Summer drinks should be like summer evenings: long, light and cool. These are the days of G&Ts, mint juleps, caiphirinas, mojitos, where the sign to pack up is an ice bucket down to its last inch of meltwater. This year, though, I've forsaken the old mainstays for something a little more challenging to the tastebuds.
When rain intervenes at Wimbledon, the lines at the Pimm's tent grow fifty-deep. Given English summers, that's a lot of drinking, and it's a scene repeated across the upper-class 'season': continuously-refilled cauldrons topped with a fruit-salad flotsam, their contents ladeled into plastic pint glasses where the precise shade of rusty orange betrays just how badly you've been stiffed on the mix.
The base spirit in Pimm's No. 1 Cup is gin. Not enough gin as before, say the purists, who'll add a glug of the pure stuff to make up the difference. The mixer is lemonade: not the cloudy uncarbonated stuff, but a clear fizz that's just enough unlike Sprite to make it worth splashing out on 'French limonade' if you're making it by the glass. (Otherwise, stick with ginger ale.) The heart is a melding of fruit and spice and herbs, its grassy undertones accentuated by the traditional garnish of mint, borage or cucumber. There's a paradoxical warmth to Pimm's that speaks of English summers, a comfort in days of sun and showers, like a parasol that serves double-duty as an umbrella.
Head south to summers that bake the clouds out of the sky, and the tastes grow equally intense. The Mediterranean coast is the aniseed belt, from pastis to sambuca, ouzo to raki: cloudy and heady and palate-numbing. But there's another family of summer drinks that enlivens the senses without overwhelming them.
Vermouth is too often bought grudgingly, to be waved at a martini or splashed into a risotto pan, then left to go bad. Now's the season to rediscover it. The lighter varieties, particularly the vins aromatisées of France, give up their initial bitterness to sweeter notes: serve white Lillet or Noilly Prat well-chilled and in small glasses, as you would a dry sherry; or try Dubonnet on the rocks with a splash of soda, its intense berry flavors underlaid with spice and the tonic tang of quinine.
It's Italy, though, that gave birth to vermouth and still nurtures it, with a range that extends far beyond the liquor store bottom shelf. The best whites are dry, crisp and herbal, but the real discoveries are to be found in the bittersweet varieties. Carpano lays claim to the original recipe, recreated in the hard-to-find Antica Formula, and to the more widely-available Punt e Mes, to my mind the best 'red' vermouth. Although based on white wine, its aromatic infusion gives it a tawny translucence; its opening spicy sweetness is reminiscent of cola, but soon overtaken by an astringent orange kick. (The name stems from its 'point and a half' dose of bitters.) Serve it on ice, with or without a splash of soda, or be brave and mix it with freshly-squeezed orange juice for a combination that goes down much better than it looks.
What do you get if you replace the wine base of vermouth with distilled liquor, doubling the alcohol content? One answer is Campari, the quintessential summer apéritif. Again, the recipe is secret, dating to the mid-1800s, and the ingredients hard to discern: certainly quinine and gentian, a hint of rhubarb, the bitter chinotto citrus that's the signature of so many Italian drinks. It's traditional to drink it short in a chilled glass, with a splash of soda to open up the aromatics just as plain water invigorates a single malt; others ritualise it: three fingers in a tall glass, ice, soda and garnish on the side, refill at leisure while the evening lasts. For those who prefer the kick of a cocktail, equal parts Campari and red vermouth on ice with a splash of soda gives you a Americano, a tip of the hat from 19th-century Florence to the Henry James set; replace the soda with gin for a Negroni, and drink it as slowly as possible.
Close relations to Campari, though less well-known outside Italy, are the 300 or so varieties of amari alle erbe; originally designed as herbal tonics, many are still served straight up or with coffee as a digestive. While the most assertive are best left to that role — I'm thinking of you, Fernet Branca — others adapt well to a little ice, a little more fizz and tall glasses.
Although some of the most popular amari are now under larger corporate ownership, production remains typically Italian: highly localised, usually out of a single distillery, with dominant flavors that speak of the region that created them. To the north, herbal ingredients take precedence: the menthol of Genoa's Santa Maria al Monte, the alpine yarrow and juniper of Amaro Braulio, made close to the Swiss border, and the wintergreen and anise that make the Milanese Ramazzotti a very grown up root beer when served long. A little further south, warmer notes enter: Bologna's Amaro Montenegro has plenty of vanilla sweetness to accompany the floral orange bitterness, while Abruzzo and the Marche bring hints of cardamom, cinnamon and saffron to their many offerings. Reach the heel of the boot, and the Basilicata's Amaro Lucano adds sage and nuttiness to the mix, while the Sicilian Averna, perhaps the most accessible amaro for the uninitiated, is heavy on fruit, especially chinotto, and rich with butterscotch and candied fruit.
If there's a downside to all these drinks, it's that they don't pair well with food, or at least not with complete meals; they'll find better companions in succulent summer fruit: sliced melon, peaches, mangoes. But if you want to put the taste of the season in a glass and make it last until sunset, I can't think of anything better.
Our roving correspondent Anonymous Drinker knows his liquor. Having traveled the world, he's sipped the best. From the framboise of France to the boozes of Bourbon Co., Kentucky, there is nothing he won't put to his lips.
Photo credits: Pimm's Cup © Dave Morris. Campari © Marie-Louise Avery.