As the oppressive heat of summer approaches, home bartenders are advised to plan ahead: Stock the bar, make sure the ice machine is working and maybe even batch up a few special concoctions, just in case. Good cocktails shouldn’t be hard to make, and with a little planning, it’s simple to have scratch-made syrups and any number of other ingredients handy should an unexpected guest arrive in need of something strong. A couple of Asheville’s finest bartenders offer their tips for great cocktails for the season.
When stocking for summer, it doesn’t take a hundred bottles or a stack of cash to create a flexible, functioning home bar. It’s actually quite easy to make do with just a handful of basic items. One important point to remember: It is always good to have a wide spread of spirits on hand — not all brown and not all clear — as your guests are sure to have varied tastes. Simple components like an affordable gin and a quaffable bourbon provide a great deal of flexibility, and you can add tequilas, rums or even brandy as your budget and preferences allow. Even though I don’t drink it, there’s also usually a bottle of vodka in my freezer just in case a persnickety visitor should find himself parched and craving that particular tipple.
For the summer, in addition to standard club sodas, tonics and lengtheners, think of lighter liqueurs as mixers. Top of the Monk’s Kala Brooks‘ suggested cocktail (see sidebar) uses Lillet Rose, a bright and summery infused wine. Other handy seasonal mixers are St. Germaine elderflower liqueur, Aperol for those in the mood for something bitter or Domaine de Canton, a French ginger liqueur.
Simple syrups are another great ingredient — one that is easy to make and will keep in the fridge for a week or two. To make a basic simple syrup, add one cup of raw demerara sugar to a pot with one cup of water, bring to a boil, then simmer until the sugar is fully dissolved. To make the tea syrup required for the Welcome Mat cocktail (see sidebar), substitute the cup of water for one cup of brewed black tea, add some mint leaves just after the sugar dissolves, and allow it to steep for several minutes before straining into a flip-top or squeeze bottle. If it doesn’t taste as potent as you’d like (though do err on the side of subtlety), try making 2 cups worth of tea and reduce it by half before adding equal parts sugar. This mint tea syrup also makes a great sweetener for iced tea.
For Brooks’ rosemary-lavender syrup, heat 1 cup of agave sweetener, 1/4 cup of water, 3 tablespoons of lavender flowers and a 1/4 cup of rosemary; steep then strain into a container.
For his proffered tipple (see sidebar), Buxton Hall Barbecue bartender Kyle Beach uses fresh fruit preserves, which can be homemade or store-bought. “With the Summer Smash, we rotate between a grapefruit and orange preserve and a strawberry preserve as the season emerges,” he explains. “Cutting the base spirit with vermouth — or bonal, as we do at the restaurant — makes the drink a little lighter and makes it feel more seasonally appropriate, as does the crushed ice.” For the ice, Beach has a hot tip: “I recommend picking up a bag of pebble ice from Sonic [drive-in]. “It cost $2 a bag and works very consistently in cocktails calling for crushed ice.”