It may seem counterintuitive to discuss cabernet sauvignon during the warm summer months. An ideal wine for cooler weather, the tannins in cabernet make it a poor match to the customary summer fare and an unlikely candidate to consider sipping poolside. But summer may actually be an ideal time to think about buying some cabernet, especially if you have a location to keep it cool and undisturbed until the inevitable arrival of autumn and winter.
The grape cabernet sauvignon is the result of an inadvertent, but very fortuitous, cross between cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc that occurred in southwestern France in the 17th century. Thick skinned, relatively disease resistant and easy to cultivate, cabernet sauvignon has become one of the world’s most popular red wine varietals. Indeed, globally it was the most planted premium red grape varietal until merlot edged it out in the 1990s. As it is still widely planted the world over, quality varies with the terroir and the skill of the winemaker — harvesting too early or late will result in off-flavors such as green peppers or over jammy black fruit. When well-produced, appropriately aged and treated gently, cabernet sauvignon becomes a true vinous treasure.
Our local shelves appear well-stocked with cabernets, including some recent releases and others from earlier years. Summer and holiday sales abound and if your retailer does not allow their wines to languish on shelves that suffer from the heat, then this may be the opportune time to grab a few cabernets to put away until the fall holiday season.
One kosher cabernet that has caught our interest this summer is the Carmel Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 produced from grapes grown along the foothills of Mount Meron. It is a complex, well-structured, and nicely balanced medium bodied cabernet with aromas of blackberries and red cherries that progress into sustained dark fruit flavors including plums and currants with some touches of roasted meats, black pepper and raspberries. Find some to save for the autumn holiday season.
Spirits-wise, we thought we’d shake things up a bit. At this time of writing, the weather is unpleasantly hot. What is needed is something simple and delicious to cool the blood, slake the thirst and refresh the soul. Time for summer cocktails.
Most summer cocktails have a basic formula calling for some mix of fruit juices or purees with various types of booze. The overall effect is to serve up something light, cool and refreshing.
Unfortunately, many of today’s blender-made drinks tend increasingly to taste like an alcoholic slushy. These are cold and will get you drunk, but they aren’t exactly “fine living.” The novelist Ernest Hemingway consumed oceans of daiquiris made with lemons, sugar, lots of rum and shaved ice. But these were definitely not the slushy, fruity concoctions of today’s bar scene. Hemingway always cautioned the barmen to go easy on the sugar: “It should have a sour finish — like life.” Just so.
Rather than spiraling down the too-cold, too-sweet road this summer, consider something more refined and elegant, something easier to prepare at home and easier to clean up after. The art of mixing a cocktail is not an exact science, so recipes and measurements should be thought of as guides, rather than rules chiseled in stone — at all times, mix according to taste. Similarly, the two basic secrets to mixing a fantastic cocktail are (1) to use fresh, good quality ingredients whenever possible and (2) to make certain that all the flavors are in perfect harmony, or balance — so that each ingredient’s contribution is felt, but nothing overpowers or clashes.
Here are a few cool, classic cocktails that will quench your summer thirst and revitalize you. They are very easy to make, yet still convey a rewarding air of sophistication. First, try a Gin & Tonic (G & T).
Novelist and infamous drinker Kingsley Amis, in his book On Drink, quipped: “It would be rather shabby to take money for explaining that, for instance, a gin and tonic consists of gin and tonic, plus ice and a slice of lemon” — yet even something so simple is so often done badly. When well made, a G & T is refreshing, clean, sparkling, bitter, sweet, and helps take the edge off. When badly made, a G & T is a depressing mess — at too many bars a G & T means cheap gin, bad ice, mediocre and too sweet tonic from the soda-gun, and a sad looking garnish. Why pay for that? Instead, make it well at home and decompress a little.
The key to unlocking the secret of the G & T is to balance the bitterness of the tonic against the juniper and other flavors in the gin, while making sure that the juniper stays subtly on top. Use fresh fruit, super cold, hard ice and a quality, though not too expensive, “London Dry” style gin like Beefeater or Bombay Sapphire or Tanqueray, and decently bitter tonic water like Schweppes. In a well-chilled highball glass, pour 2 ounces of gin, 4 ounces of tonic water (if the tonic to hand runs sweet, cut it 1:1 with soda water), 2-3 large cubes of ice, stir briefly, and add a fresh lime or lemon wedge for garnish. Traditionally, lime is the fruit of choice, but lemon is now more common in the U.K. — either does the job (if you use both, it is technically called an “Evans” cocktail).
Or consider the Gin Fizz, a delicious and refreshing classic. In a cocktail shaker 3/4 full of hard, cold ice, add 2 ounces of gin, 3/4 of an ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon sugar (or 1 ounce simple syrup), then shake it like you mean it and strain into a chilled highball glass with ice. Top up with club soda and drink.
Try a Mojito (pronounced moe-hee-toe; this is basically just a Cuban/tropical variation of the American “Mint Julep”). Put four wedges of lime, 2 to 3 teaspoons sugar and eight to 10 fresh mint leaves into a mixing glass or shaker and then muddle or mash together, mortar-and-pestle like, until the sugar is thoroughly dissolved, the juice is maximally extracted from the limes, and the mint is totally integrated into the juice. Then add ice and 2 ounces of light or silver rum and shake briefly, then strain into a highball glass with cracked or crushed ice. Add three dashes of Angostura bitters and top with soda water, garnish with two or three sprigs of mint, and serve.
Finally, we would be remiss if we did not mention the Rickey, Washington, D.C.’s native cocktail. A couple of years ago a plaque was put up to declare the J.W. Marriott hotel in Washington as the birthplace of the “Rickey.” Invented in 1883 by bartender George Williamson at a place called Shoemaker’s, located at 1331 E St., N.W., where the J.W. Marriott hotel now stands, the Rickey was named for Democratic lobbyist Col. Joe Rickey.
Essentially a lime version of the Gin Fizz, the Rickey is a beguiling and refreshing yet super simple cocktail: 2 ounces of booze, half a lime squeezed (roughly half an ounce) and dropped into the glass, topped up with soda water. Originally made with bourbon, by the 1890s it was mostly made with gin, and so it remains today. Give it a sip and you’ll understand why. Think of the Rickey as the American answer to the British G & T. L’Chaim!