Author Jonathan Miles considers why proximity to water enhances the joy cocktails bring.
I've often wondered why cocktails offered within sight or sound of the ocean taste better than those served inland. The theory I've developed, with glass in hand, goes like this: A sip of whiskey in a snowbound mountain cabin tastes grand, as does an after-work martini in an urban saloon. But what these drinks do so well, I think, is to readjust one's balance in the face of unruly circumstances—the frigid air outside that cabin, the honking traffic outside that bar. Their effect is often medicinal—they relieve the symptoms of life. For many, however, the ocean provides that same analgesic effect. A cocktail served by the shore, then, doesn't so much repair as enhance. It gilds the lily of life.
But maybe there are other factors at work, too. Consider, for instance, one of my favorite summertime refreshments. It's a simple mixture of gin and coconut water made rust-colored and faintly savory by the addition of Angostura bitters. At my home, an hour from the shore, it's a fine drink—tasty, invigorating, evocative. Yet when consumed in its natural habitat, as when I recently drank one or two in the Bahamas, it's genuinely mind-blowing. What my tongue was tasting felt aligned with what my eyes were seeing: a postcard vista of sea, sand, and rosy sky. I'm reminded of an itty-bitty beach bar in the Galápagos Islands I once stumbled upon, a grove of hammocks surrounding an alfresco bar above which hung a sign reading, "Endemic Cocktails." When I asked what the sign meant, the owner waved at the hammocks and the big blue Pacific beyond and said, "It means I serve drinks that make sense to drink here."
That alignment might also explain why a margarita—that ubiquitous staple of mall restaurants everywhere—tastes so keenly superior when sipped by a beach. Cocktail historians can't say for certain where the margarita originated, but the leading candidates are all beach towns: Ensenada, Tijuana, Galveston, Acapulco. That makes sense to me, because the combination of briny blanco tequila and lime seems oceanically inspired. The recipe I swear by is derived from San Francisco bartender Julio Bermejo, and came to me via Joanne Weir's book Tequila. This adaptation is a bracingly minimalist take, a bikini of a recipe: just tequila, lime, and agave nectar, plus water and salt. I haven't deviated from this recipe in six years and cannot imagine a reason to ever do so.
The relationship between rum and the sea is as cultural as it is gustatory. The original use for rum was as a substitute for water and beer—both tended to spoil—on long sea voyages, which is why we associate it with sailors, pirates, and yo ho ho. Lime and sugar have been chaperones for the rum-sea pairing almost from the beginning, but when Bermudans added ginger to the formula, about a century ago, they invented a dockside classic. That's the Dark "n" Stormy, a merger of Gosling's Black Seal rum and ginger beer that tastes like far more than the sum of its parts. It's a straightforward highball that carries itself like a maritime potion. And like the margarita, and like the tropical sublimity of the gin-coconut water combination, it's a drink that tastes not just grand, but perfectly grand, when blessed by proximity to the sea that inspired it.
Jonathan Miles is the author of the novels Dear American Airlines and Want Not. He lives on the banks of the Delaware River in western New Jersey.