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[Photo: Robyn Lee]

Regardless of any heat waves that you may have already endured, summer didn't officially arrive until yesterday. With several months of sunshine, backyard parties and long evenings to come, it's time to settle into the season with a refresher course on highballs, rickeys, fizzes and bucks—the primo drinks of summer.

In today's Washington Post, Jason Wilson dips into this broad family of sparkling coolers that generations of thirsty Americans have used to beat back the fiercest sweltering weather. As Wilson notes, there's not a great deal of variance on paper between these drinks, but these seemingly minor differences can mean a lot when the drink is in your glass. He writes:

The drinks seem almost interchangeable; they're all various combinations of spirits and soda mixers, served over ice in a Collins or highball glass. But when you look closely, the way a cocktail nerd would, you'll start to see that small variations make for big differences in taste."

So what are these differences, and what significance might they have when you're fixing a drink for yourself or your guests?

Here's the general breakdown:

  • Highball: just liquor of choice plus club soda or ginger ale (cola? Well, if you insist), over ice in a tall glass. Clink clink, splash splash, fizz fizz—easy, but not very fancy if you're trying to dazzle guests even a little.
  • Rickey: liquor, club soda and lime juice (half a lime should do it), with ice and club soda. Gin's the favorite here, but this is surprisingly good with rum or bourbon. With no added sugar, these have a crisp, refreshing character, and are spectacular when the temperature soars. (Make it with gin and swap out the club soda for tonic water, and you have a...oh, you figured that out, I guess.)
  • Collins: Simply fizzy, boozy lemonade. Lemon juice, sugar, liquor of choice (gin's again the favorite, but pretty much anything is fair game), with club soda over ice. Takes a bit more effort than a simple highball, but the results are worth the labor, plus they're fantastic on a sweltering afternoon.
  • Fizz: Like a Collins, but served without ice (note I'm taking issue with Wilson's description here). Traditionally meant to be knocked back in a few swigs, true fizzes have mostly disappeared in favor of the slow-sipping Collins, and as a heat-buster, not incredibly effective. Worthwhile exception: the Ramos Fizz, which is bee-yeautiful, but a pain to prepare and too rich and fussy for a seriously hot day.
  • Buck: Booze, lemon or lime juice (depending on the liquor—whiskey or brandy like lemon, rum and tequila go for lime, and gin's happy with either), and ginger ale, over ice. The ginger ale provides all the sweetness you need, and depending on your sweet tooth and the temperature (if you're sipping to cool down, sugar's not your friend), that may be too much.

While a certain degree of the discussion is simple nomenclature and taxonomy, which most people don't give a whit about if they're just trying to mix a damn drink, things have specific names for a reason. If what your guest wants is something ginny and lemony but not too sour, and tall and cold and fizzy over ice, and they ask for a Tom Collins and you hand them something that just, well, isn't a Tom Collins, then something's askew in your host-guest relationship, which is not something anyone wants at a party.

Plus, from these simple building blocks, it's easy to expand outward, trying different spirits or different sweeteners (liqueurs or syrups in place of sugar in a Collins? An Italian amaro in place of bourbon in a buck? Well, why not...), and coming up with new drinks along the way. From simple things come greatness, and if you want your summer gathering to fall into the "Great!" column, starting with these simple drinks may just help things along considerably.


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