“When a real southern epicure wants a particularly enticing drink he takes the heart of the luscious melon, puts it in a tall glass, pours rum over it, adds a dash of lemon juice and a quantity of ice, and there you are!”
There you are, indeed. These straightforward directions for making a watermelon cocktail date to a 1909 newspaper column. Perfect? Perhaps. It’s simple and sublimely refreshing. Too simple? Maybe. Drinkers today want layers—cocktails able to converse in a half dozen languages. Yet the uncanny efficiency of watermelon to quench persists, as the following trio of recipes assure us. Watermelon, it turns out, speaks a universal language, easily understood by all. What it says is: Summer is here. Enjoy it.
Brunch at Becky’s
The perfect porch sipper
Watermelon has inspired bartenders for decades. And that enduring attraction has fused with the craft cocktail resurgence in the past few years. Among those celebrating the melon’s endurance is Micah LeMon, the bar manager at the Alley Light in Charlottesville, Virginia.
LeMon begins with the simple watermelon drink of time immemorial—melon, spirit, ice—then takes that oompah march and transforms it into a symphony. In his mix go dry vermouth, a sweet herbal liqueur, and a hint of mint, all of which harmonize splendidly with the melon’s round sweetness.
“I love making fruity cocktails with a balance of acidity and little accents of bittersweetness to give depth to the fruit,” LeMon says. “It’s one of my moves.”
The cocktail’s name riffs on slang for someone with basic tastes—which LeMon says his staff often accuses him of being. (“It’s complicated,” he says.) But that small bit of Chartreuse adds another large measure of complexity. The French liqueur dates to the late eighteenth century and is composed of 130 herbs and other botanicals, so it’s essentially inviting an entire orchestra to join your quartet. “It’s the most complicated liquid on the planet,” LeMon says. “It’s so magical.”
In a pinch, another herbal liqueur can suffice (we used Bénédictine to good effect), but LeMon says splurging on a bottle of Green Chartreuse will pay off with lasting dividends—your Becky will be anything but basic.
The Brazilian Smuggler
A South American–inspired stunner
Consider cachaça as rum’s rough-and-tumble cousin from Brazil—bigger, brasher, harder to tame. It also stars as the base spirit in the caipirinha (a drink that’s close kin to the daiquiri). Stefan Huebner, co-owner of Dot Dot Dot in Charlotte, set out to make a Southern twist on that South American classic, adding watermelon juice, mint, lime, and orange liqueur. Cachaça makes a perfect samba partner for the fruit, acting more like a lead dancer than does refined rum, but also knowing how to set a perfect tempo.
The Brazilian Smuggler arose from a collaboration between Huebner and bartender Andrew Skelton. They started with a cachaça called Velho Barreiro, rich and redolent with vegetal notes. “For those hot summer Charlotte days, we wanted it to be crushable and refreshing,” Huebner says.
He tries to source watermelons when they’re in season, from farms outside of Charlotte famous for their rotund fruit. He gives them the traditional thump test for ripeness, and “the heavier the better,” he says. “It means they have more juice in them.”
This drink first appeared on his bar’s menu in the summer of 2019, and by popular demand it has returned every summer since. “Guests absolutely love it,” Huebner says. “We get requests for it even when it’s out of season.”
An easy-drinking midsummer punch
Watermelons cooled the South well before the advent of air-conditioning. They’re nearly perfect for that—they grow fast and lavishly in the heat, and even after harvest can thrive for days without refrigeration, neatly contained in their own striped packaging. When finally cleaved asunder with a comically large knife, they can slay thirst with a mere bite or two, sending the perceived ambient temperature downward.
And what’s this? Yes, they can also serve as their own receptacle for drink—as anyone who ever “spiked” a watermelon with a bottle of vodka will recall. But we no longer live in dormitories. We don’t “party”; we entertain.
A long and slow summer afternoon can stretch into evening with the proper pacing. That’s best accomplished with a cocktail lower in alcohol, such as this one created by the lauded bartender Chris Hannah of Jewel of the South in New Orleans. His Bastille Cup cocktail—so named since the French holiday Bastille Day falls midsummer, when demand for emphatically refreshing drinks peaks—combines the ennobling essence of watermelon with complementary fruity flavors, including brisk lime and the evanescent, almost nutty notes of an Italian liqueur made from marasca cherries.
You have your choice of foundational spirit here. Pick either a pleasing amontillado sherry, with its dense notes reminiscent of sultanas, or the harder-to-find Pineau des Charentes, a French product made of fortified wine and brandy. Both have a slightly musty and prune-like tinge, which helps to call to earth the ethereal notes of this drink.