And just like that, it’s September.
While it seems neither possible nor fair, summer is drawing to a close, and with it the brief period of time—at least here in the Northeast—when berries, melons, and stone fruit are at their lushest, juiciest, and sweetest. It’ll be nothing but lumpy apples this fall for us (until citrus season), so we’re doing our best to include peak summer fruit in each and every meal. Cocktails are a meal, right?
While you could just invert a bottle of vodka into a watermelon and call it a day, there are other ways to incorporate fruit into mixed drinks. We consulted cocktail experts Andrew Hunter, tasting room manager at One Eight Distilling in Washington, D.C., and Christina Basham, founder of Bubbles + Agave in Columbus, Ohio, on three techniques to let summer fruit shine: muddling, syrups, and shrubs.
But first…are you Team Raw or Team Caramelized?
Before picking your technique, decide if you’re starting with raw or cooked fruit. To capture the cleanest essence of summer, keep it raw. “Ripe fruits are fresh and bright, even tart if you’re using something like a plum,” says Basham, who recommends adding raw fruits to low-ABV patio-crushers and apéritifs so they won’t be overshadowed by aged, high-proof spirits. Consider pairing a raw fruit shrub with a botanical gin or muddled raw fruit with a lighter fortified wine like Manzanilla sherry.
However, if you want more complexity, roast your fruit or throw it on the grill. Heat will caramelize the sugars, introducing toffee notes that play well with brown spirits like bourbon and Cognac. Grilling will also add a smoky dimension, a perfect complement to mezcal and Scotch. “Caramelized fruits will give you those rich, deep sugar flavors,” Basham explains. “You’re probably not going to kick off your evening with a cocktail made with a grilled fruit syrup, but it’ll make a great nightcap.”
Now pick your technique:
The technique: If you have a wooden spoon and ten seconds, you can muddle. Muddling, which just means smooshing fruit in the bottom of a glass until its juices are released, is the easiest way to incorporate fruit into a cocktail, but your result will only be as good as your raw materials. While you can compensate for underripe or lackluster fruit in a syrup or a shrub, muddled fruit has nowhere to hide. So choose your produce wisely.
The technique: Infusing a sugar syrup with fruit is not only a way to add summer flavor to cocktails but also an age-old method for extending the season. “The sugar in a syrup is a preserving agent, just like it is in jams and jellies,” says Basham. “If you’re doing a classic 1-to-1 sugar-to-liquid ratio, that’ll last for 30 days in the fridge. But If you make a rich simple syrup, which has a 2-to-1 sugar-to-liquid ratio, you’ll get three months out of it.”
There are a couple ways to turn your summer fruit into syrup:
Simmer the fruit: The fastest way to make a fruit syrup is by throwing chopped up fruit in a saucepan with sugar and water, cooking until the fruit infuses the syrup, and then straining.
Shower the fruit with sugar and let it sit in the fridge: But Hunter often prefers using a cold-process method to retain the brightness of the fruit—think of the difference in flavor between a roasted strawberry galette and a diner-style strawberry pie with a no-bake gelatin filling. “When you cook fruit,” he explains, “you get more stewed, vegetal, almost grassy flavors. So for something like watermelon, where I want that freshness to come through, I won’t apply heat.” Instead, he adds a cup of sugar to two cups of cubed watermelon and lets it macerate in the fridge for a couple of days. Then he purees the melon and its sugary juices, strains it, and combines it with premade simple syrup.
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