There's just something quintessentially summer-y about the concept of sipping Southern-inspired cocktails on a sunny patio (rocking chair and fried catfish optional). And for those of you who don't live below the Mason-Dixon line, this is still a totally accessible fantasy. There are a ton of classic boozy beverages with roots in the South, and recreating them for your next al fresco dinner party is a surefire way to show a little hospitality. Southern hospitality, that is.
You probably already have your go-to summer beverage on lock, whether it be a simplified margarita or a chilled glass of rosé. That said, it's always fun to change things up, and with so many hot eateries embracing Southern traditions with variations on both their menus and cocktail lists, this season is the perfect time to try them out yourself — and impress your guests, while you're at it.
Two top mixologists creating especially stellar riffs on Southern classics are Beverage Director Kassady Wiggins of Los Angeles's Preux & Proper and Cody Henson, Beverage Director at Savannah, Georgia's stylish new The Alida, Savannah, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel. Ahead, these two elaborate on five traditional types to try ASAP, as well as their suggestions for adding a personalized twist (like they do with their current, seasonal concoctions) or making them easily for a crowd.
Traditionally, this Kentucky Derby classic is made with bourbon, fresh mint, and simple syrup, served over crushed ice. But at Preux & Proper — where the menu offers contemporary takes on Southern fare like Nashville hot chicken and skillet cornbread with butter and sorghum — Wiggins wanted to add a special touch to elevate the classic recipe: lavender. "The addition of lavender gives this boozy and refreshing cocktail a nice floral complexity," she says.
And if you don't have either fresh herb on hand, Wiggins offers another option. "Try making a [simple] syrup with your favorite herbal tea, or berries found at your local grocery store or farmers market."
"Punches are a communal type of drink for large gatherings in the South," explains Henson. And one specific to Savannah, where the mixologist is based, is the Chatham Artillery Punch. For a big batch to serve your guests, follow his simple instructions: "Mix together one bottle each of bourbon, cognac, Jamaican rum, and lemon sherbet (syrup made from lemon juice, sugar, and the oils from lemon peels). Add three bottles of dry, sparkling wine and serve on ice."
Wiggins is also a fan of Southern-style punch, and the one she mixes up is also a twist on the popular drink, Trinidad Sour. "The combination of strawberry brandy, fresh lemon juice, Peychaud's bitters, orgeat, and absinthe work to give your taste buds the explosion they crave," she says. "Add all ingredients into cheater tin and shake with ice. Rinse serving glasses with absinthe. Strain and enjoy."
Spiked Sweet Tea
Sweet tea is about as classically Southern as a crawfish boil or hushpuppies, so of course boozy renditions can be found at regional bars and restaurants. "All across The South you'll find people spiking [their sweet tea] with all different kinds of spirits," explains Wiggins, who's take on the classic is called Hell's Bells. "Here, we spike our ginger peach sweet tea with rum, and some freshly squeezed lemon juice. We use house-made ginger peach tea syrup, but you can make any tea into a syrup using a 1:1:1 ratio of cane sugar, hot water, and loose tea."
"Vieux Carre translates to ‘Old Square’ and is reference to the most famous area of New Orleans," says Henson, referencing this strong cocktail, typically comprised of rye whiskey, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, and bitters. "The recipe also allows for a lot of inspiration and variation by switching out spirits and modifiers," he explains. "I’ve taken on a personal quest to create Vieux Carre variations named for each of the 22 squares in Savannah, such as the Franklin Square using Haitian rum to coincide with a monument in the square dedicated to fallen Haitian soldiers."
You probably wouldn't automatically connect a Southern history to this popular English cocktail — but as Henson explains, a Pimms Cup is just arguably as beloved down there. "What is important is that it is refreshing and low in alcohol, which is perfect for day drinking during the hot, humid summers," he says, adding that it's been a common addition to drink menus in the South since the 1940s. "At our [rooftop bar] Lost Square we offer seasonal variations on the Pimm’s, like our Summer Cup with Pimm’s, pisco, amaro, and housemade strawberry soda. This cocktail might not have been invented in the south but we certainly brought it in as one of our own."