High Spirits: Perfect Porch Potables
When I think of June cocktails, breezy sophistication comes to mind: stems of iced champagne offered from silver platters at an outdoor wedding reception; tall, cold vodka Collinses garnished with wheels of lime before an alfresco supper of soft-shells and silver queen succotash; savory, grapefruit salty dogs downed with a can of mixed nuts off the back of a friend’s boat.
I’ve never actually had any of these experiences (yet — I’m only 47), but they sound mature, and I’ve seen them on Instagram. The truth is, the June cocktails I know have been quaffed from aluminum or plastic, on my front porch or someone else’s, usually after some kind of manual labor.
Does beer count as a cocktail? I think it should. If you have the privilege of having a lawn with grass, a mower to trim it, and sunshine and water to make the yard grow in the first place, then you know the satisfaction of that sip. It comes when the work is all-the-way done (including the edging, the weed-whacking, the revisiting of that one dang spot you missed and yes, emptying the grass bag, but you can keep the mower in the driveway until it cools off). If you’re really lucky and someone appreciates you, you might find a can of something cold waiting for you on the porch, so you don’t have to take your shoes off or track grass through the house. That appreciative person might even sit near you (not next to you, because they’re only human, and you need a shower) and offer platitudes about how beautiful the yard looks. That sip of beer will taste better than any champagne, and — bonus — you won’t have to small talk with the groom’s cousin who has wicked sinuses and doesn’t understand how anyone can take this kind of humidity. It’s just you, your “Natty Boh,” your sweetheart, your azaleas creeping open in slow seconds before your very eyes, and the promise that you’ll get to do the same thing all over again next week.
Another favorite porch cocktail is the one guzzled after a day of moving. I’m a military wife with a failing memory and no aptitude for math, so I can’t count the number of June moves we’ve made. We move in June because the kids are finished with school, it’s easier to sell the house in the spring (so they say), and the weather is good. Twelve years ago, my husband retired from active duty, and we decided to return “home” to Maryland. Some loyal friends graciously offered to keep our four children (then aged 1, 3, 5 and 6) on our moving day. When we returned to collect the kids that evening, our friends had laid out a barbeque spread on their back porch. Jill, my brave friend who had kept my kids that day, along with three of her own, handed me a red solo cup filled with ice and an herby green drink that resembled a mojito.
“Cheers, my friend,” she said, and hugged me, fearless of my dirt, sweat, and the cobwebs tangled in my ponytail. The drink was cold, and I was thirsty.
“Oh my God, this is so good,” I said. “What IS this?”
“It’s a bootleg!” she said. “My favorite!”
I didn’t know I had always loved bootlegs, since I never had one before. Jill was from Minnesota, and the bootleg, she explained, is the summertime porch drink there. People also drink it at barn parties, or on the dock at the lake. The flavor was familiar to me and reminded me of a legendary Baltimore cocktail called a southside, made from the same ingredients: citrus, mint, something sweet and something strong. Vodka collinses be damned, I’ll take my drink in a cracked plastic cup on moving day, served with a side of hot dog, and a hug from a soon-to-be long-lost friend.
Sometimes I take a porch drink by myself. I like to pull weeds after the sun goes down, while it’s still dusky and the fireflies are waking. I’ll fill up some old go-cup with ice, club soda, cheapish rosé and a squeeze of summer fruit, and pad my way through the flower beds, pulling up the random threads of green that have sprouted since the day before. I’ll think of my mother, and this habit she instilled in me: to quietly sneak away and clear the weeds for a few mesmerizing minutes … or for weeks at a time if need be, on her knees, back to the sun, clutching the rotating earth, as she did the summer my father died.
When finally it’s too dark to see anything, I settle on the front porch swing and click on the pollen-dusted old radio we keep out there. The Orioles are on, losing again, and I think about how lucky I am that at least I’m not a Yankees fan; I have a place outside where I can sit with friends, or alone, or with the memories and dreams in my head. The grass and the children are growing. The first one is graduating, and this summer’s move will be hers alone. Rather than the curated cocktail parties and summer Pinterest weddings and staged picnic dinners she might one day find online, and envy, and try to replicate, I hope her Junes are full of dirt, weeds, friends, fireflies, sweat, longing and endless porches.
James Mead, bartender at Hunters’ Tavern, prepares classic porch drinks, the bootleg and the southside. Hunters’ Tavern is inside the Tidewater Inn, 101 East Dover Street, Easton. 410.822.4034