Cheers to summer cocktails

This summer, expect a change at your favorite stylish watering hole.

For starters, your bartender is no longer just a mixer of drinks. He or she is a "bar chef," the individual who uses "all that is around him or her, bringing these components into a perfectly balanced concoction," says Robert Zappatelli, vice president of food and beverage for Benchmark Hospitality International, the operator of award-winning hotels, restaurants and resort properties.

"Bar chefs work jointly with the culinary team using ingredients such as fresh mint sprigs, lemongrass ... raw sugar cane for simple syrup, fresh herbs like basil and cilantro and fruit such as blueberries, strawberries and seasonal or regional selections — macerating these in preparation for the perfect drink."

Bar chefs have more at their fingertips than ever. The locavore movement has taken a seat at the bar, which means ingredients from farmers markets and produce baskets are popping up like never before in your cocktails.

On the bar at 116 Crown in New Haven, a row of glasses contains what amounts to ingredients for a delicious salad: fresh mint, rosemary, thyme and sliced cucumbers. Lemongrass, chile peppers and fruits like watermelon and blueberries are also making a splash on the drinks menu.

Today's bar chefs are playing around with the latest liqueurs, infused liquors and aromatics, or, where necessary, inventing their own, like blueberry-infused or lavender-infused simple syrup.

The average bartender's regular chemistry set is already extensive and keeps growing. Kevin Gillespie, bar and floor manager at Max Burger in West Hartford, estimates that the restaurant stocks 23 vodkas — many of them flavored with ingredients from kaffir lime to mandarin orange, pomegranate to pear and plum. Two new additions to the drinks menu are the Mango Cosmo, a cosmopolitan made with a new mango-flavored vodka, and the Hole-in-One, a combination of strawberry-flavored Stolichnaya vodka, lemonade and iced tea inspired by the non-alcoholic drink named for its creator, golfer Arnold Palmer.

Retro Cool

Another trend this summer is that old-fashioned drinks like the Old-Fashioned are making a comeback. Sidecars, Rob Roys and Tom Collinses are creating a mood of retro cool. "The trend is going back to classic ingredients and cocktails — the kind your grandmother used to drink," says Dan Gifeisman, bar manager at West Hartford's Elbow Room.

But if some bars serve the classics just as granny quaffed them, others are changing them up with new ingredients.

"Back then, we didn't have the products we have now," says John Ginnetti, co-owner with his wife, Danielle, of the restaurant and bar 116 Crown.

Cocktail trends aside, to be a bar chef involves the same hazards as being a kitchen chef, and the ruination of many a cocktail occurs when mixology strays too far from orthodoxy.

The mere mention of a Snickers martini, seen recently on a drinks menu in northwest Connecticut, gives Ginnetti pause. "Who wants to drink a peanut?" he asks.

He laments the development of cocktail concoctions that show little respect for human taste buds. "The whiskey sour has survived in spite of what people have done to it," he says.

While the need for change is obvious ("What are you preserving by not evolving?" he asks), certain principles must be brought to bear.

At 116 Crown, libation creation begins with one very important first rule: "It has to taste good," Ginnetti says.

A Classic Formula

When he changes ingredients or mixes new ones to create a cocktail, he's less inclined to combine candy bar flavors or salad ingredients than to upgrade what belongs in the glass in the first place.

He starts with a formula — "a cocktail [combines] a spirit, a sweetener and a bitter agent," he says.

Before mixing anything, Ginnetti works like a chef, sourcing out the best ingredients. Making drinks is like cooking dinner, he says. "A chef who starts with the best ends with the best."

He has a preference for boutique spirits — a vodka distilled with water from Iceland (where it's believed to be the purest); Q Tonic, an artisanal all-natural mixer made with Peruvian quinine and sweetened with agave syrup instead of corn syrup; and infused spirits or simple syrups made using local, organic produce.

Having the best ingredients means treating them with respect. "A martini is gin, vermouth and a twist," Ginnetti says. "The rule [at 116 Crown] is that vermouth is a wine. Once it's open, it's going to oxidize, age and go bad. You buy a good one, and you keep it cold."

Ginnetti talks about "balance" the way chefs do. "Balance isn't sugar mixed with sugar mixed with sugar," he says. Get it right, and "balance is what takes the ordinary and makes it extraordinary."

Imaginative Concoctions

His summer cocktails are inspired by changes in the weather, changes in what's available at the local farmer's market, and changes in the types of spirits and mixers he sources out or concocts in the kitchen. For this season, Ginnetti created a handful of coolers, which, by formula, have "less alcohol by percentage than cocktails," and a few specialty cocktails.

The Mongibello combines Campari, lemon juice, simple syrup and Q Tonic. (It's named for the town in Sicily where Patricia Highsmith's murder-mystery "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is set. "It's what I pictured the characters drinking," Ginnetti says. "Aside from [the Jude Law character] getting hit in the head with a paddle, it seemed like a great place to be.").

His Four Thieves concoction, christened for the potion that allegedly protected four medieval robbers from the Black Death, blends blueberry-infused vodka, lemon and lavender simple syrup.

The East India Co. is a British Colonial-meets-the-Raj combination of Hayman's Old Tom Gin, coconut, ginger beer and lemongrass.

His Guerrero, named for a region of Mexico where watermelon is grown, mixes Tres Generaciones Anejo Tequila, Yellow Chartreuse (an herb-based liqueur made by monks in France) and fresh watermelon ("If you shake the fruit enough, it disintegrates," Ginnetti says).

As for typifying trends, Ginnetti believes it can be accidental. "We were working on the watermelon drink, and the next day in the Times: watermelon. I'm not surprised. I'm not the only guy who walked to the farmer's market and saw watermelon."

But he may be the only one who mixes it into a Guerrero.


>> 1-1/2ounces Tres Generaciones Anejo Tequila

>> 1/2 ounce Yellow Chartreuse

>> 1 piece fresh watermelon (about the size of two fingers)

>> Dash Peychaud's Bitters

>> Cucumber wheel, for garnish

Combine all ingredients except cucumber wheel in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until watermelon dissolves. Pour into glass, garnish with cucumber wheel, and serve. Makes 1 Guerrero.


>> 3 ounces Campari

>> 1/2 ounce fresh-squeezed lemon juice

>> 1/2 ounce simple syrup (recipe follows)

>> 1 bottle Q Tonic

>> Lemongrass stalk or piece of stalk, for garnish

Pour first three ingredients into a tall glass with ice. Top with Q Tonic. Stir. Garnish with lemongrass. Makes one Mongibello.

Simple syrup is made using a one-to-one ratio of water to sugar. The following recipe makes roughly 4 cups of syrup, plenty for a few rounds of cocktails. Syrup should be made ahead and chilled before use. Leftover syrup keeps for up to two weeks in the refrigerator. The recipe can easily be halved or doubled.

Simple Syrup

>> 2 cups water

>> 2 cups sugar

Combine water and sugar in a medium saucepan set over medium high heat. Stir mixture until sugar dissolves. Increase heat to bring mixture to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer syrup for 3 minutes. Transfer to a bowl, let cool then refrigerate to chill.


>> 2 ounces Stolichnaya Strawberry vodka

>> 4 ounces lemonade

>> 4 ounces iced tea

>> 1 fresh strawberry, for garnish

>> 1 lemon slice, for garnish

Fill a tall highball glass with ice. Pour in vodka, lemonade and iced tea. Stir to blend. Garnish with strawberry and lemon slice and serve. Makes 1 Hole-in-One.


>> 2 ounces Pearl Plum vodka

>> 1/2 ounce Canton Ginger liqueur

>> 1/4 ounce Triple Sec

>> 1/4 ounce grapefruit juice

>> Splash Sprite

In a cocktail shaker filled with ice, combine all ingredients. Shake to mix and chill. Pour through a strainer into a martini glass, or serve on the rocks, as preferred. Makes 1 Plum Ginger Martini.