Memorial Day is a distant memory. The Fourth of July has come and gone. Labor Day is not yet on our radar. I’m sure the second half of July and early August in Champaign-Urbana has its charms; I’m just having a hard time thinking of any in this excessive heat and humidity. Now seems as good a time as ever for hiding out with air conditioning and a nice cocktail to pass an endless afternoon. Who knows? A fancy drink or two might put you in the mood to stay out until nightfall and see the fireflies (OK, so I can recall a charm or two).


I have a philosophy on summer cocktails. They should be bright and invigorating, and — though it pains me to say — lighter on the booze. This is the season for fresh, bitter herbs, bubbly additions, and fruity accents. Gin will always be my go-to summer liquor, but I enjoy vodka and tequila, too. Save the dark liquors and creamy liqueurs for the polar vortex. For your consideration, I present a handful of summer cocktails that I recommend checking out next time you feel adrift and in need of a good drink.

Wedge

My favorite drink at Wedge is not even on the menu. If you ask politely, the bartender will whip up a tasty michelada (I always order it with Tecate). A michelada is sort of like a bloody mary, but with beer instead of vodka. Spices, acidic tomato (and sometimes clam) juice and lime with bubbly golden beer. I’ve had micheladas around town, and I have to say that this one is the best I’ve tried.

photo by Jessica Hammie

The other night, though, I broke out of my michelada rut and ordered a featured cocktail: the sparkling blood orange margarita. Made with Silver tequila, triple sec, blood orange liqueur, lime juice, and sparkling wine, the S-BOM (sorry, the name is too long and cumbersome) is essentially a margarita updated with a blood orange liqueur and a glug of sparkling wine.

While I know that blood oranges are not currently in season, and that there is no fresh blood orange to be found in the S-BOM, this margarita tastes seasonal as hell. It's festive and a little over the top, like a yacht party in your mouth. The only detracting factors were a) that it was all booze (I know, that’s how margaritas are, but still), and b) that it contained no fresh ingredients. Fresh is what summer is all about! By the way, my companion ordered the red sangria, which I tried and found to be a little too sweet, almost like Hawaiian punch, and lacking in the musky depth that I look for in red sangria. If you want delicious summer sangria, make your own!

Destihl

For a study in contrasts, I followed up the decadent S-BOM with the Minted Man at Destihl. Made with cucumber vodka, mint, simple syrup, and lime juice, the Minted Man is minimalism at its best: cooling, refreshing, not too sweet. Destihl also has killer air conditioning, which makes this drink taste even better. This cocktail is your perfect day-drinking companion because it’s not too boozy or syrupy-sweet.

Seven Saints

Next up is the Ginger Peach Martini at Seven Saints, made with ginger vodka, peach liqueur, ginger beer, and lemon. I was delighted to discover this on Seven Saints’ menu. I guess I’ve been so distracted by their unparalleled whiskey, bourbon, and scotch selection to notice this effervescent stunner. I am a lover of ginger beer, which is best showcased in the always-tasty Dark and Stormy. Here, it pairs beautifully with peach and lemon, and the effect is crisp and light in spite of all the booze. You could even make something like this at home and switch out the peach liqueur for fresh muddled peaches, for something even lighter. This one is a must-try, and probably my favorite of the bunch. 

V. Picasso

OK, so I know I already said that dark liquor cocktails are not for summertime, but some rules were made to be broken. I visited V. Picasso with some lady friends and tried the Tart Oak, with Jim Beam, lemon, cassis, and angostura bitters. I don't find Jim Beam to be terribly original, and I think there are a number of other more interesting bourbons or whiskeys that could have been used here, especially at this price point. That said, this was a pleasant cocktail that offers exactly what the name implies. The oaky whiskey paired nicely with the tart black currant liqueur. The lemon slice that came with the drink was comically large (is this the trend now?), but I love a heavy dose of citrus in my drinks. Bring on the oversized garnishes!

photo by Jessica Hammie

This is one I might try to make at home with a different whiskey. Or I’ll come back and have this one again closer to fall, because it would be a nice transitional cocktail when the first cool day arrives.

Want to make your own cocktails at home? Do yourself a favor and buy gas station ice. Homemade ice tends to make bubbly drinks go flat. Make sure to use enough ice, too! One of the simplest things that makes cocktails taste so great out at bars is that they are really cold. Also, lots of limes. Half a lime every time, I say. My favorite homemade cocktails are whiskey with lime and ginger ale or gin with tonic and a splash of elderflower liqueur. What are yours?

All photos by Pamela Saunders, except where noted.