Don’t forget dark spirits during the lighter months

When it comes to refreshing summer and autumn drinks, white spirits rule. But, argues Joel Harrison, dark spirits can be just as good for mixing up a refreshing cocktail in warmer weather

Words by Joel Harrison

Mint julep
Joel Harrison advocates drinking Mint Juleps and other dark-spirit-powered drinks in the summer months

The soundtrack to summer drinking is distinctive: the pop of the Prosecco cork; the fizz-crack of tonic water cans opening. ‘Another bottle of rosé, waiter!’, is a familiar call heard in the wild. These are distinctly different noises from those of the winter months – no mention of whisky, brandy or aged rum.

Most people’s drinks cabinets will reflect this natural selection of the seasons, with white spirits such as vodka, gin and Tequila naturally bullying their way to the front of the shelves in summer, while dark spirits such as Scotch, bourbon and Cognac are slowly moved to the back, with liqueurs, vermouths and bitters forming a barrier between.

dark cocktail - dark spirits
'A Dark 'n' Stormy is probably seen as the magpie in the nest of dark spirits when it comes to summer drinks,' says Harrison

There is, of course, good reason for this. White spirits form the basis of many fantastically refreshing summer drinks: the humble G&T, the Martini or Negroni providing a platform for gin; Tequila has the Margarita and the underrated Paloma, too; vodka has…well anything you want to mix it with, from cola to coffee; even white rum has the Daiquiri, Mojito and Piña Colada. When it comes to white spirits and refreshing cocktails, in the words of Carly Simon, nobody does it better.

Or so you might think. I’m here to support the underdog; to wave a flag for those forgotten, unloved dark spirits. The rich, complex notes of these golden-hued distillates can work equally as well in some incredibly tasty concoctions.

Dark rum has always paired well with ginger ale in a Dark ‘n’ Stormy (tip: a squeeze of lime takes this from a good drink, to a great drink), and is probably seen as the magpie in the nest of dark spirits when it comes to summer drinks.

orange cocktail - dark spirits
Happy 100th birthday to the Sidecar, a summer-ready cocktail featuring Cognac

However, that bottle of Cognac you put away for the fireside, cracked open only when the Christmas tunes start on the radio (which seems to happen earlier each year, to the benefit of your French brandy) can be equally as proficient at quenching a thirst when the sun has his hat on, too. Take the classic mix of triple sec orange liqueur, citrus and booze that’s so welcome on a sunny day when mixed into a Margarita: now, throw it to our friends in the Cognac region, and you end up with a cocktail called the Sidecar, a brilliant drink that celebrates its 100th birthday this very year. It’s as refreshing a drink as anything based on a white spirit.

What could be better on a hot day than a cooling Cognac, Cointreau and citrus blast?

The Sidecar is a devastatingly simple drink, described by the legendary cocktail compiler David A Embury in 1948 as essentially ‘…a Daiquiri with brandy in place of the rum, and Cointreau in place of the sugar syrup’. Now, you tell me, what could be better on a hot day than a cooling Cognac, Cointreau and citrus blast? My favoured recipe is with 30ml of both Remy 1738 and Cointreau, then 10ml of freshly squeezed lemon juice – and I throw in a dash of orange bitters, too. Shake it up with ice and serve into a very cold coupe glass. Never will you have looked cooler while keeping cool.

The versatility of those dark spirits doesn’t stop there. Like a Negroni? Swap out the gin for an unpeated blended Scotch such as Chivas 12 Year Old. Known as a Boulevardier, this cocktail gives you everything a gin-based Negroni does, but with even more flavour, style and sophistication.

There are plenty more, too: the classic whisky highball; a brandy and tonic (yes, really); a Mint Julep using bourbon… the options for cooling, refreshing drinks using these aged spirits abound.

Boulevardier – dark spirits
The Boulevardier replaces the gin in a Negroni with whisky, adding layers of flavour, and is perfect for summer

What Joel Has Been Drinking…

  • I have to make a big shout out to two single malts, which are not just some of the best whisky I have tried this month, but some of the best I’ve had all year. The first is the new 30 Year Old from The Dalmore, matured in tawny port casks. The second, a rather sumptuous Glenglassaugh 50 Year Old (264 bottles, £5,500). Both are simply incredible and show off whisky-making at its finest.
  • When it comes to gin cocktails, from a G&T through to a Negroni and even a Martini, my absolute favourite garnish is rosemary. It adds a simple lift to any gin drink, and you can keep a plant in your kitchen meaning it is always at hand. Imagine my delight to discover Martin Miller’s new Summerful Gin, which carries notes of rosemary and arctic thyme. It’s my gin of the moment.
  • Not something to drink here, but something to wonder and marvel at. The top-class Tequila brand Maestro Dobel has partnered with award-winning architecture studio Pedro y Juana creating what can only be described as part-citrus squeezer, part sculpture. This stunning limited-edition traditional tejolote is available in Harvey Nichols in the UK, along with a bottle of the Tequila, of course. With only 30 made, they’ll sell out fast.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and spirits consultant for Club Oenologique.