After spending many a summer in England (summer, what summer?) and Japan (beyond brutal!), I now live in New York City, where summers can best be described as a hot mess.
As the dog days set in, I’ve been known to sing out: “Drinks, glorious drinks! Don’t care what they look like!”
Actually, that’s not quite true.
Well, the part about my singing aloud is true — we’re all barking mad in this city, especially around mid-August.
And the part about drinks being glorious is also true – what could be more glorious than an icy cold drink that cuts through the moisture-laden air, offering the possibility that this steam bath may end one day.
(I’m talking about alcoholic drinks, of course — anyone of a puritanical frame of mind can slake their thirst at one of the city’s fancy new portable water fountains, connected to fire hydrants.)
But the part about not caring what my drinks look like — that’s simply not true. For me, the ultimate summer refreshment is a well-made, well-presented cocktail.
As Penelope Wisner writes in her introduction to Summer Cocktails: 50 Tantalizing Recipes,
Everything matters: the taste of the spirit, the taste of the ice, the temperature of the drink, and the look of the drink.
My drinking history, in brief
During my expat years, I would happily down a half pint of lager in the pub with my English friends, or drink Kirin beer and sake on outings with my Japanese office mates.
That all changed when I moved back to my homeland.
Maybe it’s in my cultural DNA. The cocktail — a mixed drink with two or more ingredients, one of which must be a spirit — is one of America’s more inspired culinary accomplishments.
Or could it be my actual DNA — one of my earliest memories is of asking my father if I could chew on the lemon peel he put in his night-time martini.
In any case, not long after I became a resident of New York City — home of speakeasies and the only city I know of with a cocktail to its name — I was driven to drinking…cocktails. Particularly during summers.
You see, I’ve never been one of the lucky ones who can escape to the Hamptons or the Jersey shore.
Instead of the sea, sun, sand, and sky, I’ve had to grapple with sweat, smog, dirt, and skyscrapers.
Now, I could have gone the conventional route and drowned my sorrows in a beer. But why do that when a cocktail is so much pleasanter, and can transport you to places you’d rather be in — places much more exotic than an overcrowded beach?
Cocktails are a trip
My hunt for the transcendent cocktail experience has yielded several noteworthy finds, among them:
1) The mojito at Victor’s Cafe on West 52nd St. A single sip transported me to 1950s Havana, where I found myself salsa dancing with a Ricky Ricardo-look-alike. (And that was before I’d sampled the roast suckling pig!)
2) The vodka martini in the Russian Vodka Room, also on West 52nd St. I thought I was in Moscow from the moment I entered this swanky establishment, greeted by the sight of a curved bar at which many natives are downing shots, and behind which are these enormous jars of flavor-infused vodkas. Once I’d tasted my martini, I was well on my way to an enriching cultural experience. Oh, so that’s how they get through daily life in Russia. It all comes down to homemade vodka and to music — sublime combination! (Misha Tsiganov, a prize-winning jazz pianist who studied in St. Petersburg, is the bar’s official piano player.)
3) The classic martini at Angel’s Share, a tiny gem of a bar in the East Village. This drink made me feel I was in Tokyo again, even though I wasn’t really a cocktail person there. The Japanese bartenders had the mix, shake and stir down to an art form — which is soooo Japanese. And no one is allowed to stand at the bar — ditto. But by the time I’d polished off my divinely-inspired drink, I’d left Japan far behind for heaven itself — an effect enhanced by a ceiling mural that appears to have been inspired by Botticelli’s playful cherubs.
4) The Negroni at The Smith on 3rd Avenue. The Negroni — one part gin, one part sweet vermouth and one part Campari — is said to have originated in Florence in 1919, the invention of one Count Camillo Negroni. The first time I sampled one at the bar at The Smith, I fancied I’d become E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeychurch at the very moment when she witnesses a murder on the Florentine streets, and is about to faint. (Where is George Emerson when you need him?) You see, the Smith version is anything but aristocratic: it packs quite a punch.
Next up? I hope it will be the Mexican martini, which I read about it in the New York Times last month. Basically, it’s a margarita served in a martini glass, with olives on a spear.
The drink is said to have been introduced from Matamoros, Mexico, just across from Brownsville, Texas, when a bartender from Austin visited there and was served a margarita in a martini glass.
It has since become Austin’s signature drink. Being Texan, it’s twice as large as a regular drink, so customers are given the cocktail shaker and urged to pour the drink themselves.
I haven’t been to Austin — and would love to go (though preferably not in the summer). I reckon a Mexican martini may be just the ticket…
The only issue is, the drink hasn’t really made it out of Austin yet.
So if you happen to hear of any Austin expats working behind Manhattan bars (yes, that’s how they’d refer to themselves), be sure to inform me.
For now though would you kindly join me in a refrain of “Drinks, glorious drinks, wonderful drinks!”
QUESTION: Can you recommend some summer cocktails you think have the makings of a mini-escape?
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