Is there any better way to start a summer beachside dinner party than with a glamorous sundowner cocktail?

“Even if you’re serving a simple meal of grilled steaks, salad and corn on the cob, if you are greeting guests with an insanely beautiful and delicious cocktail, it says, ‘This gathering is going to be really fun and different,’ ” says leading chef, culinary consultant and three-time cookbook author Nicole Aloni of Aloni Culinary, based in Seattle, Wash.

In her cookbook The Backyard Bartender: 55 Cool Summer Cocktails, Aloni showcases bright, tasty and herbaceous chef-driven drink recipes as well as helpful advice, such as the right way to rinse a glass, shake a cocktail, rim a glass and create your own infused simple syrups.

First and foremost, Aloni encourages putting aside the sweet and sour mixes. “Mixes are very old-fashioned nowadays,” she contends. “You can serve flavorful cocktails that rival [those served at] the coolest bars in town by using only fresh-squeezed juices, fruit and herbs.”

Aloni maintains that a cocktail is best served fresh and ice-cold out of a shaker, but it’s not always realistic for a host to replenish drinks on demand. If you really want to shake things up, hire a bartender.

Otherwise, she suggests filling a large punch bowl or pitcher with a signature drink for guests to serve themselves.

She likes to garnish glasses with an orange twist, sugar or salt rim or three-olive stick – whatever works for the beverage – ahead of time and place them on a tray for a more curated look and taste.

But avoid a major cocktail faux pas: don’t let your blended drinks sit in melting ice and become watery.

“If using a pitcher, keep it in the fridge until guests arrive; then set it in a bowl of ice and have a separate ice bowl with tongs for guests to add cubes to their glasses,” Aloni advises.

As for the glasses themselves: the smaller, the better. “The original cocktails created in the 1930s were quite tiny, served in small four- and five-ounce glasses,” she says. “It’s more romantic and elegant to serve smaller amounts and, that way, guests can pace themselves.”

Instead of cut flowers, Aloni fills clear vases with an ingredient from the cocktail recipe, such as limes or oranges, to create a summery cocktail table centerpiece. “This can make a very pretty central table,” she says.




Serves 1

1 cup seedless watermelon chunks (about 1/3 of a cup)

2 ounces tequila

1 ounce lemon simple syrup

1 ounce lime juice

1 ounce Cointreau

Lime wedge


Spiced salt rim: Mix 1 teaspoon kosher salt, a generous pinch of ground cayenne pepper and a small pinch of dried ground ginger.


Purée watermelon chunks in a blender and strain. Combine watermelon purée, tequila, lemon simple syrup, fresh lime juice and Cointreau in a tall glass. Stir to mix. Moisten rim of serving glass with lime wedge, press rim into spiced salt and fill glass with ice (reserve the lime wedge). Strain cocktail into serving glass and top with splash of soda water or ginger ale if desired. Squeeze the lime wedge on top and garnish with a watermelon wedge.




(Based on Aloni’s favorite dessert)

Serves 2

Caramel sauce

2 tablespoons crushed graham cracker crumbs

3 ounces Stoli Vanilla vodka

3 ounces light rum

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

3 tablespoons cream of coconut (like Coco Lopez)


Dip the rim of a martini or parfait glass into the caramel sauce. Then, press the glass into a saucer of graham cracker crumbs to coat. Combine the vodka, rum, lime juice and cream of coconut in a shaker with lots of ice. Shake to blend. Chill and strain into the rimmed glasses. Garnish with a lime wheel.




Serves 8

1/2 cup fresh lime juice

1 bunch (about 50 leaves) washed and dried basil leaves (set aside 8 pretty spears, plus a handful)

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 to 2 cups light rum (like Bacardi)

1/3 cup fresh orange juice

Cracked ice

1 1/2 cups soda water


Pour 1/4 cup of lime juice into an ice cube tray. Add a perfect little basil leaf to each slot and freeze. Chill a pretty, clear pitcher for at least half an hour.

Combine the basil and sugar in a heavy 4-cup bowl. Use a wooden spoon or muddler to “muddle” them together (i.e. crush the basil and sugar together into a paste until the basil is aromatic). 

Stir in the remaining lime juice, orange juice and rum. Mix until the sugar is completely dissolved. Let rest for at least 10 minutes in the refrigerator. (Drink can be prepared up to this step several hours ahead, covered and kept in the refrigerator.)

Strain the mixture into the chilled pitcher. Add the lime-decorated ice cubes and the extra “handful” of basil or fresh mint. Stir to mix. This can set out for up to 20 minutes.

To serve, pour about 1/3 cup of the mojito mixture into an old fashioned or tall glass filled with crushed ice, top with soda water and stir. Garnish with an orange wheel, fresh basil or mint.

Image Credits: Photo by Colleen Duffley.