Gracing the plaid-clad picnic tables of nearly every barbecue from early summer to late, watermelon is the unofficial hallmark of the season.
It’s during these months, too, that it begins making an appearance in warm-weather cocktails, its sugary character balanced with acidity, and often, with either salt or spice.
“Watermelon is incredibly refreshing, but tends to bring a lot of sweetness to a drink,” explains Xavier Herit, beverage consultant for New York’s Wallflower, who often downplays its sweetness with a pinch of salt. Alternatively, in his Little Deuce Coupe, he calls on bittering or herbal ingredients (in this case, both Cocchi Americano Rosa and absinthe) to add a bracing quality to an otherwise sweet, gin-based drink.
Though it’s most often paired with clear spirits, watermelon can play well with whiskey, too, says Chad Hauge, principal bartender at Chicago’s Longman & Eagle. In his Contraband Picnic—cheekily named for the booze-soaked fruit that so often graces summer tables—he calls on a blended whiskey that incorporates both corn, rye and oloroso sherry. Blending it with an added dose of manzanilla, plus tart grapefruit juice, it’s an especially complex take on the watermelon cocktail.
“I think about what other flavors can augment and add layers and balance,” says Hauge, adding that “the result is a lower proof cocktail (by Longman’s standards) that is balanced and light.”
While most watermelon cocktail recipes call for freshly juiced fruit, Gary Hayward of Nashville’s Embers Ski Lodge takes a simpler approach, muddling both cucumber and watermelon into the base of his sparkling wine-topped Ajax Punch. Garnished with basil leaves, this rum-based drink is easily batched, a quality that keeps with the inherently sharable spirit of one of summer’s quintessential flavors.