N urtured by the growing production of regional small-batch handmade spirits, the availability of local fruits, vegetables and other botanicals of all kinds and the imaginations of resourceful bartenders, the New Haven area’s craft cocktail scene blossoms big and bright in summer. Here’s a sampling of prize blooms from local watering holes sure to refresh your sweltering palate.
• At Oak Haven Table & Bar, even the “rocks” used to cool the drinks are creative: oversized square cubes for short cocktails, long rectangles for highballs and icy spears for extra fun. Barrel-aged cocktails mature in char level #4 American oak barrels for four to six weeks before they’re served; currently available is the sublime “A Summer Stroll” (pictured third), blending Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin, Lillet Blanc, Koval Chamomile Liqueur and orange bitters. Market specials, which rotate every few days, always feature small-batch Rime Organic Vodka— made by Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford—and Oak Haven’s homegrown fresh fruits and herbs. (932 State St., 203-915-9413, www.oakhaventableandbar.com)
• Best known for beer—it serves 200 labels and houses 53 draft lines—Cask Republic also prides itself on a number of “house-made infusions,” a process in which the bartender’s spirit of choice is poured in a jar with fruits, vegetables and spices and allowed to meld for a few days. Most of Cask’s resulting cocktails are light, crisp and dry, for example “The Summer Storm,” a Dark ’n’ Stormy variation that blends ruby red grapefruit and tarragon-infused Ron Barcelo Rum with Gosling’s ginger beer and grapefruit bitters. It’s topped off with a splash of Narragansett Del’s Shandy—a collaboration between Rhode Island’s Narragansett Brewery and the state’s beloved Del’s lemonade—and the king of maraschino cherries, a velvety Luxardo. (179 Crown St., 475-238-8335, www.caskrepublic.com)
• “People don’t only eat eat with their eyes, they drink with their eyes as well,” says Howard Pelkey, general manager of Stone Hearth in Westville. He keeps his ingredient ratios exact with a metered Japanese jigger—hence the precision pink beauty of his Watermelon Cooler (pictured second), which mixes Campari and premium Broker’s London Dry Gin with simple syrup and double-strained fresh watermelon essence. Served in a tall Collins glass loaded with ice, it’s a blend of sweet and savory that’s a common characteristic of this restaurant’s seasonal cocktails—our second favorite being the cucumber margarita, with Lunazul Blanco Tequila, Prairie Organic Cucumber Vodka, Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur and fresh lime, served in a squat sweet-and-salty rimmed glass. (838 Whalley Ave., 203-691-1456, www.stonehearthnh.com)
• Thanks to its off-Broadway location and disc jockey-driven weekend dance parties, Box 63 is popular with the Yale crowd. But post-grads can find a lot to love during summer break, particularly the bracing pop-culture cocktails named for icons from Meryl Streep and Helen Keller to Lewis Black. The first sip of an Andy Warhol—made from house- infused jalapeño tequila, triple sec, fresh lime, agave syrup and passion fruit juice—is a wake-up slap to the taste buds that we like to think is akin to the shock Warhol’s creations gave the arts mainstream in his day. It pairs well with the restaurant’s spicier menu fare, such as Baja nachos and Fireman’s 911 chili. (338 Elm St., 203-821-7772, www.box63.com)
• As befits a rustic 1920s-style speakeasy-cum-gastropub with tin ceiling and reclaimed barn-wood walls, Woodbridge Social’s summer drink list prominently features moonshine—that is, North Carolina’s handcrafted Midnight Moon Moonshine—in a host of fruity flavors. The “Blueberry Basilito,” which combines blueberry moonshine with basil, lime juice and simple syrup, prettily floats berries and lime slices throughout and is topped off with a touch of club soda; the “Sparkling Moon” is a regally hued blend of blackberry moonshine and prosecco. There’s even a “Dirty Moon” made with dry vermouth and olive juice. (12 Selden St., Woodbridge, 203-553-9135, www.woodbridgesocial.com)
• Unless you’re a martini purist, you’ll revel in the rum-based varieties whipped up at Zafra Cuban Restaurant & Rum Bar. Inspired by the many flavors of rum available from St. Croix’s Cruzan—one of the oldest and most honored distilleries in the world—the choices range from Key lime (pictured first), guava and passion fruit to the diet-busting Almond Cuban Joy (a blend of Cruzan coconut and banana rums, Frangelico, cream of cocoa, half and half and chocolate syrup). With 300 kinds of rum on the menu, there are plenty of non-martini options, too, including the colorful “Captain Jack Sparrow,” made of sweet orangey Pyrat Rum XO Reserve, blue curaçao and pineapple and cranberry juice. (259 Orange St., 203-859-5342, www.zafrarumbar.com)
• If extraterrestrial airships featured interplanetary gourmet restaurants, we bet they’d look like Zinc: sleek and stark in an otherworldly way. That description also fits the seductive “A Walk in the Woods” (pictured fourth), a customized gin and tonic that gets its distinctively piney flavor from an ounce-and-a-half of aromatic St. George Terroir Gin, accented with green chartreuse, house-infused lemon-thyme simple syrup and Fever Tree bitter lemon tonic. Should you partake of the restaurant’s three-course, prix-fixe Market Menu— created weekly by chef Denise Appel from the bounty available at CitySeed Downtown Farmers’ Market—your specially coordinated libation might be a lemon verbena gimlet or strawberry-Vietnamese cilantro margarita. (964 Chapel St., 203-624-0507, www.zincfood.com)
What more can we offer but a toast? Here’s to summer, and to New Haven’s irresistible locally crafted drinks.
Written by Patricia Grandjean. Photographed by Dan Mims.