Ice-cold cocktails, lemonades, and sodas taste good all year round, but they truly become a necessity right about now, when just making it through another day of obscene temperatures and sticky humidity is a victory worth celebrating. These cooling drinks relieve our thirst, yes, but more than that, it sometimes feels like they have the power to restore our sanity.
When choosing a summertime bracer, it's all too easy to fall in the same old ruts: I know that I, for one, tend to chug ice-laden seltzer like it's going out of style, opting for a chilled Negroni when I want to go the booze route. But this summer, I've vowed to branch out and explore some of the other refreshing drinks that are enjoyed around the world. From a Colombian beer-and-soda refresher brightened with citrus to a palate-cleansing South Indian yogurt drink, here are twelve lesser-known hot-weather libations from around the world.
All around the globe, it's common to cut alcohol with soda: see tinto de verano from Spain (see below), a mixture of red wine and lemon soda, or think of a British shandy, which adds sparkling lemonade or ginger beer to the region's beloved beers. If you've never tasted such combos, the idea of diluting delicious beer with lowly soda might sound like anathema, but there's actually a very good reason why the practice is so common: all-day drinking. Summer's festivities often call for daylong imbibing: the multitude of BBQs, those days at the beach, and early evenings next to the campfire. Sipping straight beer or wine might do you in much too quickly, but cutting the booze with soda makes the drink less potent (and more cooling) so you can make a day of it.
Colombian refajo—a mixture of crisp, dry lager and Colombiana, the country's beloved pinkish-orangey cream soda—is a perfect example of this species of drink. Somehow, the cloying flavor of the bubblegum-tinged soda makes an ideal match for the pale, hoppy beer: together, they make a beverage that's sweet yet brisk and alarmingly easy-drinking.
Refajo is a customizable drink: some prefer it stronger and more beer-heavy, while others opt to tip in extra Colombiana, and still others might stir in a shot or two of Columbia's version of aguardiente, an anise-flavored liquor that's distilled from sugarcane.
No matter how you mix it, refajo is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled meats: in the drink's native country, refajos flow at casual barbecues called asados, but here in the U.S. the drink is just as good alongside burgers and dogs. If you want to stir up refajos at home, check your well-stocked liquor store for the aguardiente and look for Colombiana at your Latin grocer. If you can't find it, feel free to substitute cream sodas such as Kola Champagne or Barq's Red Creme.
Tinto de Verano
While we're on the subject of booze and soda combos, let's take a minute to discuss Spanish tinto de verano, a red wine and lemon soda drink that's a favorite summertime sipper on the Iberian Peninsula (can you get any more hot-weather appropriate than a drink whose name literally means 'red wine of summer'?). If you like sangria, then you'll love this cheat-sheet version: it achieves remarkably similar flavors—fruit and tannins from the wine, citrus brightness from the soda—but takes all of 10 seconds to mix up (30 if you add a slice of lemon for garnish).
Tinto de verano is usually made with a bright, fruity, and cheap red wine (often entry-level Tempranillo), cut with a lemony, not-too-sweet soda called gaseosa. At home, I like to make tinto de verano with Pellegrino Limonata; if you can't find that, feel free to use lemon-flavored Fanta or even Sprite or 7-Up, but be sure to dilute those sweeter sodas with a glug of plain seltzer. Like sangria, tinto de verano pairs well with a variety of easy summer foods, but it's most often sipped solo at bars and parties.
Alright, so an easy-drinking refajo or tinto de verano enables day-long imbibing without getting you too wasted. But when it's already evening and you're ready for something a little stronger, Brazil's national cocktail, the limey and ever-so-refreshing caipirinha, could be the way to go. Calling upon just three ingredients—cachaça, a hard liquor distilled from the sugarcane that has long been the country's top export; sugar; and plenty of muddled lime, a well-mixed caipirinha is tart and, loaded with ice, incredibly cooling.
For decades, the drink—which in its home country is available in even the tiniest dive bars—was all but unknown in the U.S., as very few cachaça producers exported their brew. But in recent years, a few good brands such as Avua Prata, Novo Fogo, and Leblon have started producing for the North American market, and the caipirinha's profile (and availability) has risen. The cocktail is wonderful sipped on its own or served with seafood dishes.
The epitome of refreshing—its name translates to "fresh water"—an icy-cold agua fresca encapsulates summer not only through its temperature but also via its ingredients: sweet, ripe, tropical fruits. Made with just three ingredients—water, fruit, and sugar—an agua fresca is pretty much as close as you can get to fruit in a liquid form. To make the drink, fruits such as mango, pineapple, watermelon, and guava are blitzed in a blender with water, strained, sweetened and occasionally balanced with an additional squeeze of lemon or lime. Thirst-quneching aguas frescas are also beautifully bold in their colors: the traditional streetside stands where the drinks are sold boast a rainbow of ice-filled tubs from which vendors ladle out bright pink, wine-red and pale yellow beverages.
Though most often prepared with fruit, aguas frescas are also sometimes made with flowers, herbs, and grains: a well-known example of the latter category is horchata, the creamy cinnamon-scented rice milk drink. Also worth a taste is agua de jamaica, the floral, deep red brew made from hibiscus flowers and often accented with lime. It's the ideal antidote to a too-spicy taco or torta.
Traveling across the Atlantic, it's time for some pastis, the anise-flavored apéritif that's a summertime favorite all over France but especially in Provencal capital of Marseilles, where in 1932 the young entrepreneur and Marseillaise native Paul Ricard first commercialized the liqueur. Aniseed liqueurs had always been popular in France: perhaps a little too popular, as in 1915 pastis's progenitor, absinthe—widely blamed for crime and licentiousness in the country—was banned. But the French didn't lose their taste for high-proof, licorice-y drinks, and when Ricard introduced his product it was an immediate hit.
Like absinthe, pastis is much too strong to drink straight, and is traditionally diluted with cold water at a ratio of about five parts water to one part pastis. When water is added to the dark yellow liqueur, it becomes cloudy and light creamy yellow, a process known as the ouzo effect. Like that well-known Greek aniseed liqueur, pastis, when diluted, is sweet and not too strong and is traditionally sipped prior to a meal, preferably languorously. I think author Peter Mayle put it best in his second book, Toujours Provence: "For me, the most powerful ingredient in pastis is not aniseed or alcohol but ambiance, and that dictates how and where it should be drunk. I cannot imagine drinking it in a hurry."
Another European beverage with a loyal following and a history stretching back even farther than pastis is Pimm's No. 1, the dark red, gin-based liqueur invented in England in 1823. It's used as the base for the Pimm's Cup, a pitcher drink that adds lemon-lime soda ('lemonade' to Brits) or ginger ale, chopped fruit, and mint to the herbal, bittersweet and citrusy Pimm's (Kenji likes to add cucumbers to his, too). Other Pimm's formulas, based variously on Scotch, rum, and rye, were once produced too, but you'll just see No. 1 on shelves these days, unless you spot the brandy-based Winter Cup, or No. 6, a vodka-based liqueur available only in limited quantities.
The civilized, fruity Pimm's Cup one of the most popular options served at the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Chelsea Flower Show. Even if your summertime party isn't quite that classy, it's a crowd-pleaser of a drink.
So far, all of the drinks we've learned about lean toward sweetness: a few feature bitter elements, sure, but all include a significant proportion of sugar. But in regions of the world where temperatures get really high, salty sips can be much more refreshing than sweet. And when cooling dairy enters the equation, such beverages can be even better at quenching thirst.
This explains the popularity of salty yogurt beverages the world over, from the Middle East's ayran to India's lassi. But the latter country is so wild about cold dairy drinks that it produces several varieties, including neer more, a frothy spiced buttermilk that's especially common in south of the country, where temperatures regularly climb to 100° or more and the humidity makes it feel even hotter. In that kind of climate, a meal that's even slightly too heavy can feel like a gut-bomb: luckily, buttermilk's digestive properties are bolstered, in some variations of the drink, with the addition of stomach-calming flavorings such as mustard seeds and asafoetida. To give it a whirl at home, try Max's version, which gets added flavor from ginger and mint.
Sour Plum Soda
The savory side of drinks also comes into play with sour plum soda, a fizzy cooler popular all over southeast Asia. The drink couldn't be simpler: combine muddled salted preserved plums, sugar, and sparkling water. Similar to the salty lemonades and limeades using preserved fruit that are also common in Asian cuisines, the drink is savory, sweet, and fruity all at once: the longer the drink steeps, the more potent it becomes. To make the drink, check Asian specialty stores for plums cured with sugar and salt: in Chinese, they're called suanmeizi; in Japanese, umeboshi; and in Vietnamese, xí muội.
It figures that Thailand, a country where limes are integral to the national cuisine, would make a killer limeade. Sometimes taken sweet but more often incorporating a hefty pinch of salt, nam manao is sold by street vendors all over Thailand, helping to provide at least a temporary respite from the country's hot and humid climate. As a bonus, it's easy to whip up at home: just substitute lime juice for the lemon in a typical lemonade, go easy on the sugar, and consider adding a pinch of salt.
Bandung is a candy-sweet, bright pink Malaysian drink made from evaporated milk, rose water, plenty of sugar and a drop or two of red food coloring, served over ice. An adaptation of an Indian drink called rose milk, it actually tastes remarkably similar to kheer, the Indian rice pudding typically flavored with rose water and pistachios. If you like to take your desserts in a glass, then bandung might be the drink for you.
The drinks we've learned about so far all have an international pedigree, but here in the U.S. plenty of lesser-known regional beverages abound. Bottled sodas—from Georgia's Nehi orange soda to Louisiana's Abita root beer—tend to inspire fierce local pride, but home-mixed or soda shop-served refreshers vary by state lines, too. In New England, the lime rickey rules. A simple combination of fresh lime juice, seltzer and sugar—it's basically a sparkling limeade—this sweet-tart summer refresher is a Northeast favorite, as are two variations, the raspberry lime rickey and the cherry lime rickey, made with flavored syrup. The rickey enjoyed widespread popularity in the '50s and '60s, when it was served by drugstore ice cream counters that were the after-school hangout, and accordingly we like to sip 'em alongside all-American picnic grub like sandwiches, potato salad, and potato chips.
If there's any regional American drink that inspires the longing caused by sweet tea, then I haven't heard of it yet. Integral to the sugar-loving diet of the south—this is the part of the country that calls Ambrosia "salad," after all—sweet tea is exactly what it sounds like: brewed black iced tea loaded to the gills with good ol' cane sugar.
I first encountered sweet tea on a road trip, and as our car passed through Virginia and Tennessee, it seemed as though every gas station, rest stop and drive-through advertised sweet tea to go in a cup or a gallon. Being an unsweetened iced tea gal myself, I was skeptical, but I have to say that upon trying my first ice-loaded cup, I was hooked. Somehow, the level of sweetness is so high that the drink tips back into refreshing territory. I don't know how it works, but I do know that the few southern transplants I've met over the years have all mourned the lack of sweet tea in northern cities. It's a syndrome so common that it's been recognized by McDonald's, which now offers sweet tea in a 30 ounce cup for the grand total of a buck.