Savoring the brilliant red hues of canned Hawaiian Punch, strawberry Fanta soda, sweetened hibiscus or an effervescent blush-colored spritz is a drinking tradition etched in Black people’s tongues. In his book Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time, food scholar Adrian Miller writes: “Red drinks were plentiful in the plantation Big House. Antebellum southern cookbooks are replete with recipes for homemade cherry, raspberry, strawberry liqueurs, syrups, and vinegars, kept on hand to color a wide range of hard and soft drinks.” In Senegal in West Africa, hibiscus flower buds or petals are steeped in water and made into a drink—bissap. From the red clays of Georgia to the town square in the French Caribbean, red drink is a celebration staple with a clear path back to Black American roots and connection to people of the African diaspora.
In celebration of the day in 1865 when more than 200,000 enslaved Texans found out they were free—two years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—ruby-colored Italian bitters or spirit-free raspberry shrubs with tonic flow freely at Juneteenth tables. In Watermelon & Red Birds: A Cookbook for Juneteenth and Black Celebrations, I offer a cooler made of ginger beer and watermelon juice that captures the flavor of the season, with a visual nod to the day’s typical red hues. The drink can easily be turned alcoholic by adding a splash of your favorite vodka. I recommend using fresh ginger to make homemade ginger beer (it adds a spicier kick than most store-bought options), which pairs with the fresh watermelon, a fruit indigenous to the African continent. Fennel fronds frozen into ice cubes offer an herbaceous undertone as the cubes melt, though dill can easily be substituted too.
On Juneteenth, at least one crimson cocktail must be consumed. Making red drinks is communion, a toast to old and new sacrifices—the future and past illuminated through the glass. A sip takes you on a rapturous journey, from where we’ve been to where we’re going. —Nicole Taylor
Divide the fennel fronds, if using, between two ice cube trays. Fill with water and freeze until solid, 4 to 8 hours.
In a highball or rocks glass, combine the vodka and watermelon juice, add the fennel ice or regular ice, and top with ginger beer.
Garnish with fennel fronds or dill, if using.
Homemade Ginger Beer
For the ginger starter: 1 (1-inch) piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated, plus more as needed for daily feedings (7 to 10 teaspoons)
1 tablespoon sugar, plus more as needed for daily feedings (7 to 10 teaspoons)
1 cup filtered water
For the ginger beer: 1 gallon filtered water, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar, plus more as needed to taste (8 to 10 tablespoons)
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 3 lemons)
1/3 cups finely grated fresh ginger
For the ginger starter: In a sanitized quart-size glass jar, combine the ginger, sugar and water. Cover with cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and secure with a rubber band. Place the jar in a warm, dark place out of direct sunlight for 24 hours. After 24 hours, the starter may have small bubbles or look the same. Feed the starter by stirring with 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh ginger and 1 teaspoon sugar once a day for 7 to 10 days. When the mixture is bubbling undisturbed, it’s ready to use.
For the ginger beer: In a sanitized glass jug or other nonreactive container, combine 1 cup of the ginger starter, the water, sugar, lemon juice and ginger. Cover with a cheesecloth or a clean dish towel and secure with a rubber band. Place the jug in a warm, dark place out of direct sunlight for 8 to 10 days, stirring the ginger beer twice a day and tasting for sweetness; add 1 tablespoon sugar maximum per day if needed. When white natural yeast appears at the bottom of the jug, and the ginger beer bubbles when you stir, it’s done with its first fermentation. Transfer the ginger beer to clean bottles with tight-sealing lids. Seal the bottles and store in a dark room at room temperature to ferment for 2 days. If it’s too warm, the ginger beer will need less time to ferment and might explode if left unattended for too long. Move the bottles to the refrigerator and consume within 3 days.