Now that the sun has graced us with its presence, it's time to put away the sweaters and the heavy, soul-warming winter drinks in exchange for shorts and refreshing beverages that go well with muggy Cleveland afternoons. Yes, most anything works — that can of PBR at the bottom of the fridge, the timeless classic of vodka and ice, the cheapest draft option at the corner bar — but the studied drinker and the amateur boozer alike know some concoctions hit that sweet summery note better than others.
It's worth remembering that while venue is important — see our rundown of the best patios on page 22 — a good drink in itself is the first priority. With that in mind, here are the seven essential summer drinks we'll be sipping till the sweaters come back out again.
Beta at Lolita
Michael Symon's Tremont mainstay has one of the best happy hours around, sporting a handful of delicious $5 options that will score you some of the best eats in Cleveland without challenging your credit limit. But the real score after work, or at their reverse happy hour late at night, is the Beta. Vodka of all flavors lines every bar shelf in America, but the housemade ginger version at Lolita is in a class by itself. Topped off with just lime juice and soda, the Beta's a prime example of keeping the liquor simple and accentuating its flavor with just a couple dashes of mixer. Sweet without being syrupy, punchy without landing a knockout blow, and perfectly crisp. Did we mention it's only $5?
Bloody Mary at the Beachland Tavern
The Sunday Brunch at Waterloo's all-purpose epicenter has managed to be both widely celebrated (named Best Brunch in Cleveland by Scene readers this year) and one of the best secrets in town. Maybe it's because folks don't think of the concert club as a Sunday-morning destination — though they should: The food is no joke, and you're blessed with the charming ambiance of the bar and an eclectic soundtrack. But it's the Bloody Mary that is unparalleled. You can score the hangover buster anywhere, but why? The Beachland's version is, to put it simply, intoxicating. Spicy, pickly, balanced, biting yet smooth, and homemade, unlike the straight-from-a-mix versions you're likely getting elsewhere. It's perfect. Ask someone who's had it; they'll back us up.
Sangria at Sarava
There's just one rule to follow here, and that's sangria should be served by the pitcher. Which means you'll have to corral some friends to help you out. When you tell them you're going to Sarava, that won't be a problem. Like Margaritas, sangria is a summer natural; there are just far fewer places to score some and far more joints that screw it up. You would think that'd be hard: wine + fruit = delicious, after all. But it happens. Sarava has achieved the right result, though, and while we far prefer the red, filled with bathing lemon and orange, you can't go wrong with the white. Grab a pitcher of Spain Without the Jet Lag, sit on the patio, and make everyone else on Shaker Square jealous.
Lavender Sidecar at L'Albatros
The standard Sidecar is lovely enough on its own, but add honey and lavender, and you have a cocktail that in one whiff will transport you to an open field beneath a clear blue sky. Deeply fragrant in a way that starts with the nose and carries on to the back of your throat once the sips begin, it's like rolling around in the happiest, most beautiful cognac-filled swimming pool. L'Albatros tops its version with bits of purple lavender that, pardon us, make it almost too pretty to drink. It's by no means a dainty choice, however — just slyly potent and impossible to put down.
Cucumber Margarita at Momocho
No summer cocktail menu is complete without a Margarita, and we'll never turn our nose up at the standard version. But there's only one Marg that sits in the frontal lobe of our thirsty mind when the weather's nice. Tart and sweet, cool and simple, the cucumber option at this Ohio City mod-Mex shrine might be the most refreshing flavor on their extensive Margarita menu. All of them are tasty, but only one tastes like something you want to drink every afternoon of every day and maybe even brush your teeth with. Sort of like cucumber water, but ya know, better, because it's alcohol.
Negroni at the Velvet Tango Room
The long-neglected Negroni picked up in popularity over the last three years — Padma Lakshmi even declared 2011 the year of the Negroni, as if that's her right. But don't let the fact that it's trendy or unfamiliar or strong deter you from ordering one up — and especially the version at the temple of cocktails: the Velvet Tango Room. Equal parts gin, vermouth, and Campari. That's it. With an orange peel. It's sweet and bitter in perfect harmony, deep and complex in a way you can't exactly pinpoint, and hefty enough to get the job done. The first sip — sharp — tastes different than the last as the drink meshes and warms a little.
Wright Bros. at Battery Park Wine Bar
Look up the Wright Bros. cocktail on the web and you'll get a recipe with rye and port. That's a good one, but it's not the drink with the same name served at Battery Park Wine Bar, which is better. Gin, Luxardo (an Italian liqueur), lemon, and thyme is found in their concoction, and it works, not least because of the earthy thyme. The drink lets the Ohio-made gin take the spotlight, with just the right pucker notes from the lemon; it tastes like summertime punch that's been distilled down to its essence.