Back when I was still in knickers, I set out one evening to collect enough fireflies to make a lantern bright enough to read by. I’m pretty sure you know the ending: a jar of sad, dying fireflies that cast about as much light as a prune.
I’m sometimes reminded of my ill-fated experiment when I try to work summer peaches into a drink. A sun-ripened peach is a luminous marvel that borders on the bewitching. But when I try to entrap it in liquor—by, say, muddling it with whiskey—it always seems to die a little.
Fortunately, cocktail professionals across the South have lured the wily peach into tinctures, bitters, shrubs, purees, and pure spirits without breaking its spell. Then they’ve parlayed those elements into some of the best homages to the stone fruit around. They have, essentially, captured lightning in a jar.
Kellie Thorn, the beverage manager at Empire State South in Atlanta, corrals tequila, white vermouth, and elderflower liqueur into a refreshing light-alcohol cocktail called the Day Drinker. She then enlivens the tipple with five drops of peach bitters, which can fit a surprisingly potent hit of the season in a very small bottle.
In Miami Beach, Scarpetta at the Fontainebleau hotel serves the Crimson and Clover, constructed with a house-made peach shrub. Shrubs provided a way for colonials to preserve flavors—just-picked peach slices were infused in a tangy vinegar and then sweetened. The bartenders mix the shrub with Gosling’s rum, fresh lemon and orange juices, tonic water, and a pinch of salt, creating a lush melding of sweet and sour, with just enough brine to pique the taste buds.
For those who find themselves lamentably deprived of peaches, it’s possible to buy their essence in a bottle from France. There is no shame in this. Giffard and Mathilde stand up as commendable peach liqueurs; both companies macerate ripe peaches in distillate before adding a touch of sweetness. The brands are subtly different, but each will greet you with a floral aroma well before glass reaches lip. Giffard’s variety brings a hint of an orchard in bloom to the Irish Goodbye, by Matt Lofink at Cure in New Orleans—where it meets up with Tullamore D.E.W. whiskey, sugar, lemon, and egg white, which all gets a sound shaking followed by a hypnotic swirl of Peychaud’s bitters in the foam.
Employing peach puree is another time-honored way to slow the flight of the seasonal produce. A white peach version has long been the cornerstone of the Bellini, a classic invented in Venice that marries it with sparkling white wine. Puree also brightens the more contemporary Turn Back Thyme, a drink crafted by Fernanda Rossano at the High & Tight Barbershop in Dallas, where the more layered and textured puree makes nice with gin, lemon, thyme syrup, and tonic.
Assuming a plague of ripe peaches, make an infusion like the one at the Guest Room in Starkville, Mississippi; there, the bartenders take seven or eight peaches, pit and quarter them, stow them in a large glass jar, then add a 750-milliliter bottle of Plantation Original Dark rum. Then they do precisely nothing to it for a week, followed by straining and rebottling.
This forms the base of a popular drink the Guest Room calls the Bob from Carskadon, named after a regular who has a strong inclination toward rum. (“A most excellent drink with a most unfortunate name,” says the actual Bob.) The infused rum gets combined with apricot liqueur, lime juice, ginger syrup, and orange bitters, resulting in joyous pyrotechnics on the palate.
At the bar, the cocktail is served up in a coupe. Try it yourself, and you may be amazed that such a small glass can hold so much: a taste of the Southern summer, a hint of the tropics—even a distant glimpse of fleeting fireflies.