I read an interesting article the other day on the Los Angeles Times website, about how clear spirits are the trend in Southern California at the moment. The article talks about ‘light drinks for sunny days, meant to refresh’ and goes on to say that ‘clear spirits often get the job done better than the dark stuff’. While I totally agree with much of what the article says, especially about treating these clear spirits with a delicate touch to stop them from being overpowered by other ingredients, it also got me thinking about how we often unfairly compartmentalise spirits to be for a certain occasion or time of year. So below are a few thoughts I have about not forgetting ‘the dark stuff’ when it comes to summer drinking.
I should start by saying that I love white Rum, Gin, blanco Tequila, and am even slowly growing fonder of Vodka. But having said that I’m often drawn to the complexities of dark spirits as a base for cocktails as well as for sipping neat. When the sun is shining I’ll admit that a Daiquiri, Margarita or Caipirinha are great thirst quenchers, or that a refreshing Collins can be hard to beat. But likewise there are some pretty amazing dark spirit drinks that fulfil the same role for me. A Mai Tai, Mint Julep or even a Whiskey Sour are pretty remarkable summertime cocktails.
There’s more to it than simply saying that either dark spirits or light spirits are best for sunshine drinking, it’s never that straight forward. In fact I’m not interested in trying to argue that one is better than the other, as they clearly both have a lot to offer; it’s more about how we approach them as bases for refreshing cocktails, so for this blog update I thought I’d look at what makes dark spirits so versatile when it comes to this style of drinking. I’m not trying to talk you into ordering a Dark ‘n’ Stormy instead of a Gin & Tonic, I’m simply saying don’t push the dark spirits to one side and wait for winter to arrive before you look at them again.
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of classic cocktails, made with dark spirits, which definitely fall into the fair weather cocktail category. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to be in Kentucky on a hot summer day, sipping a Mint Julep, then you already know what I’m talking about (and if you haven’t then I highly recommend it!). And while I can see how the tasting notes of many dark spirits call out to rich, wintery flavours, they likewise can work well when paired with summer ones too.
The Whiskey Sour is a great example of a drink that can be taken in either direction, summer or winter. When made with cinnamon syrup for example, it is a refreshing nod towards open fires and long cold nights. A New York Sour (a whiskey sour with a float of red wine) is another one that definitely pulls the flavour more in the direction of the colder months. But, that being said, add a splash of pineapple juice, or make it with a mixture of orange and lemon juice and the drink is transformed into a thirst quenching summer cocktail to rival any daiquiri.
Perhaps the clearest examples though, of dark spirits being ideal for summer drinks, comes from sugar cane spirits. Rum in all its various forms simply calls out to be used in tropical drinks. While white Rums, Cachaca and Rhum Agricole, which seem to have lime juice and sugar thrown at them 90% of the time, Golden and Dark Rums also have their part to play too. As I mentioned earlier, a well made Mai Tai on a sunny day not only quenches your thirst but also delivers bags of flavour, and anyone who forgets the simple delights of a Dark ‘n’ Stormy when the sun is shining is missing out on one of my favourite summertime drinking experiences.
There’s no doubt in my mind that these classic summertime drinks, using dark spirits, have endured for a reason. So don’t relegate Whiskey, Golden Rum and Brandy to the dark days of winter, celebrate them while the sun is shining too!
I think the key thing that the article from the LA Times got me thinking about was how we treat different spirits when it comes to cocktails. It’s true that if you want a really light and delicate drink, the white spirits are the obvious way to go. The problem with that though is that many of the flavours I associate with summer, such as mango, passion fruit, strawberries or pineapple, can easily overpower a more delicate spirit. This to me is where ‘the dark stuff’ comes into its own.
To generalize, dark spirits have more depth of flavour, often with wood notes, vanilla and spice coming to the forefront, so it’s easy to see how they call out for winter drinking. But this depth of flavour is also to their advantage when being used alongside intensely flavoured ingredients. Use passion fruit in a Vodka drink and you’ll struggle to find the base spirit. However do the same with a robust Golden Rum and the two will both play their part in the cocktail. Obviously it comes down to what you are trying to achieve with the cocktail you are mixing, but when using strongly flavoured fruits and liqueurs, many times it’s the dark spirits that can stand up to them best.
Another thing that I always think about in the summer is dilution. A delicate drink, served long, over ice can easily become so watered down on a hot day that the enjoyment of drinking it is lost. For me a drink should improve as it is sipped, not fade away leaving you with lightly flavoured water. So with white spirits I often turn to the straight up drinks such as a Hemingway Daiquiri to ensure I enjoy every sip, but with dark spirits I find many drinks can handle the diluting effects of melting ice.
Of course there are exceptions to all rules and both styles of spirit can work well served long or straight up, but it’s something to think about when coming up with new summertime cocktails. The more robust the flavours of the base spirit, the stronger the ingredients you can throw at it and the better it will stand up to dilution.
As far as I’m concerned the beauty of summer cocktails is that they are often simple drinks to prepare, with just a few refreshing ingredients quickly shaken together or built in the glass they will be served in. This simple approach makes them perfect for home drinking as well as for serving in a bar, and they can often be made without the need for specialist equipment. So taking that as my lead, below you will find three refreshing cocktails celebrating dark spirits, but in a way that makes them perfect for sunny days.
First off I wanted to use Golden Rum in a long drink that could be thrown together quickly and easily, but would still deliver plenty of flavour, while still quenching your thirst. Elements 8 Gold Rum is an old favourite that for some reason I forget to play with as often as I should. Taking a sip to remind myself of what I love about this rum, reminded me that while it has beautiful dried raisin, apricot and prune aromas, there is also a woody dry note that makes it not too rich or cloying. This balance of intense flavours, but with a lovely dry lingering finish makes it perfect as the backbone of a refreshing summer cocktail
Of course keeping a drink simple also means that you have nowhere to hide and all the ingredients have to balance properly or the drink just won’t taste right. Wanting to lift the dried fruit notes I thought that peach liqueur might work, without overpowering the rum. A few minutes later with a bit of experimenting I had a drink so refreshing on my hands that I had to step out into the garden and drink it in the sun. Just as I was thinking that what the drink really needed was an aromatic garnish, I noticed that my thyme plant was looking rather full after all the recent rain, and next thing you know I had a drink that was simple, refreshing, but with an aromatic aroma that somehow complemented it perfectly.
40ml Elements 8 Gold Rum
20ml Merlet crème de peche
20ml lemon juice
Pour the first three ingredients into a highball glass filled with cubed ice and give it a good stir to mix the ingredients. Top with soda water and stir once more, before garnishing with a slice or two of peach and a sprig of fresh thyme. Put your sunglasses on and go out into the sunshine to enjoy!
Drinks don’t get much simpler to mix than that, but as with all good cocktails, the finished specimen is greater than the sum of it’s parts. This simplicity is important to me when it comes to summer drinking as the more time I spend sitting in the sun and the less time spent preparing drinks, the better. While the next drink has a few more ingredients it is still quick to prepare as well as easy to drink.
For the second cocktail I drafted in help from a good friend, Paul Bradley, the Head Bartender at London’s Reunion Bar in the Grosvenor Hotel. When I told him I was looking for refreshing cocktails using dark spirits he dug out an old favourite of his, a Cognac based cocktail he created for Jean-Marc Olivier, the Master Blender at Courvoisier. When he let slip to Paul that he likes to drink Cognac and soda, Paul set to give him something equally refreshing but with a lot more character. Once again a small number of light ingredients come together to lift the base spirit, making it amazingly refreshing, but still full of character.
50ml Courvoisier Exclusif
25ml St Germain Elderflower liqueur
25ml lemon juice
8 mint leaves
1 dash of orange bitters
Soda water top
Add all the ingredients other than the soda to a sling glass and ¾ fill with crushed ice, before churning thoroughly to bruise the mint, mix the ingredients and chill. Top with more crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint and an orange twist.
The Cognac shines through perfectly in this drink, but the rich and spicy character is lifted by the floral notes of elderflower and clean, sharp lemon. A lighter spirit would be lost in a drink such as this, but the Cognac acts as a backbone, giving it structure and depth through which the other ingredients can shine without dominating.
So with Rum and Cognac ticked off the list, my nexytchoice (of course) was Bourbon. I also thought that I should try to incorporate some lovely tropical flavours to help create a rocks drink that wasn’t simply a variation on a sour. I’ve used Four Roses Yellow Label, as it’s gentle and smooth, and allows some of the more subtle ingredients to still come through.
Turning to more exotic flavours, I opted for a Thai inspired flavour profile, making use of lychee and lemongrass to lift the bourbon away from cold weather drinks and firmly into summer. While lychee is a delicate flavour, I find it delivers as a subtle almost floral aroma and seems to linger as an aftertaste even when used alongside a more powerful base spirit. I was going to give this cocktail the most cheesy name I could think of, something along the lines of Ken-Thai-Ky Cooler, but actually it tastes so good it deserves better!
40ml Four Roses Yellow Label
4 ripe lychees
15ml lemon juice
2-inch piece of lemongrass
Ginger ale top
Peel the lychees and muddle them with the lemongrass, before adding the Bourbon, lemon juice and gomme. Add plenty of cubed ice to your shake and shake well, before fine straining into a rocks glass filled with cubed ice. Top with a small splash of ginger ale and garnish with a lemon twist and a lychee. This is another one that requires you to be sitting in the sun as you sip it!
So while I wouldn’t for one second argue with the LA Times article that inspired this blog update, I would say that it’s not just the white spirits that come into their own when the days get warmer. Give dark spirits a chance this summer and you won’t regret it!