Summer on the Rocks
Creative seasonal cocktails to sip around OKC
Photos by Scotty O’Daniel
One of the best summer cocktails we tried this year was made with Prairie Wolf vodka, watermelon juice and tiny slivers of habanero pepper – just enough to register 3 out of 10 on a heat scale. Simple, delicious, balanced: a perfect cocktail. The drink came from 1492 New World Latin Cuisine, 1207 N Walker, and it won the People’s Choice Award at Allied Arts’ ARTini fundraiser, so clearly, people are great with simple.
Still, seasonal can risk becoming a little boring. Summer typically means more citrus, more clear liquors and more fresh produce adorning drinks. Bartenders and beverage directors struggle to come up with creative variations on the available ingredients, even working in a few savory components from time to time … but because peppers and tomatoes are available in the summer does not mean we need a spicy Caprese cocktail made with Mezcal, Burrata, ghost pepper oil and torched fresh basil.
Craft cocktails can easily fall prey to the same sort of experimentation that is currently making many craft beers so utterly bizarre. There is, frankly, a limit to how many seedpods or “indigenous” herbs I need or want in an adult beverage. Just because you have a torch does not mean the whole of nature need be scorched and added to a cocktail. Much like great cooking, with mixing cocktails, often less is more.
We talked to bartenders around Oklahoma City, asking them what constitutes a summer cocktail, what ingredients work best, what to avoid and whether the seasonal concept even makes sense when it comes to drinking. People tend to like what they like, after all, and if the craze for Tito’s vodka has taught us anything, it’s that brand loyalty is strong with booze, even among people who couldn’t pick their brand in a blind tasting if it was the only way to ransom their child.
Not surprisingly, the answers were all over the place, and more than a few bartenders said most customers aren’t necessarily seasonal drinkers; they do, in fact, like what they like.
Case in point: “People don’t necessarily change their food behaviors seasonally,” says Alex Larrea, general manager of Savings & Loan Co., 423 NW 23rd, “so there is no reason to assume they would change their drinking behavior either.”
In that sense, he is correct. If you like spicy Mexican food in February, you don’t stop liking it in July. You may eat more selectively or on a patio, but you will still eat what you love. Cocktails tend to be the same. An Old Fashioned drinker is a year-round Old Fashioned drinker irrespective of the weather.
That means the bartender’s task is very much like that of the chef who uses seasonal ingredients: to nudge customers a bit, challenge their palates and (hopefully) help them find new things they love. It is in that spirit that we offer a variety of summer indulgences, from Mimosas to Sangria to new, creative cocktails.
Coming this June from the brand-new Jones Assembly, 901 W Sheridan, is a wine cocktail that will make your summer tangier and cooler. The Frosé is a blend of Marques de Caceres Rioja Rosado – a Tempranillo rosé from Spain – with Gordon’s gin, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup and strawberry purée. The mixture is blended with ice to make a grown-up slush that will remind you of the summers as a kid when your lips were perpetually stained red or blue, and the closest you got to booze was a sip of your dad’s tepid beer.
What’s in a Name?
In short, misery, or tedium. It turns out that many bartenders hate coming up with new names, and when it comes to methodology, puns win. Rick Patino, the bar manager at Pub W, 10740 S May, says, “We switched to themes to avoid having to come up with new names on our own. It’s the hardest part of the job.”
In fact, Patino said that every time he came up with a name and then made a cocktail based upon it, the cocktail failed to make the menu. It just wasn’t very good. The trick was to make a good cocktail first and then name it, but even that can have pitfalls. Take the Sun Tzu, for example, a cocktail on the current Pub W menu.
“We created the cocktail, but we named it The Mao first,” Patino says with a smile. “When I introduced it to the staff, they were like, ‘He’s a terrible killer!’ We changed the name to avoid that association.”
Ludivine, 805 N Hudson, has adopted the thematic approach, too. Pub W is currently using famous world figures – such as Sun Tzu – but Ludivine just finished its Chinese Take-Out menu and is now on the Medicine Show and Revival menu, which includes the Kila-Cold and the Dr. Cobra. The titles are clever, and they grab attention quickly on a menu full of exotic mixers. Also, the choice of a theme makes naming much easier, as an entire lexicon of associated words and phrases are associated … so long as you can avoid the “terrible killer” conundrum.
As for puns, Savings & Loan Co. is not afraid of wordplay. Larrea said the Curry Favor, a cocktail conceived by bartender Thomas Upshaw that has coconut milk-based curry in it, is the second best-selling drink on the menu. Why would anyone want curry in a cocktail? See “Savory for Summer” below.
Pub W’s Patino said the restaurant sold 400 Watermelon Frescas the first month it was available. That was two years ago, and it stays on the menu because it’s delicious … and because you don’t argue with those kinds of numbers – a sensible variation of “the customer is always right.”
“We were looking for something besides Mimosas to sell for brunch,” Patino explains. “We wanted to balance the contrasting flavors, and watermelon can be really sweet, so we added a touch of savory with Canton ginger liqueur, and even some bitterness with Aperol.”
State Vegetable of Oklahoma
The watermelon features prominently in summer cocktails, and that’s partly because it is, in fact, the state vegetable of Oklahoma. Our legislators declared it such in 2007, and it was scandalous enough that it made international news, even being featured in British newspaper The Guardian. (The state fruit is the strawberry, an actual fruit.) No one who has been here a while will be surprised at our legislators’ willingness to assert that something is true just because they say so, and so we have a state vegetable that is not.
Julian Younis of Savings & Loan Co. chose to have fun with this nugget of trivia by naming his watermelon cocktail the State Vegetable of Oklahoma. The drink is a delicious blend of fresh, juiced watermelon, Monopolowa vodka, Lazzaroni Amaretto, lemon juice and Topo Chico (sparkling mineral water).
The Spanish really do call some forms of Sangria wine punch. While the American version is weighted down with brandy, the Spanish version, which debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, is a lighter, fruitier summer drink.
“My father’s recipe is very traditional,” says Pilar Guarddon, the bar manager at Pizzeria Gusto, 2415 N Walker. Guarddon, who grew up in Spain, said the “wine punch” was served at nearly every family get-together. “It’s a family punch, so the 16- and 17-year-olds drink it, too.”
Guarddon’s family recipe is featured at Gusto this summer. The first thing you are likely to notice is the cinnamon. “It’s traditional to put cinnamon in Sangria back home,” Guarddon says. Although it’s a baking spice, and we ordinarily associate those with fall/winter flavors, the cinnamon actually gives the Sangria a little lift.
Her father’s recipe includes Lemon Fanta, but since we don’t have that in the U.S., Guarddon uses Sprite. She starts with a very dry red wine – Tempranillo is traditional in Spain – and then adds fresh lemon juice (about a quarter cup per bottle of wine), fresh orange juice, simple syrup and cinnamon. Peaches are traditional in Spain, and she also adds apples.
The low-alcohol refresher is surprisingly light, given that it starts with a dry, red wine. The fruit juices brighten the drink, and the simple syrup tones down the citrus. It’s a beautifully balanced Sangria, and it’s best enjoyed on Gusto’s amazing “secret garden-style” patio.
Cucumbers Are Small Watermelons
That is not entirely true, but they are related. This, by the way, was part of the legislators’ justification for declaring watermelon the state vegetable. Makes sense, right? Use a cucumber – also not technically a vegetable – as an analog, and then name its cousin a vegetable, too. Welcome to politics. This is why people drink.
Cucumbers are one of the season’s more versatile non-vegetables, and they factor into many cocktails, in addition to their better iteration as pickles on a burger. Michael O’Hara, the assistant food and beverage director at the 21c Museum Hotel, 900 W Main, uses cucumbers three different ways in his “Laid Back” cocktail.
The Laid Back starts with Hendrick’s gin, the botanicals of which are cucumber and rose petals, and then O’Hara explains the rest of the process like so: “We juice cucumbers, and reduce that cucumber juice down with ground pink peppercorns and sugar to make a vegetal, aromatic, floral syrup with a touch of spice. We top that off with sliced cucumber and lemon juices and a touch of soda, and the finished product is a fresh and tasty cucumber cooler that’s perfect for the summer.”
This one is really a year-round favorite, but it makes more sense to drink it on a patio in the warm months. We loved the simple, refreshing house margarita at Barrios, but if you’re drinking down south, you might consider the Dead Beet Rita at Blu, 201 S Crawford in Norman. Bar manager Nikki Snider said that it’s a complex cocktail that can be enjoyed by anyone, even people who don’t typically drink Mezcal.
“It has earthiness, smoke and sweet citrus,” Snider says. “The flavors play together very well, so the smokiness of the Mezcal is not off-putting. The beet syrup adds a beautiful, vibrant fuschia color, and black sea salt adds an eye-popping contrast on the rim.”
How to Spell Slushie
Frozen drinks are a bit of a nightmare for bartenders, especially those who work at a high-volume bar, but they seem to be trending this year. We already looked at the Frosé, and Barrios Fine Mexican Dishes, 1000 N Hudson, has a muy bueno frozen cocktail, too: The Cactus Fruit Slushie. (Don’t worry about how convenience stores might spell it; this is a “slushie.”) It’s a blended mixture of Plantation 5-year Rum, RumHaven Coconut Rum, Coco Lopez cream of coconut and prickly pear purée.
Not only is it frozen and delicious, it has two other assets, or three if you’re a stickler. 1) It’s pretty; the staff said it catches the eye of diners when it’s carried by tables, making it easier to sell, and 2) It comes with two sour gummy worms, if you’re a fan of add-in candy. Just remember that they were swimming in alcohol before you use them to keep the kids at your table (or the neighboring one) quiet while you enjoy your booze.
► Mimosas Are the Worst
According to Keith Paul of A Good Egg Dining Group, it was Flip’s Wine Bar & Trattoria that started the cheap Mimosa craze in Oklahoma City. “Early on you could buy a $1 Mimosa, but it would be a half inch of sparkling wine and the rest orange juice,” Paul says. “The demand for cheap Mimosas never went away. We decided at Good Egg to upgrade our sparkling wine in the Mimosa, and people seem fine paying a little extra, since it’s still the cheapest drink on the menu.”
While we occasionally support the adulterating of wine (see Frosé on page 48 for an example), the best rule of thumb is to only adulterate for a good reason, and then only sparingly. Wine is, after all, the perfect beverage, and perfection requires no assistance.
This next bit is going to be controversial: A Mimosa is not a good reason. We’ll follow that with a secret known to bartenders and managers the world over: The reason Mimosas exist is to sell you really bad sparkling wine at a low, low price ($2 or $3) that gets you buzzed and the bar a solid profit margin. To keep the price low, bars typically serve truly awful sparkling wine for Mimosas. If you’re unsure, ask for a glass of the wine without orange juice. Having tasted it, you’ll beg for the orange juice.
Plus, to avoid high labor costs and produce costs, bars often use orange juice from cartons, which means you’re getting both bad bubbles and milk-carton OJ. If you think using good wine and fresh orange juice solves the problem, just know that would make a Mimosa cost $12 and ruin both the bubbles and juice. Therefore, Mimosas are the worst.
Counter Argument 1
In the words of a local bartender, who, for obvious reasons, wished to remain unnamed: “You can get day drunk on a budget.”
Counter Argument 2
“Mimosas are delicious. They pack a small punch of vitamin C and antioxidants. They can turn less-expensive bubbles into something to sing about; the proverbial silk purse from a sow’s ear. You can make them in as many iterations as you have fruit juices, and they aren’t so stout that you have to Uber home if you have one.”
Savory for Summer
Summer cocktails tend toward fruity, especially citrus fruits, but they don’t have to be that way. As Alex Larrea pointed out, people already like at least one savory cocktail: the Bloody Mary.
“That’s a good entry point to the conversation,” Larrea says. “It’s vodka and a tomato-based mixer, usually with Worcestershire or Tabasco sauce, so it’s very savory.”
The ingredients most often associated with summer cocktails are citrus fruits, berries, peaches, watermelon, fresh herbs, cucumbers and peppers, but the list can continue, and often does for variants on this classic. How many times have you seen the equivalent of a chef’s salad sticking out the top of a Bloody Mary? Pickled okra, celery, pickled carrots, cured meats, olives, etc., all help round out what is essentially a first course for breakfast or brunch.
Larrea believes that Bloody Mary adjuncts can help push the boundaries of the craft cocktail, but he admits there is a limit to how far we can go. A drink is supposed to be good, not just interesting, and certainly not a curiosity. The deliciousness – if there is such a scale – should increase two clicks every time the experimental components increase one. That seems a sensible calculus.
This summer, Savings & Loan is making an Elote cocktail. Yes, a cocktail made with roasted corn … so they’ll be testing that calculus. When Larrea first mentioned it, the following conversation ensued.
“You said corn?”
“Yes, like roasted street corn. People eat it for summer all the time.”
“But I’m picturing creamed corn like the kind my mom used to serve from a can when I was a kid.”
“Yeah, we thought about that.”
Larrea said to avoid the mushy corn texture, they will use an extractor to separate the “juice” from the pulp – we agree that corn juice does not sound delicious. The extractor works much like a centrifuge, and it’s worth noting that more than a few bartenders are gadget freaks. Larrea talks at length about how the extractor works and how it will make it possible to get fresh corn flavors, which are definitely a good thing, without all the other “waste” products. They are currently looking for a way to compost the waste, so that all the corn will be used after extraction. If this sounds like a science fair to you, you are not alone.
The proof will, of course, be in the taste, and of that Larrea is confident. “People are coming around to savory,” he says. “The key is balance. Craft cocktails have already helped people move past the old formula of a base spirit and a mixer, and so they are now used to cocktails that exhibit sweet, salty, bitter and savory components. We just want to move toward savory while not abandoning balance.”
“Another delicious idea for lighter summer beverages that our Mr. Horton may pooh-pooh: the humble Red Beer. I had a delicious variety of this beer-and-tomato-juice elixir at Revolucion with a plate of huevos rancheros, and it was the perfect foil. Savory but not too, not boozy, full of flavor. Make it with Bloody Mary mix if you must, but stick with a lime wedge garnish. I never need to see bacon swimming in a cocktail.” – CE
► Elote Borracho
Cimarron Blanco Tequila
El Buho Mezcal
Fire roasted corn purée
Cotija cheese whey
Garnished with fresh cilantro and spice blend