By Gretchen McKay


Refreshing cocktails for summer

Categories : Food
Mint mojito/Gretchen McKay

When it comes to a cold adult beverage, I almost always opt for a hop-heavy pour of India pale ale. It’s a learned taste, to be sure, but one that never seems to disappoint.

But when Pittsburgh’s steamy, sticky weather rolls around, making T-shirts stick to your ribs like a damp shower curtain, I thirst for a drink that’s a bit crisper, more refreshing, and lends itself to slow sipping while hiding from the sun under the shade of an umbrella.

Nothing hits the spot when it’s hot outside like a summer cocktail. Often effervescent and almost always fruity, these alcoholic-mixed drinks cool you down like nobody’s business. Plus, they’re prettier than a pint of beer and feel more celebratory, too, not to mention an art form if you’ve ever watched a really good bartender prepare one of the specialty artisanal cocktails that are all the rage now. Composed of fresh ingredients such as citrus juice, fruits and herbs, housemade syrups and small-batch bitters, hand-crafted cocktails have flair.

Best when shared, cocktails are pretty easy to make at home so long as you’ve got the basics: alcohol, simple syrup (bring equal parts sugar and water to a boil in a small pan, stir until sugar has dissolved, then cool) and plenty of ice. This time of year, you’ll also want to introduce some sort of fresh fruit for flavor.

The best summer cocktail is one where the flavors blend well, and it goes down smooth — so smooth, you could sit with friends and drink one after the other and not even realize it.

“When you’re outside in the sun, you want a drink that’s refreshing on a hot day,” says Scott Schaffer, general manager at Lidia’s Pittsburgh in the Strip District, which this month opened a new outdoor lounge featuring a small plate menu and signature cocktails.

Cooling bourbon-based drinks are always popular in summer, along with mules, a light and fizzy hot-weather cocktail made with ginger beer, citrus juice and a jigger or two of alcohol. Lidia’s version, dubbed the Smallman Mule, pairs chamomile-infused vodka with limoncello, pomegranate liqueur and ginger beer.

Below, we offer recipes for five easy cocktails to cool you down during the dogs days of August. They’re perfect for entertaining, or when you just feel like chillin’ on the back porch. Cheers!

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.

Sorry Not Sorry

Sorry so Sorry cocktail/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Light and refreshing, this whiskey-based cocktail goes down so easy. To make honey syrup, bring equal parts honey and water to boil in a small saucepan, turn down to a simmer and stir until the honey is completely dissolved.

2 ounces Canadian whiskey

3/4 ounce honey syrup

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce peach liquor

2 dashes peach bitters

Soda water

Lemon peel, for garnish

Fill cocktail shaker tin with ice. Add whiskey, honey syrup, lemon juice, peach liquor and peach bitters, and shake.

Strain onto fresh ice in Collins glass. Top with soda water and garnish with lemon peel.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Alison Hilard, Butcher and the Rye

Blackberry-Thyme Margarita

Blackberry Margarita/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

Margaritas lend themselves to all different kinds of fruit. Here, inspired by a drink on the menu at Big Burrito’s Mad Mex restaurant, I dress up the classic tequila cocktail with fresh blackberries and thyme simple syrup. 

For thyme simple syrup

1 cup water

Small bundle of fresh thyme

1 cup sugar

For cocktail

Lime wedge

Coarse salt for glass rim

2 ounces 100 percent agave tequila

2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

1 ounce thyme simple syrup

1 ounce orange liqueur

1/3 cup fresh blackberries

Make simple syrup: Add water and thyme to a small saucepan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and allow to simmer for 15 minutes. Add sugar, and stir until it dissolves. Remove from heat.  Cool, then strain out the leaves, transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Rub rim of glass with the lime wedge.  then dip the rim of the glass into a plate that’s been coated with salt. Combine tequila, lime juice, simple syrup, orange liqueur and blackberries in a blender and process until smooth. If you’re fussy, strain mixture over cheesecloth into an ice-filled glass; if not, pour directly over ice.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Gretchen McKay

Smallman Mule

Smallman Mule/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

This is an Italian twist on a classic mule cocktail. To make chamomile-infused vodka, soak 10 chamomile tea bags in one 750-milliliter bottle of vodka for 24 hours, then remove the bags. 

1 ounce infused chamomile tea-infused vodka

1/2 ounce limoncello

1/2 ounce pomegranate liqueur

Ginger beer

Lime slice, for garnish

In a highball glass, add tea-infused vodka, limoncello and pomegranate liqueur. Top with ice and pour in ginger beer to top. Stir cocktail and garnish with a lime.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Lidia’s Pittsburgh

Strawberry-Peach Sangria 

Strawberry-Peach Sangria/Gretchen McKay

PG tested

White wine sangria is a perfect summer drink because it’s so light and refreshing. It’s important the sangria sits overnight in the refrigerator to allow the flavors to meld.

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup peach brandy

2½ cups sliced strawberries

750-milliliter bottle albarino wine, or other crisp white wine, chilled

1 cup chilled club soda

1 peach, thinly sliced

3 thyme sprigs

1 purple basil sprig, optional

1 sweet basil sprig, optional

Combine sugar and brandy in a pitcher; stir until sugar dissolves. Add strawberries and wine; chill 8 hours or overnight. Just before serving, stir in club soda, peach slices, thyme and basil, if desired.

Serves 8.

— “Amazing Recipe Makeovers” by the Editors of Cooking Light (Oxmoor House; May 2016; $21.95)

Mint Mojito

PG tested

It’s hard to beat the simplicity of this classic Cuban highball made of lime juice, muddled mint, sugar, rum, and a hit of soda. This recipe gets an added kick with mint simple syrup. Be careful not to over-muddle the fresh mint, or it will become bitter. 

For mint simple syrup

1 cup mint leaves

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

For cocktail

7 to 8 mint leaves, rinsed and patted dry

1 lime, rinsed, dried, and cut into quarters

1 ounce mint syrup

2 ounces white rum

3 to 4 ounces club soda

1 sprig fresh mint, for garnish

Prepare mint syrup: Drop mint leaves into a saucepot. Briefly muddle them, pressing on leaves until they begin to break down slightly. Add sugar and water, and simmer over medium heat, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Cool, then strain out the leaves, transfer to a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Prepare mojito: Drop mint leaves and lime quarters into a Collins glass, and gently muddle. Fill glass with crushed ice. Add mint syrup, rum and club soda. Stir and garnish with a mint sprig.

Makes 1 cocktail.

— Adapted form “Forager’s Cocktails” by Amy Zavatto (Sterling Epicure; 2015)