When I think of summer heat—that thick mid-afternoon August kind of heat—it brings me back to my first visit to the Yucatan about five years ago. Over the course of that trip, my eyes opened to the magic of mezcal. One of our first nights there, my husband, Graham, and I were sitting at an open-air bar nestled in the jungle. It was sticky and hot with no breeze. A server was walking around the bar swinging a pot of smoking copal resin to ward off the persistent mosquitoes. When we finished our meal, without even asking, our bartender served us each a tall shot glass of mezcal with an orange slice coated in sal de gusano (a combination of sea salt, chili and the larvae that live in agave plants—yes, worms). It was the perfect combination. I was hooked. When we went back with our friends and Hive co-owners Lance and Alexis, they got hooked too. Nothing like a mezcal Daiquiri on a hot summer night.
Mezcal is a nuanced spirit, with flavors ranging from smoky to peppery to floral. Unlike tequila, which is made exclusively from blue agave, over 30 species of agave plant are used to make mezcal. The hearts of the agave plant, called piñas, are roasted in wood-fired pits, crushed, fermented and distilled. I find that the smokiness and heat of the mezcal is a surprisingly perfect foil for New England’s sweet summer fruit. When making mezcal-based cocktails, I suggest you first taste the mezcal by itself to see what you’re working with; a smokier mezcal, for example, may call for more citrus or more sweetness.
Search your farmers market for the best local ingredients to blend with mezcal, like the strawberries featured in the Summer Fling—and once strawberry season ends, feel free to use any ripe, local fruit like peaches, apricots, cherries, nectarines or even tiny, vanilla-scented, pineapple-y husk cherries. Their sweetness will balance the punchy mezcal and the bitter chartreuse, and the cute golden berries with their paper husks still attached make a stunning garnish. If mezcal’s not your thing—and it’s certainly an acquired taste—try tequila or even rum in its place in any of the drinks below.
Of course, a New England summer just wouldn’t be the same without a gin-based cocktail in your repertoire. In lieu of the traditional gin-tonic-lime highball, in the Praying Mantis I’ve infused local gin with strong-flavored farm celery and fragrant fennel seeds, sweetened it with a Thai-basil simple syrup and poured it over crushed ice for a refreshing spin on the classic. Thai basil is more and more available at farm stands and local markets, but this drink is a good excuse to grow some yourself, either in your garden or a patio pot.
PAIGE MCKISSOCK is part-owner of Hive along with her husband, Graham McKissock, and their friends Lance and Alexis Davis. Hive is a mobile bar service that operates out of two Airstream trailers that Graham and Lance renovated into full bars. www.hive-events.com