Summer buzzin’

SN&R picks Sacramento’s six best seasonal cocktails

Red Lotus bar manager Mark Neuhauser makes a specialty strawberry basil gimlet. Tip: Get it served over a block of ice to make it last longer.

Red Lotus bar manager Mark Neuhauser makes a specialty strawberry basil gimlet. Tip: Get it served over a block of ice to make it last longer.

Photo By Mike Iredale

The court ruling is legendary:

“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description. … But I know it when I see it.”

Justice Potter Stewart was writing about hard-core pornography when he issued that opinion in the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case Jacobellis v. Ohio.

He could have just as easily been talking about summer cocktails.

I recently found myself trying to define the kinds of drinks best to imbibe on a sweltering summer’s afternoon: mai tais and margaritas, Singapore Slings and mojitos, John Dalys and Chambers Punches. But the more I reflected on the topic, the more futile the undertaking seemed to become.

Then it hit me—I don’t know exactly what a “summer cocktail” is, but I know it when I drink it.

In the hopes of finding a more precise definition, I asked around: trusted friends, not-so-trusted friends, bartenders, schoolteachers, scoundrels, ne’er-do-wells, do-wells. Regardless of the source, certain themes kept recurring: lightness, citrus, berry, fizz …

To this basic blueprint, I added one mandate: The venue must have a patio.

What’s the point of a summer cocktail if it can’t be enjoyed in the outdoors, under the sun, basking in the glory that is a Sacramento summer?

Sorry, Chicago Fire, you never stood a chance.

The Kentucky Buck
Shady Lady Saloon

It was hard to choose just one of the three wonderful concoctions presented to me by the bartender holding court at the Shady Lady on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The White Linen is all gin and cucumbery goodness—but far more complex than your average gimlet. This drink starts off crisp and sweet from the cucumber, followed by a rush of tartness from the lime, with a smooth, dry finish. As one of my cohorts put it, “I don’t taste the gin at all; this could be dangerous.”

We also tried the Rita Hayworth, a play on a margarita made with mint. This drink is like a margarita mojito—two great summer drinks combined to make one über summer cocktail.

The belle of the ball, however arrived via the Kentucky Buck, consisting of fresh strawberries, ginger ale, freshly squeezed citrus and Bulleit bourbon.

Full disclosure: Bourbon with ginger is my go-to cocktail.

Fuller disclosure: Bulleit is my go-to bourbon.

In fact, it was as if this spectacular cocktail had been created with me in mind. The strawberries and citrus take the otherwise simple cocktail to newfound heights of summery goodness. 1409 R Street, (916) 231-9121,

L Wine Lounge bartender Chris Tucker makes a Blackberry Brandy Buck.

Photo By Mike Iredale

Blackberry mojito

Zócalo, enveloped by a pair of heavily palmed patios, exudes a great summery vibe. When you enter, head towards the L-shaped marble bar and negotiate your way through a forest of 15-foot palms and a flowered and candle-adorned fountain. By the time you’re seated, you’ll find you’re already aching for a summer cocktail, regardless of the weather outside.

You’re in luck, because Zócalo offers one of the most summery of them all in its blackberry mojito, which hits all the seasonal cocktail requirements: It’s light, fizzy, citrusy and chock-full o’ berries.

The restaurant’s housemade fresh blackberry puree is a perfect counterbalance to the blanco tequila, and this tall, deep-purple libation may have been the most refreshingly thirst-quenching of all the drinks sampled. 1801 Capitol Avenue, (916) 441-0303,

Habanero-infusion margarita

Centro does great tequila infusions. These drinks consist of otherwise ordinary tequila in which they submerge various medleys of fruits and veggies.

Presto, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.

My favorite is the habanero-pineapple infusion, made into a classic margarita. Habanero chili peppers pack a wallop, and so does this drink. The infusion is made in a container behind the bar, and the longer the booze infuses with the peppers, the spicier the drink becomes. If it’s a brand-new batch, the container will be full and the drink less spicy. If the infusion’s been around for a week or two, however, the container will be nearly empty and the resulting drink scorching hot.

The quality of the wallop is, thus, inversely related to how much of the infusion is left in the container. Ye of faint heart, stay away if it’s less than half-full. Those of you who like your food (and drink) to hurt so good, try to catch the last glass. 2730 J Street, (916) 442-2552,

Blackberry Brandy Buck
L Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen

No tour of Sacramento cocktails, summer or otherwise, would be complete without an entry from the Godfather of Sacramento boutique cocktails, Chris Tucker. Tucker’s twist on the Buck, made with brandy and blackberries, fits the summer criteria. This one is super smooth and slightly effervescent with a really clean, crisp finish. Served up with a twist and a blackberry, it’s a really lovely drink to boot. 1801 L Street, (916) 443-6970,

Bloody Mary
The Virgin Sturgeon

Now, there are plenty of places in town to get a good Bloody Mary, but there is only one Virgin Sturgeon. There may even be better Bloody Marys to be found, but there’s no better place to find a Bloody Mary (or four) than the riverfront veranda at the Virgin. In fact, the deck at the Sturgeon may be my single favorite spot in all of Sacramento. Catch a sunset, a cool breeze and a spicy bloody and it may become yours as well. Their Bloody Mary is nothing fancy, but it’s a quality mix, well put together (read: strong), and it pairs exceedingly well with the view. It’s appropriate that you walk through a jetway to enter the establishment, because every visit is like a mini vacation. 1577 Garden Highway, (916) 921-2694.

Strawberry basil gimlet
Red Lotus

Here we have it, the one to rule them all. This is summer in a glass. The strawberry basil gimlet, the brainchild of the restaurant’s bar manager Mark Neuhauser, is a blend of gin, fresh muddled strawberries, basil, lime and a little simple syrup. The ambrosial concoction is usually served straight up, but I received mine in a tumbler over one racquetball-sized ice block. Here, the sweet strawberry, the tart lime, floral gin and earthy basil all meld beautifully, and the behemoth hand-carved ice block cools it to an arctic chill. The only downside is it is on the smaller side, so try to refrain from downing it all in one gulp. Or don’t. 2718 J Street, (916) 231-0961,