Summer drink-making is enhanced by developing a sense for where you can improvise
“The good is the enemy of the best.” The late Irma Rombauer-Becker repeated this claim, attributed to “the French,” in her doting introduction to the mint julep in The Joy of Cooking. It’s the book I’d carry to that desert island of legend where you’re allowed to bring only one book, and even in an era blessed with many good books on cocktails, it’s where I turn for the non-nonsense scoop on classic and classy adult beverages.
Newer editions don’t dwell on the finer points of alcoholic beverages, so skip to any pre-1997 version for sound advice on party libations—including how large a batch of punch you need and the quaint suggestion made to Cold War-era hostesses that tequila is too strange a taste to ever hope to catch on the United States. (Ha!)
Here’s my time-tested, quality-assured method for cooling off guests this summer:
You gotta have one. Summer won’t be as good without a blender. Spend enough on voltage that you can crush ice easily, frequently and without fear of killing the motor. A decent food processor works fine, too.
Here’s the trick: Keep enough ice in the freezer, so you can whip up blender drinks to feed a crowd, but don’t store so much that it lasts too long and begins to taste like last year’s frozen corn dogs. It’s an act of advanced party-planning finesse to keep a handle on just the right amount, but should you fail, don’t worry for a second. Just go to the store and get some.
Just keep buying watermelon all summer. If there’s too much in the fridge and it’s about to rot, that’s good. As long as you catch it before it does rot, cut it into chunks and put them in the freezer. Now you have watermelon that is also ice. Same goes for peaches, bananas, strawberries … you get the idea. Any fruit that hasn’t yet reached its last hours of expiration can be magically transformed by that large, boxy appliance into an ingredient that makes you look like a really savvy bartender later.
This is easy. Vodka, rum, tequila—really, any distilled grain (or cactus) will do, and for these particular fruit-dependent concoctions, the cheap stuff works fine. (Except in the case of the coveted mint julep, of course, in which case you really do want to spring for good bourbon, lest poor Irma roll in that grave while you sit disappointed, thinking that sweet, slushy glass of mintiness is not a bad snack, but really, it could be better.)
If you’re prepared with the blender, ice and frozen fruit, and you haven’t already intuited this part, here’s the step-by-step rundown. Fill blender about two-thirds full of ice. Remember, frozen fruit counts as ice. Add alcohol. The power is in your hands here to prepare a gently spiked afternoon refreshment or a get-this-party-started buzz bomb. Your call. Add something sweet. Bananas or berries are always appropriate, frozen or not. Juice works well, and syrupy accents like triple sec or flavored brandy combine nicely with just about anything. As a general rule, when in doubt, go heavy on the watermelon.
Your smarter blenders will have an “ice crush” speed. Use that, or whatever is your most powerful setting. Blend till slushy. Anticipate. Taste. While tasting, consider sweetness, tartness and slushiness. Adjust the flavor balance by adding fruit, lemon or lime, a little sugar or all three. Perfect the texture by throwing in more juice, more “juice,” or a handful of ice. Keep in mind that slushiness changes rapidly on the more sweltering July days, so aim for slightly solid. By the time the mixtures hit the outdoor table, they should be just right.
For committed mixers— the mint julep
Now, the answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s mind for years: What is a mint julep, anyway? We all know it’s somehow associated with the Kentucky Derby and has something to do with Southerners in wide-brimmed hats on shady porches trying to fend off swamp-like humidity. Here’s the rest of the story: It’s a splendorous combination of bourbon and sugar syrup infused with fresh mint over crushed ice. It’s sublime and potent enough to make you forget the Georgia humidity. Two and you could forget the flies and the politics.
As opposed to the forgiving nature of the whatever-you-have-on-hand blender mixtures, the julep really does require quality ingredients and a commitment to precise technique. There are hundreds of “authorities” on the subject, but Irma’s well-thought drink snobbery has never steered me wrong.