Sippin’ the summer away

Craft cocktail makers share hints to mixing up warm-weather drinks

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published June 18, 2014

 Butter Run Saloon’s Ginger Mint Iced Tea, made with vodka, ginger-flavored simple syrup, mint and lemon, is a popular choice for the bar’s summertime patrons, according 
to the owner.

Butter Run Saloon’s Ginger Mint Iced Tea, made with vodka, ginger-flavored simple syrup, mint and lemon, is a popular choice for the bar’s summertime patrons, according to the owner.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

METRO DETROIT — While the kids make a mad dash for the popsicles this summer, odds are that parents will also be reaching for their own summer refreshment to cool down with.

With each season, bartenders change up their menu to give libation lovers the timely tastes they want to suit their moods. Now that Mother Nature has finally decided to thaw out metro Detroit after the agonizingly long winter, crowds are clamoring for drinks that are reminiscent of traditional summer flavors.

For Sandy Levine, owner of The Oakland Art Novelty Co. in downtown Ferndale, the taste of summer is pretty simple to master.

“A lot of drinks have that sort of lemonade quality where it’s basically a sour, a spirit and sugar. They’re very simple drinks, but very refreshing. Like a daiquiri, which is rum, lime and sugar. It’s awesome in warm weather because it’s so refreshing,” said Levine.

Levine opened The Oakland nearly three years ago, just as the craft cocktail craze was slowly making its way to town. The movement of creating one-of-a-kind drinks by hand using fresh and unique ingredients has interested Levine for years. Metro Detroiters are jumping on the classy cocktail drink trend in droves.

The interior of The Oakland is dark and cozy, like a Prohibition-style lounge tucked away from daylight and the sounds of the city. But for those who want to enjoy a craft cocktail out in the steamy air and sunshine, Levine and his staff can accommodate that, too; recently, they reopened Honi Honi, a Tiki bar that serves as The Oakland’s ode to summer with punchy drinks on the patio behind the building.

“Outside (at Honi Honi), it’s a little bit louder than inside — good for big groups. The drinks are a bit cheaper and more simple than the intricate drinks we serve inside, and you’re out in the open air,” he said.

Among the popular choices for Honi Honi guests are the — you guessed it — Honi Honi, which is a cocktail itself reminiscent of a bourbon Mai Tai. They also serve up a Kaleidoscope Eye, which boasts two different kinds of over-proof rum, lime juice, sugar and crushed ice. Ice is essential for many summer drinks, in Levine’s opinion.

“It’s great for the summer when it gets hot, but it also helps with dilutions. A lot of those stronger drinks benefit from a bit of water. If the drink has a high-proof spirit in it or you’re going to be at a barbecue for several hours and plan to have more than a couple cocktails, the more water in the drink, the better,” he said.

The sugar and citrus combination is one that rules supreme at several bars, including The Sugar House down in Corktown. Yani Frye, a mixologist who has won multiple national honors for bartending, said that as at The Oakland, his customers are drinking daiquiris and other simple citrusy creations.

“Daiquiris or Tom Collins, which is gin, lemon, simple syrup and club soda, are very popular. It’s a lot of sour drinks right now with rum or gin or whiskey or scotch or tequila. With any of those, add lemon or lime juice and simple syrup, and it almost always goes over well,” said Frye.

Frye said his secret to a great drink is using only the freshest ingredients: juice that was just squeezed, and herbs that were just picked and muddled for each drink as it’s ordered.

“Even if you don’t have a lot to work with, if what you’re using is fresh, it will yield the best end result,” he said. “Something as simple as fresh lemon juice — buy a couple lemons instead of using that ‘real’ lemon juice in the bottle, as they say.”

Keeping with that theory, The Sugar House orders cases of fresh ginger each week to infuse into simple syrup. Around back, the bar has a small herb garden growing plants like mint and purple basil to add to cocktails.

“We make a drink called Bourbon Branch, which has fresh ginger syrup, lemon and whiskey. It’s very popular and very simple. It’s super delicious, with the freshness of the lemon and the ginger. It’s very clean tasting,” he said.

Over in St. Clair Shores, Butter Run Saloon owner David Harden has around 400 whiskeys on hand for guests to enjoy. But, this time of year, he said, customers lean more toward the clean taste of vodka.

“In the summertime, you want something that’s more refreshing and a little bit lighter. In the winter, you want your Manhattans, bourbons and heavier drinks. In the summer, vodka has no real flavor to it, so it mixes well with other lighter ingredients,” said Harden.

The new craft cocktail joint is something that eastsiders have been wanting for some time, according to Harden, who said locals would have to venture to trendy areas like Detroit, Birmingham, Royal Oak or Ferndale to get a creative drink. Now, Butter Run Saloon’s got that covered with summer drinks like the Ginger Mint Iced Tea, with vodka, iced tea, muddled mint, ginger-flavored simple syrup, St. Germain and lemon juice.

“Anything with basil and lime juice seems to be popular with guests, too. We’ve got the Caipirinha, which is made with Cachaca, a Brazilian rum, lime and sugarcane juice,” he said.

Harden said his experienced bar staff came up with the creative drink recipes, and some of them were even found online. He said that for home drinkers, there are plenty of cocktail ideas on the Web for any taste.

“Just pop in the ingredients you like, or just ‘summer drinks with vodka,’ and it will give you a list of recipes,” he said.