the mighty spirits

Summer Lovin’
Making your own fresh summer cocktails
by Bob McCoy

We’ve waited patiently through a long, cold, snowy winter. We’ve been teased and tested by the fickle and moody spring. But now, finally, we’ve been rewarded for our wait with the beautiful bounty beheld in summer!

Sure, this means good weather, day trips to the beach, swims in the ocean, cookouts on the patio and late-evening walks. For some it means school vacation or weekend getaways; for others, trips to Fenway or friends’ weddings.

But what gets me most excited in the summer are the shimmering jewels resting atop the rich soil of local farms. Any foodie would agree that it’s the fresh local herbs and produce that makes us tick. But while I’m a sucker for a good meal, my reasons are slightly more selfish and of the liquid variety.

I’m talking about summer cocktails! There’s no better way to quench your thirst and cool your mind than with a creative and refreshing drink using local, seasonal ingredients.

But how do you put together a drink like this and where do you start? Surprisingly, combining fruits and herbs together, balancing them between sweet and sour and enhancing them with spirits is easier than you might think. But let’s start at the beginning.

For as long as we’ve been mixing drinks, we’ve been incorporating some form of produce. Bar lore has it that it started with punch in the 17th century, the drink of choice before the birth of the cocktail, when the communal bowl was made using a combination of spirit, sweetener, citrus, spice and water. The citrus was a variety of fresh fruit, the spice often tea or herbs and the finished product was elaborately garnished with an assortment of colorful berries.

By the 1800s, drinks were being constructed in a smaller format for the individual to enjoy on his or her own. We begin to see the “children of punch,” as drink historian David Wondrich refers to them.  There were cobblers, smashes, slings and the like with recipes that called to shake the fruit or press the herbs in the drink in order to impart more aroma and flavor. Around this time the mint julep was created, a drink of bourbon, mint and sugar that has stood the test of time, especially on Kentucky Derby Day each year.  In the first half of the 20th century the mojito and caipirinha were born, two more drinks that have regained popularity recently, especially during the hot summer months. By the mid 1900s the bellini appeared, a simple and elegant aperitif of white peach purée and sparkling wine still popular at brunch or before dinner.  Today, we can find numerous variations of these classics touched by the garden, proof of how easy making your own drinks can be.

Whether it’s a peach mint julep, raspberry mojito, cherry caipirinha or apricot bellini, you can create a drink of your very own by following a few basic rules:

1.   Follow the classics. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason: They work! When you first start mixing, use these recipes as models to construct your own drinks, substituting like items for one another (for example, using lemon in a drink that calls for lime or gin in one that calls for rum). Only after gaining some solid experience should you wander totally off the reservation.

2.   Balance. The most basic and often best recipes rely on balancing types of flavors. Want to add something sweet? Great, but be sure to add something sour or bitter in order to offset and maintain symmetry in your cocktail.

3.   Harmony. When you’re picking out ingredients to construct a drink, ask yourself: Do these flavors play well together? This can be the tricky part, and it may take a little trial and error in order to discover which flavors really bring out the best in one another. I find a lot of my inspiration in culinary books, where some of the best chefs have already done the work for you. Once you see the same flavor combinations popping up again and again, chances are they make a great match.  Here are some suggestions to get you started, but be sure to experiment on your own. This chart is meant to be an inspiration, not a constriction.  I’ve omitted vodka since its neutral nature makes it a match with almost any fruit or herb.

Bob McCoy is head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar located in Kenmore Square. He can be reached at

Spirits Fruits and Herbs
Gin berries, mint, basil
Rum melons, mint
Tequila peppers, cilantro, sage
Whiskey stone fruits, vanilla, ginger
Brandy apples, figs, rosemary

So now that we have the basics down, let’s make some drinks!