Call me a terrible lightweight but I’m a little wary of drinking cocktails when the sun is out. A good summer drink should be like a relaxing soak in the pool but the sort of cocktails I love, Martinis, Manhattans etc, are all about a sharp injection of alcohol into the system, a sharp injection which can quickly turn to drowsiness or even irritability on a hot day. The fact that most cocktails need to be drunk quickly so that they don’t warm up or become dilute compounds the problem. Therefore what is needed during the summer is a drink that can take a little dilution from the ice melting and won’t get you drunk too quickly.
Take the Negroni, for example. I was introduced to this drink by my late Uncle Peter. One summer he invited me for lunch at his club, Boodles. I said I’d take an hour off for lunch and he replied, nonsense boy we won’t even have started eating by then. We began in the bar with a couple of Negronis each – Campari, gin, red vermouth in equal measure with ice and a slice of orange. Then we had a bottle of Sancerre with our smoked eel followed by claret. I forget what we ate with the claret. Afterwards I think there may have been Green Chatreuse followed by a sleep. The Negroni has since become a firm favourite of mine but I find it much too strong for outdoor drinking.
Thankfully there exists something called a Negroni Sbagliato – literally wrong Negroni – where you substitute the gin for Prosecco. Instantly the alcohol level is halved and you have a drink that you can have a bucketful of when the sun comes out. My wife works a similar kind of magic with that old Southern States classic, the Mint Julep – she’s from California but her heart is in pre-Civil War South Carolina. Her Julep contains two shots of bourbon, one and a half of lemon juice (heretical apparently) and one of sugar syrup. You muddle them all in a highball glass with lots of ice and mint and then, here’s the clever bit, top up with sparkling water. This means that you’ll have a cool head in case the Yankees try anything sneaky.
There is one summer cocktail, however, that you must take the opposite approach with, Pimm’s. Is it my imagination or does Pimm’s get weaker every year? Certainly the way it’s served in British pubs with all that fruit and lemonade means that it’s only a notch above a shandy. I’d be happy serving it to children. In order to turn it into a drink for adults it needs a little stiffening up. For each serving of Pimm’s add a shot of strong gin such an Tanqueray Ten, you really want to taste the juniper and feel the alcohol, then top it up with not lemonade but ginger ale. Serve in pewter tankards with ice, mint and orange. That’s how my Uncle Peter used to order it in Boodles.
This originally appeared in the Spectator magazine.