Somm Talk

Some Easy Cocktails for Difficult Times

You don't need a full bar to have a classy evening during the pandemic.

By Justin Vann

A homemade whiskey highball is a cinch to make.

In these trying times, one needs a reliable set of drinks that require little to no effort. The following are cocktails that require no special tools, no preparation of syrups or juices, no stirring or shaking, and are forgiving to unmeasured pours. The recipes are written informally to reflect this. Whether common or esoteric, all of these drinks leave lots of room for individual innovation.

Wine Spritzer

Mix wine and sparkling water over lots of ice; add a wedge of your favorite citrus.

The classic is just three parts still wine to one part soda water, but I would argue a 50-50 ratio can be quite nice with the right wine. Perhaps it’s easy to forget about the “classic” spritz in a world where the Aperol spritz is well known and loved, but the “original” spritz deserves another look.

Red, white, rosé, and orange wines are all equally valid. Fortified and sweet wines also deserve your consideration. White port famously goes well with tonic, but Pineau des Charentes and soda also goes hard on a muggy afternoon.

Some wine suggestions to get you started: Riesling (dry or sweet), Gamay, and dry rosé. When you’re ready to graduate to spritzes with more than two ingredients, reference Talia Baiocchi and Leslie Pariseau’s book on the subject.

Whiskey Highball

Pour about 2 oz of whiskey into a cool-looking glass that holds around 10 oz. Add soda, then ice.

Anvil holds the honor of the finest whiskey highball in town. Both the glassware and Japanese whiskey are frozen prior to service. All they have to do is pour cold sparkling water on it, and it’s ready to go, sans ice. Nickel City in Austin has also punished untold thousands of livers with its whiskey highballs on tap, powered by Jim Beam bourbon. Here, a heavy frozen mug, ice, and a lemon twist captivate in a completely different way than the Anvil highball.

The lesson here is that there is no such thing as a perfect whiskey highball. The best are crafted with lots of intention and trial and error. Finding a sparkling water that brings out the best in your spirit of choice is not splitting hairs—water has a profound effect on the flavor of a highball. I would encourage readers to craft their own “house recipe.” And just to blow the doors off it; the term “highball” references all combinations of spirit and carbonated mixer, not just whiskey. It’s too simple to resist riffing.

Ti Punch

Pour about 2 oz of agricole rhum into a rocks glass. Add a very small spoonful of cane syrup or turbinado sugar. Cut a lime coin (a circular slice of lime zest with a little bit of the flesh on it), squeeze it into the glass and throw it in. Stir.

Short for “petit punch,” this beverage originates from French-speaking Caribbean islands, like Martinique, Haiti, and Guadeloupe. The drink contains flavors we’re familiar with—in a way, it’s a short and casual daiquiri at room temperature (the classic omits ice). The lack of ice and the grassy, funky flavors inherent to agricole rhum make this a more challenging drink. But like the daiquiri, its simplicity showcases the provenance of its base spirit wonderfully. It’s so easy to make that a common tradition is for the host to let their guests prepare their own punch.

Now that you know the rules, feel free to break them. Put ice in your ti punch if you feel like it, as a little bit can be really nice. You needn’t confine yourself to agricole rhum, and take note that other spirits can work in a ti punch, most notably un-aged fruit brandy, also known as eau-de-vie.

Vermouth Panache

Pour a mixture of sweet vermouth and dry vermouth over ice in a rocks glass, and add a few dashes of bitters.

It is a shame that America still hasn’t picked up the habit of drinking straight vermouth—fortified wine with herbs and aromatics added—but better late than never. The classic recipe calls for two-thirds dry vermouth and one-third sweet vermouth, but truly the only proportion that matters is the one you like. Experiment with different brands of vermouth, as they are different. Some brands to start with (each has multiple styles): Carpano, Cocchi, Dolin, Lustau, and Martini & Rossi. An orange slice or a couple Castelvetrano olives add depth of complexity (and snacks).

Honorable mentions

The Godfather: Add a small spoonful of amaretto to a glass of intensely flavored whiskey on the rocks. This drink works particularly well with smoky, peaty scotches or high-proof American whiskey.

Champagne Cocktail: Put a sugar cube on a paper napkin, and dash angostura bitters onto it until it is saturated. Place that sugar cube into a wine glass, and slowly pour a full glass of sparkling wine on it.

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