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Cocktail 101: Five Essential Summer Sippers

[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

There are endless cocktails in the world, and new ones invented every day, but how many of these drinks are true essentials? In this series, we're discussing drinks everyone should know how to make. Whether you're relaxing by the pool this summer, putting up your feet on your back deck, or sidewalk-dining in Torino, a refreshing beverage takes the edge off summer's heat. Here are five classic drinks that refresh and delight.

Highballs

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Highballs are a whole family of cocktails, and everyone has a favorite. If I even attempted to cover each of them, I could fill this week's column several times, just with highballs.

Highballs are great for summer because they're usually relatively light on spirit and long on mixer, so they keep you well hydrated, and because they're also usually fizzy, which makes for a refreshing drink. So whether your favorite is a gin and tonic, whiskey and soda, Jack and Ginger, Pimm's Cup, Cuba Libre, or even a humble vodka tonic, we can all unite in declaring the highball to be the quintessential summer sipper.

Negroni

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[Photograph: Jen SFO-BCN on Flickr]

I've talked about the Negroni before, in my list of five gin cocktails everyone should know. I don't normally like to repeat myself in this series, but heck. The Negroni is just such a great summer drink that I don't care. This cocktail is such a complex and nuanced drink that you'd think it wouldn't work as a summer cocktail. After all, in the summer, we think we want something light and crisp and refreshing, and maybe also something low in alcohol. The Negroni is crisp and refreshing, but not light, and considering that it's a blend of three boozes, it's not low in alcohol.

So why does it work as a summer sipper? It's that last word that gives the clue: sipper. I love highballs, but let's be honest; they go down fast and easy. You can drink three highballs before you even realize it. The Negroni's bittersweet herbal complexity challenges you to slow down, pause for a bit, and take your time. Isn't that the essence of summer?

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There's no need to be a purist here. If you want to lighten it up by adding a little fizz, go for it. Try building it in a tall glass over ice, with equal parts gin, vermouth, Campari, and soda or tonic. Replace the gin with Prosecco and you have a Negroni Spagliato, which is delicious in its own right.

Daiquiri

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

The classic daiquiri is light and crisp, and yet fruity and boozy at the same time. You want it frozen? I won't judge, but just please use real juice and not some crappy sour mix from the liquor store.

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Whiskey Smash

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[Photograph: Robyn Lee]

Sibling to a mint julep, the smash takes a simpler approach. Made properly, the mint julep requires a bit of a ritual; there are even invocations you can read while preparing one. The smash, though, has all the same components as the julep but is simpler to make. It's a fast path to a summer drink, and a great way to use the mint that's abundant in farmer's markets right now.

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Bloody Mary

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[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

Speaking of summer abundance, consider the tomato. I like a Bloody Mary pretty much all the darned time, but this drink takes on special meaning in the summer. The rest of the year, I'm happy to take a bottled tomato juice and doctor it up with typical Bloody flavorings: Tabasco, Worcestershire, lemon juice, salt, pepper, etc. But in summer, I find that a bit heavy, so I take a different approach. I start with great farmer's market tomatoes, chop them up, and let the juice drain from them through cheesecloth. I take the tomato water, a bit of gin, and some fresh herbs—whatever's around at the market. I muddle the herbs lightly into the gin, add the tomato water and a little something for a kick of heat, and suddenly we're happy.

You can go in a variety of directions with homemade tomato water, but here's a take on a Not-So-Bloody Mary from last summer.

About the author: Michael Dietsch approaches life with a hefty dash of bitters. He recently relocated to Brooklyn, New York, with his wife and adorable young son. You can follow him on twitter at @dietsch.

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