8 best light and refreshing cocktails for cookouts and picnics

With a few flourishes, you can make a drink that's easy to sip but won't get you hammered before the grill heats up

By Erin Keane

Editor in Chief

Published September 4, 2021 5:30PM (EDT)

Cocktail summer party (Getty Images/Michelle Campano)
Cocktail summer party (Getty Images/Michelle Campano)

I don't know who first quipped "you can't drink all day if you don't start in the morning," but I've had enough experience with that mantra and its possible outcomes to know how fast a picnic or cookout can go south under its influence. Beer isn't always the answer to a long day of drinking, either — a cold, tart pastry sour tastes wonderful in the late summer sun, but too many can make you feel like you just ate half a pie

I prefer a low-alcohol base for day drinks, especially for those long, end-of-summer and holiday cookouts and picnics. You can dress these cocktails up or down; they're simple to make with few ingredients and no special equipment. With a couple of little flourishes, you can make a drink that tastes complex and is refreshing, easy to sip and won't get you hammered before the grill heats up. 

The following recipes vary in their alcohol content, but all are going to be less than a cocktail made with hard liquor (gin, rum, whiskey et al. typically start at 40% ABV and go up from there). Campari and Carpano Botanic Bitter, for example, are on the higher end of the offerings here, at 24-25% ABV, while Aperol clocks in at about half that weight, and most vermouths and aperitifs fall in between. 

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A tip if you're on the go: Pre-mix your non-carbonated ingredients — scaled up to make a batch — in a lidded jar. Throw the jar and any needed bubbles — seltzer or sparkling wine — in your picnic basket and go. When you arrive, shake one more time, then pour a round over ice and — if called for — top with bubbles. 

* * *

The Pigeonnier

Not too sweet, not too sour — this flavorful, fruity and floral spritz is just right. 

  • 1.5 oz. French dry vermouth (you can also sub in vermouth blanc — different flavor, still good)
  • 0.5 oz. St. Germain elderflower liqueur
  • 0.5 oz. lemon juice
  • Angostura bitters
  • Grapefruit soda to top (I like Fever Tree)
  • Lemon to garnish

Add vermouth, lemon juice, St. Germain and a few dashes of bitters to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until frosty. Strain into a glass over fresh ice, then top with soda.

* * *

Poor Little Rich Mule

Pear, ginger, cinnamon, lime — pack this one in a thermos for apple picking and other fall daytime excursions, too. 

  • 2 oz. Mathilde Poire (or other pear liqueur  — not the spiced kind)
  • 0.5 oz. Lime juice
  • 3 oz. Ginger beer
  • Smoked cinnamon bitters
  • Cinnamon stick and lime wedge to garnish

Fill a shaker with ice. Add pear liqueur, lime juice (fresh squeezed is best) and bitters. Shake and strain over ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish.

* * *

Orange Siciliano 

An eye-opener for the day after a long night — my variation on the Sicilian is inspired by this delicious flavor combination. Pour over ice and stir gently.

  • 2 oz. Italian vermouth, like Cochi Torino
  • 1.5 oz. Amaro Montenegro (or Averna)
  • 1.5 oz. Cold brew coffee
  • Italian orange soda, like San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa, to top
  • Chocolate bitters
  • Orange wheel garnish

* * *

Lillet Blanc Spritz 

This basic spritz is infinitely adaptable, flexible enough to take on different infusions as well as fanciful bitters and garnishes. Here's a simple citrus version that's perfect for a holiday picnic.

  • 2 oz. Lillet Blanc 
  • 1 1/2 oz. fresh pink grapefruit juice 
  • 1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
  • Orange bitters
  • Club soda

Add Lillet, juices and a few dashes of bitters to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until frosty. Strain into a glass over fresh ice, then top with soda.

* * *

Aperol Spritz

It's a standard for a reason. Pour over ice and stir gently.

  • 3 oz. Aperol
  • 3 oz. Dry prosecco
  • Club Soda

* * *


Negroni fans, these are for you. Want to branch out a bit? Try subbing Carpano Botanic Bitter for Campari. It's familiar enough to work while introducing a little novelty. Pour over ice and stir non-sparkling ingredients first, then top with bubbles. (The Americano, with club soda instead of sparkling wine, is going to be your lightest option.)

Classic Sbagliato

This drink created by mistake — a Negroni with sparkling wine instead of gin — has become a classic in its own right

  • 1 oz. Campari 
  • 1 oz. Italian vermouth, like Carpano Antica Formula or Punt e Mes
  • Prosecco or other dry sparkling wine
  • Orange wheel or peel

Paolo's Boutique

This variation comes to us from Taylor Oliver, co-owner of Via Mare at Greydon House in Nantucket.  

  • 1.5 oz. Cocchi Americano Rosa
  • 1 oz. Braulio Alpine Amaro
  • 1 dash Bitterman's Burlesque Bitters
  • Prosecco to top
  • Orange twist


  • 1.5 oz. Campari (or Carpano Botanic Bitter)
  • 1.5 oz. Italian vermouth, like Carpano Antica Formula or Punt e Mes
  • Club soda
  • Orange wheel or peel 

By Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Chief Content Officer. She is also on faculty at the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding University and her memoir in essays, "Runaway: Notes on the Myths That Made Me," was named one of NPR's Books We Loved In 2022.

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