Bright, fragrant, fruity libations with delicate shards of ice—presented with theatrical flair and finesse to conjure memories of sand, surf, and romance.
Rare is the night I turn down a proper Old Fashioned, sultry Sazerac, or fetchingly hued Negroni. There are few better ways to end an evening than with one of these silky, stirred, often a tad boozy, cocktails. Of course there’s no going back to drinking Champagne once one of these heady beauties is savored, so to me a bold, stirred drink signifies a timeless nightcap. But when summer strikes, it’s those bright, fragrant libations unleashed from cocktail shakers that I find most satisfying.
Consider the Piña Colada. Could there be a drink more emblematic of infinite sand and sunshine than this favorite marrying rum, pineapple juice, and cream of coconut—especially when fresh, quality ingredients are embraced instead of too-cloying ones? Or what about the beautifully layered Queen’s Park Swizzle, with its swirl of rum, mint, and bitters? That glass, filled with a tower of crushed ice, satisfies like none other on the most stifling of evenings.
I’m not the only one who equates the season of barbecues and patio sipping with crisp, shaken creations.
“I love the way a shaken cocktail perfectly blends the ingredients and introduces air to create a wonderful effervescence. Nothing says summer like a freezing cold Tommy’s Margarita or classic Daiquiri with a little Rhum Agricole added,” says Kenny Hanlon, bartender at the restaurant Kindred, in Davidson, North Carolina. “We make our own grenadine, so a Scofflaw is a great concoction, too.”
While many imbibers shy away from brown spirits when the temperatures spike, I love them year-round—although the Mint Julep, served in a frosty silver cup, beckons amid the heat far more than a Boulevardier. Therefore, the aforementioned shaken Scofflaw, with dry vermouth, lemon juice, and orange bitters, is a perfect way to relish whiskey in the hottest of seasons.
Anthony Bohlinger, head bartender at Chefs Club by Food & Wine, in New York City, also gravitates toward shaken cocktails come summertime. “They are more alive because of the oxygen and bubbles. They are also generally more aromatic. When I think about shaken cocktails, I visualize lighter drinks, even if they are spirit-forward. They are usually more refreshing,” he says.
The Gimlet is certainly one of the most quenching, and that’s why this classic gin and lime tipple is what Bohlinger is particularly smitten with this year. And, it’s one of my favorites as well—either because of its cool, bracing simplicity, even in the doldrums of winter, or perhaps because of its power to rejuvenate. Bohlinger is tinkering with different versions of the drink, including the Puck, uniting pear, bourbon, pepper, and sweet bee pollen.
Summer fruits and shrubs are also part of Bohlinger’s seasonal repertoire, and if you’re as keen on these vinegar-based elixirs as I am—along with many an experimental bartender—I highly recommend delving into Michael Dietsch’s riveting Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times.
At French-Japanese restaurant Bara, in New York’s East Village, beverage director Kyle Storm also fancies the Gimlet, and has dreamed up one embracing gin with Middle Eastern anise-flavored Arak and tarragon bitters. “It’s the perfect summer drink. Everyone keeps telling me it reminds them of home,” he points out. Interestingly, he adds that there is no stirred equivalent for the Gimlet or other prevalent bar calls such as the always-craved Margarita. “There is just something thirst-quenching about a shaken drink. Everyone loves sitting back and enjoying them on a hot summer day,” he says.
Beyond coming to the rescue of humid nights, shaken cocktails—no offense to the elegant bar spoons that make magic out of stirred renditions—also lend a certain sense of theater to the bar. Hearing the rhythm of ice and liquid rolling around in a vacuum-sealed vessel and watching a bartender vigorously shake remains a downright hypnotizing sight for bar-goers. Storm is also a fan of the showmanship behind shaken cocktails. “In terms of presentation, it’s so much fun. Shaking a drink at a bar lets people know they’re in a lively atmosphere, and makes for a convivial experience,” he says.
Chemistry was never my strong suit in high school, but now that I’m no longer forced to balance equations and pretend I know B stands for Boron, I find a certain thrill in the science that so integrally intertwines with the art of drink making. “When you shake a drink you’re waking up the citrus and acid in it. This is something you just can’t get any other way,” Storm explains. “Also, when you’re shaking a drink you’re chipping microscopic pieces of ice, therefore changing the texture.”
Josh Renfree, bar manager at BOA Steakhouse, in West Hollywood, California, also appreciates the science behind shaking. “I like shaken drinks mainly because if you’re using a few different ingredients and you shake it properly, you almost macerate them together, and everything combines really well. Shaking can also help smooth out the cocktail if you’re using highly acidic flavors, or flavors that change when they are chilled,” he explains. “When I teach my staff to shake a drink, I teach them to shake it really hard and thoroughly so that the ice breaks up a bit. Whereas most cocktails now are double strained so you don’t get any ice chips, I don’t mind that so much. I like the little ice crystals that cling to the edges. It reminds me of a blended drink, which has that summer feel to it.”
The gorgeously textured drink the shaker elicits—that balanced, frothy sum of the ice, spirit, citrus, and other ingredients all seamlessly integrated by a bartender’s skilled shake that is then poured into a waiting glass—remains a marvel for patrons no matter how many times they have witnessed the ritual.
And while a steakhouse is normally the domain of straightforward martinis and Manhattans—the natural prelude to a classic ribeye and creamed spinach—Renfree is steering away from that tradition this summer. Instead, he is exploring more alluringly tropical terrain and tapping into an escalating interest in transporting vintage rum drinks. I, for one, am excited to see that superior bottles of this sugarcane-distilled spirit are commonly found in the spotlight now. I enjoy sipping on smooth aged rum, of course, but it also means, especially in the summer, there is a resurgence of tiki drinks, including top-notch Mai Tais (made with real orgeat, please), and delightful communal punches as a result.
“We have a version of a Hemingway Daiquiri called Winter in the Keys—it’s rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit, and lime—that I’m very much excited about,” says Renfree. “Also, shrubs are so popular right now that I’m playing around with a raspberry one, which—when shaken strongly—can make a great cocktail.”
Indeed. A Rob Roy is a lovely cocktail, and it should be ordered no matter the forecast. But summer, hopefully a barrage of cheerful, hedonistic days, is just the right time for guests to kick back and watch barkeeps make a round of ethereal, revitalizing cocktails they might not know they even need. Shake away!