Make the contents of your spirits cabinet pack a punch in summer drinks

With the warmer weather, many imbibers will be reverting to something chilled fresh from the fridge, but Joel Harrison says it’s just as good a time to explore the depths of your spirits cabinet when pondering your summer drink selection

Words by Joel Harrison

martini cocktail on orange backdrop with palm tree

On one side of my kitchen is a wine fridge. On the other, a spirits cabinet. They sit, staring at each other like boxers at a weigh-in. And as with any good boxing match-up, they each bring different skills to an enthralling summer drinks encounter. ‘The Fridge’ (as I imagine is written on this boxer’s belt) is fast and nimble, yet utterly cool and – at this time of year – in prime fighting condition (something to do with its ability to store vast amounts of rosé chilled to the perfect temperature). Yet in the other corner is the spirits cabinet; diffident, often closed, but with a steely glare. ‘The Cabinet’ (emblazoned on its metaphorical shorts) is an entertainer; short, sharp shots can be followed by complex concoctions that deliver the same result, just working their prey that little bit harder.

It is the sheer versatility and entertainment value of The Cabinet that draws me in as a fan. From a complex Manhattan though to a refreshing gin and tonic or a lively zip of Tequila, there’s a kaleidoscope of flavours on offer, a wide and varied spectrum for the senses hidden within. Of course, there is a simple pleasure in a bottle of rosé shared between friends, undeniably one of the most convivial summer drinks on the planet. But hidden in the depth of the spirits cabinet are some gems that will quench a thirst faster than an eel on an ice rink.

summer cocktails with palm tree

Take, for example, that errant bottle of absinthe that sits unused, hiding from the light like the Phantom of the Opera; actually, absinthe can be surprisingly refreshing in the classic cocktail, Absinthe Frappé. This is a simple drink featuring the Green Fairy alongside sugar syrup, ice and mint – kind of like a more herbal take on the Mint Julep. I like to make mine by shaking together two parts absinthe, one part sugar syrup, one part lemon juice and ice. Serve strained into a chilled tumbler full of crushed ice, and garnish with a sprig of mint. More refreshing than an honest politician.

It is also key, when looking at the tapestry of tastes hidden away in a spirits cabinet, to not fear the seemingly unfashionable. Rum might be having a moment – it has stolen the upper-crust stylings of single malt Scotch (leaving behind the Hawaiian shirt and donning a three-piece suit) and is becoming highly sought-after and increasingly more expensive – but that leaves behind rum-based products like Malibu, reduced to being taken as seriously as NFTs, or whisky cask investment schemes. But the reality is that Malibu – indeed not a ‘rum’, but a coconut-flavoured rum-based liqueur – is, when used correctly, still very tasty indeed. Try a drizzle of Malibu in a Margarita, swapping out some of the sugar syrup, for a moreish, coconutty version: think Mexico-meets-the-Caribbean.

Don’t be scared of chilling spirits down. Like Rocky Balboa training in a cold store, the end result will speak for itself

Don’t be scared, too, of chilling spirits down. Like Rocky Balboa training in a cold store, the end result will speak for itself. When making a Martini, using gin or vodka straight from the freezer (which, incidentally, is also where your Martini glasses should be kept, for the optimum chill factor) not only helps your cocktail last longer, cold in the glass, but also makes for a thicker, more viscous spirit that gives real depth to the resulting drink. No wonder the home of the Martini, London’s Duke’s Hotel, does it this way.

Whatever your choice of summer drink, be it a quick and easy bottle of chilled wine from the fridge or a classic concoction from the cabinet to see the day out, I hope you’ll forgive me when paraphrasing a famous quote from the greatest boxer of all time, Mohammed Ali: ‘Don’t count the drinks; make the drinks count’.

What Joel has been drinking…

  • I’m a bit bedazzled by Ciroc’s Summer Citrus vodka, a new release infused with natural flavours of blood orange and lime. With an ABV of 37.5%, it also has a big enough engine to pull those flavours through when mixed with something like Fever-Tree’s Spanish Clementine tonic water. You might just need your biggest highball glass for this refreshing tipple.
  • My gin of the month is from Slingsby Gin, based in Harrogate. They have a super-tasty Yorkshire Rhubarb Gin, which works well simply with sparkling water and lots of ice, plus a good squeeze of lime. It also mixes rather nicely into a twist on a Gimlet, shaken up with ice, some lemon juice and a pinch of sugar, then served in a coupe.
  • For something a little more decadent to sip on when the sun has gone down and the fire basket has been lit, The Glenlivet has ‘remixed’ its 21- and 25-year-old expressions. Under the name ‘The Sample Room Collection’ (and available in the UK from July), the younger of the two has been finished in first-fill Oloroso sherry, Tronçais oak Cognac and vintage colheita port casks, with the 25-year-old spending time in PX sherry and Tronçais oak Cognac casks. Both are excellent, but the 25-year-old is a particular delight.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

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