Light and Refreshing
“Light and Refreshing” is a pretty self explanatory cocktail category. Cocktails within this category are best described as…light and refreshing. Duh!
But as usual there are subtle nuances within this obvious truth. Making a drink light and refreshing is actually surprisingly difficult. Outside of a bare handful of Classic cocktails and their variants, innovation in this area is tough.
Whenever we innovate or experiment we’re looking to make our drinks more interesting, more tasty. Somehow better. Yet it is very easy to introduce flavours or other elements which make the drink too sweet, too sour, too rich or perhaps too fruity to remain truly refreshing. Depressingly often we just end up with something bland.
The two key axes for this category are Light vs Rich and Long vs Strong. We’re looking for drinks on the light and long ends of the scale.
The Sweet vs Sour axis is of limited importance to this category. The vast majority of light and refreshing drinks will be in the balanced middle of this axis. If they stray into either the sweet or sour side it will be only by a minor amount. Once a cocktail starts to become noticeably sweet or sour it typically compromises its light or refreshing nature.
The Sweet vs Dry axis is also of lesser importance to this category, though it does have its moments. Certain champagne cocktails can be described as light and refreshing, though the inclusion of champagne itself also tends to make them taste dry.
However, rather than using the axes of taste system to describe this category’s taste profile, we could instead take the philosophical route. These are drinks for a hot summer’s day. For the times when you just can’t handle anything too strong or too heavy. They are the gin and tonics or the cocktail world.
As such, the vast majority will follow a couple of key principles:
First, even more than most cocktails, they need to be kept cold. Hence they are served over ice, and plenty of it.
Second, they are often topped up with something fizzy, soda water (club soda) being very common.
However, sometimes it is champagne or prosecco which is used to top them up. In these cases they may be served in a champagne flute without ice.
Purity of Taste
In order to keep a drink light and refreshing, we have to be careful what we use. Many stronger tasting flavours or liqueurs we might add in small quantities to add depth or complexity to other cocktails are to be avoided here for the same reason.
Creating a web of overlapping taste sensations is gold for many cocktails. But to anything trying to be light and refreshing, it is toxic.
Instead, keep it simple. Use a light touch. Use delicate, floral flavours. Avoid the temptation to over-complicate. Displaying mastery of this cocktail category is more a question of restraint than showing off.
Instead, think philosophically about this category in Zen terms. I could spend thousands of words explaining every facet of this idea. But, because of its nature, I could never explain its essence more clearly than could a Zen stone garden.
Such a statement is profound, yet elegantly simple. So should be light and refreshing cocktails.
Enough philosophy. How can we make this concept work on a more practical level? My advice is to begin with the Tom Collins. First master and appreciate its elegant simplicity. Then experiment with its variants.
Flavours we often use for this category are dry, crisp or floral. Gin is often our go-to spirit as it ticks those boxes quite nicely. We can also make use of citrus, elderflower, cucumber or even apple, to name but a few.
This is also an opportunity to use some fruits whose taste is so mild they rarely stand up to the cocktail’s other ingredients. Watermelon is an excellent example of this. It is so mild it can be easily overwhelmed by other flavours. But when a drink is designed to deliberately not overpower it, like a Watermelon Collins, it has a chance to shine.
Another trick I use to introduce flavours to cocktails in a subtle manner is very useful here. Instead of muddling a fruit into a cocktail, I will sometimes instead peel thin strips of the fruit and use them as part of my garnish. The high surface area : volume ratio is ideal for the subtle infusion of flavours into a cocktail. Cucumber works very well for this technique.