“A summer drink should be fleeting, not sustaining. It should slake your palate, cool you off and give you a whiff of alcohol without knocking you off your feet.” – New York Times, May 23, 2001
The two blondes crawling on the lawn at Penn Treaty Park must’ve missed that edition of the Times. They’ve just stumbled out of Maui, the Delaware Avenue party spot, where the favorite summer drink is Long Island Iced Tea – a powerful cooler that is “fleeting” only if you mean a half-dozen aircraft carriers steaming through your brain at 20 knots.
Summer cocktails – what a laugh.
In a certain, more polite corner of the world, I suppose, smiling adults with nice haircuts sip fruity spritzers and herbal juices that subtly caress their tongues. In this Elysian sanctuary, a string quartet plays Strauss, the bartenders wear white shirts, and the refreshments are served over tinkling ice cubes in clear glass goblets.
That place is not on Delaware Avenue.
Here, a summer cocktail is a sugary, juicy, high-octane fuel whose taste and effect are as subtle as the name:
Sex on the Beach.
On a summer night, when the heat soaks your breast and the music throbs through your groin, you slam one of these drinks from a plastic cup. . .and smile.
Like a breaking wave down the shore, it washes away the heat, and smooths the wrinkles in your day. Like a Wildwood roller coaster, it leaves you breathless, asking for another ride.
At the back bar at Maui, just beyond the 20-foot waterfall and beach volleyball court, I ask bartender Lauren Nelson the secret of a great summer drink.
“A lot of liquor,” Nelson replies. “For people drinking these things, the idea is to get drunk. ”
She mixes me a Red Death, which she explains is a Kamikaze plus an Alabama Slammer: vodka, Triple Sec, Southern Comfort, amaretto and sloe gin over orange juice. It’s an astounding combination of alcohols that I wouldn’t have thought to mix even if I’d just robbed a liquor store.
It’s red, like Hawaiian Punch, and it goes down just as easily.
My pal, Mark, looks at me like I’m insane for even tasting it.
“Can you imagine throwing that up?” says Mark. “You wouldn’t know if it was the booze or you were bleeding to death. ”
He should talk. He’s sucking down a Malibu Bay Breeze, with cranberry and pineapple juice poured over a couple shots of, egad, cocoanut rum.
It tastes like the stuff they throw out at the end of the day at Rita’s Water Ice.
Nelson, 20, went to bartending school to learn all these drinks. She measures each with a jigger – no free-form pouring allowed.
I ask her how she remembers all the recipes.
“Sometimes I get stumped,” she admits. “But that’s mostly when a customer makes up a name for a drink. ”
The drink of the night, though, is usually the familiar but toxic Long Island Iced Tea. It’s an assortment of the four basic booze groups – vodka, gin, rum, tequila – flavored with Triple Sec and sour mix, then sweetened with Coke.
It’s favored by drinkers who don’t like the taste of alcohol. I think it was invented by T.G.I. Fridays.
This is a monster drink (the equivalent of a pair of double scotches) that has a way of sneaking up on you. You’ll recall figure-skating nymph Oksana Baiul wrecked her Benz a few years ago after downing a handful of them.
The truly hardcore Iced Tea drinker doesn’t even make it to the parking lot. Along Delaware Avenue, it’s not uncommon to see girls and boys on their knees, getting an unexpected second opportunity to taste their liquor.
OK, we all like to sniff at the yutes and their choice of sickly sweetened summer cocktails. These are kiddie drinks you suck through a straw.
But you can hardly expect a sophisticated palate from a generation that’s been raised on Pepsi and pizza.
And, besides, what’s in your cup? Light beer? Hard lemonade? Absolut Citron?
Even two blocks away from Delaware Avenue, at the upscale Continental Martini Bar at 2nd and Market, the taste is sweet and fruity.
“We try to avoid the cheesiness of drink emporiums,” general manager Richard Roberts says. “We try to avoid that Sex on the Beach stuff, or Jell-O shots, where people are slamming them down in plastic cups. ”
So they mix their liquors in handsome shakers, and serve their drinks in proper glassware.
And what is the most popular summer cocktail at this martini mecca?
It ain’t gin and vermouth, not even with an olive.
It’s vodka, Cointreau, lime and cranberry juice – the Cosmopolitan.
Down on Delaware Avenue, they add a splash of peach schnapps to that recipe, and call it a Silk Panty.
Now, that’s a summer cocktail.