrup. Guests can add water and syrup to their taste. Garnish with thin lemon slice or mint sprig.
- Tuscan-Style Lemonade: Use rosemary simple syrup in place of simple syrup as in Citron Pressé.
- Watermelon Agua Fresca: Fill a blender with 2 cups of chopped watermelon, 2 cups of water, the juice of half a lime, and 2 tablespoons of basil-infused simple syrup. Pulse gently, strain, and serve chilled.
- Virgin Highball Cocktail: In a highball glass, pour 3 ounces of mango, peach, or tart cherry juice over ice. Add about ½ tablespoon of basil simple syrup (or more to taste). Stir well, top with sparkling water and basil garnish.
Experiment. Line up your favorite fruits, veggies, herbs, etc., visualize the flavor combinations you love, and start mixing. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you hit on a new summer favorite.