“A watermelon cocktail is a crowd-pleaser,” observes Brian Catapang, beverage manager of Magnus on Water in Biddeford, Maine. “If you throw anything in with watermelon, [people will] order it.”
The vivid pink watermelon drink has broad appeal, at least in part because everyone knows what to expect from a cocktail flavored with a fruit most associated with pleasant, sun-soaked summer vibes. The watermelon Margarita, for instance, remains a quintessential example of the “pop” cocktail: easy on the eyes, and not too much of any one thing.
But how exactly did watermelon become a shortcut to pleasing a crowd? While watermelon brandy, distilled across the Lowcountry of South Carolina in the 1800s, shouldn’t be overlooked, watermelon drinks weren’t part of the classic cocktail canon, or midcentury tiki culture either. “Watermelon was never a thing in tiki drinks,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, tiki historian and owner of New Orleans’ Latitude 29. “Or any drinks I know of pre–cocktail renaissance,” he adds, “except for pouring vodka into a whole melon via a drilled hole at 1970s barbecues.”
In the late ’90s and early aughts, when bar pros began to prize using fresh fruit as a way to elevate drinks, watermelon began to edge onto the scene, whether infused into vodka for ’tinis or blended into slushy Margaritas. And, after taking a back seat to the classics during the early and middle stages of the cocktail renaissance, the watermelon drink is back—albeit in a new guise.
The latest generation of watermelon cocktails has adopted a clever, sophisticated edge—enhanced by saline or spice, and accompanied by unexpected spirits. After all, bartenders reason, guests will gravitate toward the pink drink anyway, so why not use it as an excuse to bring in a surprise or two?
“I like to use familiarity as an opportunity to challenge someone,” says Catapang. At his bar, he pairs fresh watermelon juice with fino sherry and a half-ounce of pisco for his Microdose. Simple syrup laced with local sea salt and a tincture, made with habanero and seaweed foraged from a nearby beach, adds that unexpected layer of intrigue. The resulting low-ABV drink is still “summery and refreshing and thirst-quenching,” with the watermelon playing the role of a palate-refresher. Meanwhile, Lynnette Marrero, bar director for New York’s Llama Inn and Llama San, builds on a base of pisco and unites watermelon, rosé and the balancing heat of habanero in her Meloncholia. It’s equal parts “crushable” and surprising.
For all of watermelon’s up-for-anything attitude, it can actually be a challenging ingredient to work with in a professional bar setting, as the distinctive flavor tends to fade after just a few hours. For that reason, some bar pros opt to preserve the fruit, whether incorporated into a shrub or bitters, or—as Matthew Belanger of Death & Co. Los Angeles uses in his Kingsland Gimlet—a watermelon syrup.
“Watermelon, especially when it’s super-fresh, is amazing. Even if you freeze it, even just four hours later it’s not as good,” Belanger explains. “A syrup allows us to have the best of both worlds.”
That lightly sweetened watermelon syrup, made by dissolving one part sugar in three parts fresh juice, is combined with London dry gin and smaller measures of rum and red bitters. An additional dash of curry bitters adds nuanced spice, paying homage to watermelon curry, a traditional dish from northwestern India—in particular, a version once served by the late chef Floyd Cardoz at New York’s Tabla.
“Watermelon is familiar, well-worn territory in terms of cocktails,” Belanger recalls. “I thought, how could you bring something to the table that’s more novel?” Juxtaposing the fruit with savory, culinary flavors adds depth as well as a sense of surprise in drink form, he says.
If it’s not a bright pink drink, is it still a watermelon cocktail? Orlando McCray, bar director at Brooklyn’s Nightmoves, subverts expectations by focusing on the “water” aspect of the melon, which makes sense for a fruit that’s 92 percent water. McCray clarifies the juice in a centrifuge for his Watermelon Pastis. The transparent, pale pink juice is acid-adjusted (“for balance”) and is served alongside anise-flavored pastis. The drink first came about last summer, when only patio service was available, built and served as a cocktail for two. Guests were instructed to pour the “water” into the pastis, so it louched to an opalescent hue.
“When it hits the pastis it has the opulent, sort-of-pink, sort-of-green thing,” McCray notes. “It’s very reminiscent of watermelon.” Yet it was also a way to elevate beyond the basic pink drink. “Instead of a one-dimensional cocktail, you’re getting a four-dimensional cocktail by exchanging one ingredient—the water,” he adds.
For sure, it’s a long way from watermelon ’tinis of the late ’90s, or your standard-issue watermelon Margarita. “This whole movement with watermelon is trying to have a more sophisticated take on it,” Catapang says. Instead of a “cloying Jolly Rancher bomb … you can allow the ingredient to shine.”