Best summer cocktail recipes and how to serve them up

Make a splash with these hot summer cocktails — Photo courtesy of Drazen Zigic // Getty Images Plus

The perfect summer cocktail should be a bit like taking a dip in the pool: crisp and refreshing, with nothing too heavy to drag you down. Tequila and rum are summertime staples when it comes to poolside drinks, and mixing those spirits with something sparkling evokes sunshine glistening off the water.

Today, warm-weather sips increasingly include cocktails that contain modest amounts of alcohol, or none at all.

“Probably the biggest trend this summer is low ABV and mocktails,” says Kursten Berry, co-owner and beverage manager of Twisted Soul Cookhouse and Pours in Atlanta, Georgia’s West Midtown neighborhood. “People are seeking more and more healthier alternatives, especially while everyone is trying to stay ‘bikini ready.’ Dry January has morphed into people passing on alcoholic beverages, but you still want a tasty drink in your hand while poolside.”

Planning a pool party or gathering this summer? Here are some refreshing cocktails to cool you down.

Aperol spritz, Campari spritz and Hugo spritz

Aperol spritz is a favorite in Italy and beyondAperol spritz is a favorite in Italy and beyond — Photo courtesy of Aperol

The Aperol spritz is a summer classic imported from Europe. Refreshing and low in alcohol, it’s a drink you can sip in the sun all day without falling into a boozy nap. Creative mixologists are now bringing all kinds of new variations to this bitters-and-prosecco combination. Bitter Luxardo is another classic spritz ingredient, but the company also promotes a softer version utilizing Luxardo limoncello; the Hugo spritz substitutes San Germain liqueur for a lighter drink redolent of elderflower.

“If you like the idea of the more colorful cousins, the Aperol or Campari spritz, but you don’t enjoy the bitterness of those drinks, the Hugo spritz is the perfect, easier-to-drink alternative,” says All Roads Lead to Italy travel blogger Nathan Heinrich. “This is a drink that will actually rehydrate you and cool you down while giving you a gentle buzz, but without a hangover — which makes it perfect for day drinking and having more than just one.”

Click here for an Hugo Spritz recipe.

Agave drinks, like the mezcal margarita and the Paloma

Paloma cocktails are always refreshingPaloma cocktails are always refreshing — Photo courtesy of PxHere

Few drinks sound as summer-y as a tequila sunrise, but you’ll find far more inventive tequila and mezcal cocktails being poured by the pool this summer than this vintage tequila and OJ combo.

Substituting mezcal for tequila in a margarita is a simple way to add smoky flavor to a familiar cocktail. Or, add fresh watermelon puree to your tequila and lime for a watermelon margarita, rimmed with sugar or salt.

Looking for something sparkling? The Paloma — tequila and grapefruit soda like Jarritos — is actually more popular in Mexico than the margarita, and it’s another drink that can be spiced up for summer with a dash of pepper juice.

Click here for a Paloma recipe.

Ranch water

Ranch water cocktail from Eight Row Flint in Houston, TexasRanch water cocktail from Eight Row Flint in Houston, Texas — Photo courtesy of Mikah Danae

Ranch water is another tequila-based drink but merits a separate mention because it’s just hot, hot, hot. The national buzz around this West Texas classic mix of tequila and Topo Chico mineral water began last summer and shows no sign of losing its fizz.

“With a health-focused consumer in the market who still wants to enjoy their spirits without all of the additives and sugars, this cocktail is en fuego,” says Mimi Jasperson, beverage director at Hand Cut Chophouse in Nashville, Tennessee. “Combining 100% agave-based tequila, sparkling water and fresh lime juice, you get a beautifully balanced cocktail that is sure to have guests coming back for seconds and thirds.”

Creative variations see everything from prickly pear puree to chili powder added to the mix.

Click here for a Ranch Water recipe.

Spiked lemonade cocktails

Lemon cocktails are a light refresher in summerLemon cocktails are a light refresher in summer — Photo courtesy of Getty / JulijaDmitrijeva

Lemonade is as much at home poolside as on porches, and there are a variety of tart, zesty and even spicy lemonade-style cocktails that are perfect lounge-chair sippers. The OG is the Tom Collins, a mix of gin and sparkling lemonade that’s been around since at least the 1870s.

But nearly any spirit can be successfully paired with lemonade. Liquor store owner Matt Denison, who blogs as The Cocktail Daddy, mixes vodka, lemonade, fresh lemon juice, honey and basil leaves to create the lemon song cocktail, for example. Honey, lemonade, and lemon juice also star in the Malfy sorbet bubbly lemonade, built around Malfy Gin Con Arancia, lemon sorbet, prosecco and mint.

Click here for a Sparkling Gin and Rosemary Lemonade recipe.

The new Negroni

A Negroni is a timeless and classic cocktailA Negroni is a timeless and classic cocktail — Photo courtesy of Wine Dharma (CC by 2.0)

“Negronis (gin, sweet vermouth and bitter Campari) are all the rage, but they can be a bit intense when the hotter months roll in, and the sun is out in full force,” says Alan Dean, concept beverage manager for the Whiskey Cake Kitchen and Bar chain. “For our fun-filled summer spin on this classic, we muddle fresh strawberries into a little simple syrup, use a splash of Campari and swap out sweet vermouth for its lighter cousin, blanc vermouth. We finish it off with a healthy dose of Still Austin gin,” which Dean says, “brings the bitterness down to a teasing afterthought.”

The Negroni Sbagliato, known in Italy as the “broken Negroni,” similarly swaps sparkling wine for the traditional gin “to give it a light, effervescent lift that isn’t quite as strong as a Negroni, but just as delicious,” says Adam Crocini, head of food and beverage for Hilton hotels.

Click here for a Negroni Sbagliato recipe.

Milk punch

Clarified milk punch from Palo SantoClarified milk punch from Palo Santo — Photo courtesy of Palo Santo restaurant, Atlanta

There are few places on Earth more hot and humid than New Orleans in the summer, so the fact that locals love milk punches demonstrate that a drink made with milk or cream can still be refreshing. (The creamy pina colada, invented at the Caribe Hilton hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the painkiller cocktail are other examples.)

Santiago Gomez, beverage director at Atlanta’s Palo Santo restaurant, says milk punches with tropical twists are trending this summer.

“I think most people have the perception that a milk punch is a heavy cocktail or that it’s maybe only enjoyed during certain seasons, but here at Palo Santo we’ve created some punches that can be drunk year-round and be modified to appeal to seasonality,” he says.

Start with milk, bourbon or brandy, sugar and vanilla extract, then blend in your favorite fruit and sprinkle with nutmeg.

Click here for a milk punch recipe.

Spirit free drinks

A trio of spirit free cocktailsA trio of spirit free cocktails — Photo courtesy of Club Soda Guide (CC by 2.0)

The term “mocktail” is quickly falling out of favor because it doesn’t reflect the growing sophistication of spirit free cocktails. Drinks with strong flavors besides alcohol, like margaritas and pina coladas, easily lend themselves to non-alcoholic versions. Negronis and spritzes also are easy to make without alcohol, since they rely primarily on herbs and fruit for flavor.

You even can mix your spirit free drinks with non-alcoholic bitters.

“The non-alcoholic cocktail — lemon, lime and bitters — is famous in Australia and doesn’t require any special ingredients besides a few dashes of bitters,” says Ian Blessing, founder of non-alcoholic bitters maker All the Bitter.

Click here for a spirit free Garden Collins recipe.

Large batch cocktails

Blue Rose of Texas by Wax Myrtle's, AustinBlue Rose of Texas by Wax Myrtle’s, Austin — Photo courtesy of Wax Myrtle’s

Anyone who has ever split a jumbo-sized scorpion bowl cocktail knows that rum-based tiki drinks are the kings of sharable cocktails. You can batch up any number of fruity poolside drinks to sip while you dip. Even the 70s classic, the Harvey Wallbanger (vodka, orange juice, Galliano) has been invited back to the party.

Click here for a Coconut Lemon Sour Party Pitcher recipe.

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