Food

The Pantry Cocktail

Gin and pickles. Tequila and your crisper drawer. A fancy drink is closer than you think.

Collage of cocktail glasses and ingredients
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Read the rest of Slate’s guide to your quarantine summer.

Summer is prime time for hitting up the after-work happy hour or gathering with friends for a drink on a Saturday night. Or at least it was. Bar access this coronavirus season will vary by state, but even if the watering holes in your area are open, you may not yet feel that getting lit in a crowded space with 50 other breathing bodies is a good idea.

Yet we could all use a fancy drink right now. And you don’t need a trip out or an elaborately stocked home bar for that. You just need a bottle of booze and some imagination when it comes to the ingredients already waiting in your fridges and pantries.

To that end, I’ve pulled together a rundown of simple recipes based on each of the most common base liquors. They are designed to be adaptable—if you don’t have a particular ingredient, don’t worry. Something in the same general category should work, perhaps with a little tweaking of the ratios. And while a cocktail shaker and jigger are a good investment if you don’t already have them, all of these drinks can be portioned with your standard liquid cup measure, stirred in a large glass with ice, and either enjoyed that way or strained if you want to serve them “up.” Think of these as starting places—once you get to mixing (and maybe get a drink or two in you), you should feel free to let your quarantine creativity flow.

Vodka

Vodka can be mixed with just about any other beverage you have on hand—lemonade, iced tea, fruit juices, etc.—and be right as rain. But if you want to elevate things just a little, think in terms of the gimlet. Its classic balance of sour and sweet is especially welcome in the summer. For the sour element, lime juice is the classic choice, but lemon, grapefruit, sourer oranges, or any other mouth-puckering, citrusy fruit you have on hand would work too. Fresh-squeezed juice is usually more vibrant, but the bottled stuff is perfectly fine if that’s what you’ve got. Speaking of bottles, tart options like pomegranate, sour cherry, or any related mixtures you see in the juice aisle would be fun to play with. As for the sweet part, standard simple syrup (equal parts water and sugar, which truly takes five minutes to make and is a great thing to have in the fridge) is the ideal choice, but any dissolvable sweetener could work, such as honey, agave, maple, or even light corn syrup. Ideally, you’d just want to stir these into some warm water first so they distribute evenly when they hit the ice.

3 oz. vodka
1 oz. sour fruit juice
¾ oz. liquid sweetener

Shake or stir over ice; strain into a glass. Garnish, if desired, with citrus peel or mint.

Gin

Gin’s appetite-stimulating bite and botanical complexity allow it to accommodate more savory flavors, which is why it’s the best choice for sleek martinis and meal-in-a-cup bloody marys. And fortunately for us, both of these drink concepts lend themselves well to pantry innovations.

A textbook martini is a lot of gin with some amount of dry vermouth—the latter of which, if you have it, means you should definitely just make a martini. But if you don’t, there are options—we just have to get a little “dirty.” What we want is something a bit salty and bright to add dimension to the gin. The liquid from anything briny—like jars of capers, olives, pickles, etc.—will work nicely. The amount will depend on how savory you want to go. Best to start with less and add more to taste.

4½ oz. gin
½–1 oz. briny liquid

Shake or stir over ice; strain into a glass. Garnish, if desired, with olive, cocktail onion, or anything also brined.

To my mind, a bloody mary is the soul of a martini enrobed in delicious, savory flesh. You will need tomato juice in one form or another. V8 is great, but so is the liquid from a can of whole peeled tomatoes (the sort kept around for soups and pasta sauces). Naturally, you can make your own by pureeing and straining fresh tomatoes—or maybe don’t totally strain if you like a particularly meaty mary. Once you have the juice and the gin, you can add just about any salty, spicy, umami-rich ingredient you like. Worcestershire sauce, prepared horseradish, lemon juice, and hot sauce are the usual suspects, but any of the briny liquids mentioned above would also be welcome, as would fish or soy sauce. Old Bay is my go-to spice, but all manner of others, like chili powder, paprika, cumin, and curry are fair game. As for garnish, if you’ve spent any time on brunch Instagram, you know a bloody can support literally anything, from the common celery stick and olive to full-on beef Wellingtons. Honestly, think of this drink as an opportunity to clean out your fridge and pantry—it can take it.

6–8 oz. tomato juice
2 oz. gin

Savory add-ins of your choice

Stir together and serve over ice with as many garnishes as gravity allows.

Tequila

If this is the spirit you have on hand and true simplicity is your goal, feel free to skip directly to taking a shot. Nothing wrong with that. Nor do I have any objection to a pitcher of margaritas, if you’re in the mood for a lot of squeezing. But say you want something in between, still easy but with a bit of oomph. For that, I like the fresh, fizzy backdrop of a tequila soda (club soda, seltzer, etc., all fine), but gussied up with the help of assertive garnishes that jibe with the spirit’s smokiness. You could go spicy and slip in a few rings of jalapeño, or crisp with some slices of cucumber. If you’ve got fresh herbs on hand, toss in a few sprigs of cilantro or mint. Rub the rim with lime, lemon, or even a drop more tequila and roll it in salt cut with chili powder or, if you have it, the magic that is Tajín. The idea here is to let the tequila shine mostly alone in the glass, but to adorn the approach with smells and flavors that complement it.

2–3 oz. tequila
Club soda or sparkling water
Garnishes of your choice

Add tequila to a large glass filled with ice. Top with club soda. Add your garnishes.

Rum

Rum, the sweetheart of the liquor family, is also incredibly versatile. It will get along with just about any soft drink you have on hand, especially colas and ginger ales, and if you’ve got some fruit juice to use up, it’s happy to jump into a punch. But during the summer months, the frozen blended drink is where it really shines. Raid your freezer for those bags of frozen fruit you forgot about: pineapple, peach, mango, berries—everyone is welcome. Toss some of these, still frozen, into the blender with a little water, then add simple syrup or other sweetener (depending on the inherent sweetness of the fruit) and a good glug of rum. Blend the mixture well and get ready to cool down.

1 cup frozen fruit
Simple syrup or other liquid sweetener, to taste
2–3 oz. rum (dark or light)

Process ingredients together in a blender; add water (or fruit juice) as necessary to thin to desired consistency. Serve in a tall glass with a straw.

Bourbon

I don’t typically drink bourbon in the summer, finding it more emotionally in tune with crisp fall nights. But if I did, I’d want to find a way to coax it out of its brooding shell into something a little livelier than your typical Manhattans or Old-Fashioneds. And what’s livelier than an ice cream float? Root beer, Dr. Pepper, or any cola, spiked with a jigger of bourbon and topped with a scoop of vanilla (or whatever you have in the freezer)—it might not technically be a cocktail, but it sure would be delicious.

6–8 oz. root beer or other dark soda
1½ oz. bourbon
1 scoop vanilla ice cream

Combine soda and bourbon in a tall glass over ice; top with the ice cream.