Like the rest of Wine Country cuisine, the cool, refreshing cocktails of summer find their inspiration in the garden.
In these seasonal concoctions, distilled spirits flirt with fragrant mint and basil, sweet watermelon and tomatoes, while staying true to their longtime partners, the sharply tart lemon and lime.
"In summertime, I always look to our gardener for any cues," said Pam Bushling, who has been mixing cocktails at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg for the past two years. "More and more, people are coming by for a cocktail and a bite on the front porch."
At Mateo's Cocina Latina in Healdsburg, bar manager Sean Dal Colletto works primarily with tequila and mezcal to produce seasonal margaritas from a bounty of local fruits and vegetables.
"We have so much growing around here," he said. "In the winter, we do blood orange and Meyer lemon margaritas, then it's nice to transition."
Currently, Dal Coletto is making a savory margarita, El Jardin, using heirloom cherry tomatoes, daikon radish sprouts, lemon cucumber, fresh lime juice, agave nectar and Arette Blanco tequila.
"It's pretty simple," he said. "We like the tequila to shine through, and we like you to taste everything."
Tequila hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco and is made from 100 percent blue agave, he said. Unless it is marked anejo or reposado, tequila is not aged.
"I like (non-aged) blanco tequila, because I like the agave flavor," he said. "It's like a crisp white wine."
At Madrona Manor, Bushling turns to tequila's cousin, mezcal, for a watermelon cocktail coquettishly dubbed the Lola.
"Watermelon is always a huge winner," she said. "It's just a really refreshing flavor."
Mezcal, which is produced in the state of Oaxaca, can be made from any kind of agave, she said. It picks up its smoky flavor from the mesquite used to burn the agave.
"There's variety in the flavor, and it's more complex," she said. "It almost tricks you into thinking it's spicy, because it's smoky."
For the Lola, Bushling muddles ripe watermelon in a shaker, then adds lime and balsamic vinegar, simple syrup and a splash of rose water. Then she shakes it up with ice and mezcal and strains out the seeds.
With a sprig of mint and a rim of lava salt as a garnish, the pretty cocktail resembles a slice of watermelon.
Another colorful drink inspired by the garden is Bushling's Basil Gimlet, which she garnishes with a bachelor's button flower.
"When basil is in season, it's so good," she said. "You can taste the difference when the basil hits its moment. ... It just has a nice, herbaceous flavor."
Like most bartenders, Bushling is a big fan of gin, a complex spirit made from juniper berries and a bouquet of herbs. Crisp and refreshing, it offers the perfect backdrop for hot-weather cocktails, and no two gins taste alike.
"I really like Boodles Gin," Bushling said. "Bombay Sapphire is nice, but the Boodles is drier and works better with basil."
For the gimlet, Bushling picks just the top inch of the basil stalks. She throws gin and cane syrup in with the basil, shakes it up with ice, then strains it.
For a beloved mojito, Bushling uses just the tops of the mint stalks, then adds some lime and lemon juice and a rum called Neisson Blanc Rhum Agricole, made in the French Antilles from pure cane sugar. She shakes it all up with ice, strains it, and gives it a traditional float of soda water.