by Linda Stewart
“Summertime, and the living is easy” when you serve cool, refreshing cocktails. Inspired by summer’s bounty and the farm-to-table movement (or field-to-drink), the cocktails for this column are light, fruity, and herbaceous, with just a hint of sweetness. The alcohols selected are also light and herbaceous – gin and vodka.
When I think of summer, strawberries from the local farm stand and basil from my herb garden immediately come to mind. These flavors go well with the botanicals of juniper berries, coriander, and citrus peel found in gin. For most mixed drinks with several flavorful ingredients, I prefer to use a classic London dry gin, such as Beefeater, Tanqueray, or Bombay Sapphire. These particular dry gins have a substantial juniper base, but are light on additional aromatics. I especially enjoy Bombay Sapphire’s slight hint of ginger that comes from the melegueta spice (also known as grains of paradise). Although the London dry gins also make good classic martinis, the depth of flavor from the more aromatic forward gins, such as Hendricks and Tanqueray Ten, are especially good choices to use in drinks where the gin predominates (dry martinis, tonics).
When adding a sweetener to contrast with the tartness from fresh lime or lemon juice, I usually choose agave nectar for convenience. However, simple syrup is easy to make and keep on hand.
Making simple syrup is easy: Combine 1 cup of sugar with 1 cup of water in a medium saucepan. Bring mixture to a boil, and then reduce heat to simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved. Allow syrup to cool to room temperature. If poured into a container with a tight lid and kept in the refrigerator, it will last for a couple of months. This ratio of sugar to water of 1:1 is the one most commonly used in cocktails, although some mixologists prefer a “rich” simple syrup, which is double the sugar for a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water. I prefer the 1:1 ratio, but this is merely a personal preference.
Strawberry Basil Gimlet:
3 fresh strawberries, sliced in half
2 large basil leaves, torn in half
1 Tbs. fresh lime juice
1 tsp. agave nectar (or simple syrup)
1 tsp. lime zest
2 oz. gin
Place strawberries and lime juice, in a cocktail shaker. Using a muddler, mix and muddle the strawberries until completely juiced. Add torn basil and muddle lightly, just until oil from the basil is released. Add gin, agave, and zest, then fill cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a couple of basil leaves and a strawberry. Makes one serving. Optional: rub a cut lime around glass rim and dip the rim in superfine sugar.
With Bartlett pears (both green and red) starting to ripen at the peak of summer, and a September bounty of ripening Anjou, Bosc, and Comice pears, all of which continue to be available thorough the winter, a fresh seasonal pear martini, or “peartini,” can be enjoyed over several months. Pears come in an alluring array of flavors and textures, so selection depends on personal taste.
Although vodka has a reputation for being a “neutral spirit,” variations do occur depending on the distillation process. For mixed vodka drinks, I like to use a quality, medium-priced vodka, such as Stolichnaya or Absolut, saving Grey Goose and Chopin for classic vodka martinis and “on the rocks” drinks. For the following pear martini recipe, I have included apple juice, which adds a slight complexity and subtle sweetness to the drink, and fresh mint, which gives the martini an herbaceous quality. Select ripe pears for the best flavor.
1 large ripe pear, peeled and cut into quarters (cut two thin slices before peeling for garnish)
3 oz. vodka
1 oz. apple juice
1 Tbs. lemon juice
1 tsp. agave nectar (or simple syrup)
1 large or 2 small mint leaves
Sprig of mint (for additional garnish)
Place the above ingredients (except sprig of mint garnish) into a blender or food processor and puree until smooth. Pour into a cocktail shaker; fill with ice. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds. Pour into two martini glasses and garnish each drink with a slice of pear and a small sprig of mint.