The Kentucky Derby and Cinco de Mayo are this weekend, two holidays that inspire spirited drinking, even among those with tenuous-at-best connections to the actual festivities. The margarita and the mint julep, the two signature cocktails of the weekend, are both very straightforward, in terms of technique and composition. You’ll need just five ingredients to make the two, assuming there’s sugar and kosher salt in your cupboard. Add lemons and you also have the makings for whiskey sours. Add just a few more items and—voila!—you’ve stocked your bar for the summer.
Here’s your shopping list. Get just the first five for margaritas and juleps. Pick up all 11 for a fully loaded summer bar:
- agave nectar
- grapefruit soda
- white wine
There are lots of margarita recipes out there that call for sour mix or Cointreau. Skip them. Agave nectar and fresh lime juice taste cleaner and brighter because they’re far more harmonious with the tequila. This margarita recipe from Epicurious is solid. When you pick your tequila, make sure to go silver, also called blanco. Gold usually contains caramel coloring and are just not as good, and reposado and añejo tequilas are more aged and complex than you really need here. Serious Eats did a deep dive on tequilas for margaritas, if you want to nerd out a bit (and why not?)
Variations based on our shopping list: I prefer a Paloma to a margarita. It’s a similar drink, but with grapefruit soda added to the mix. The bitter kick of the grapefruit and the bubbles really make it refreshing, and I love it with mezcal, as well, if you want to add that to the list and make it an even dozen items to pick up.
Honestly, the hardest part about making mint juleps is getting your hands on large quantities of crushed ice, if you don’t have a fancy refrigerator. Julep fans disagree on whether or not bubbly water should be part of the recipe (here are four variations (paywall), all of which can be made with this shopping list). Really, though, this is just bourbon, mint, sugar, and water. I like Evan Williams bourbon for this. Bulleit works nicely, too. But if you have a favorite bourbon, go for it.
Beyond margaritas and mint juleps
With this shopping list you can also make a whiskey sour (which is a delicious and underappreciated drink when made with fresh juice instead of flabby sour mix), a daiquiri, a mojito, or a white wine spritzer. You can’t go wrong with vinho verde for your spritzers, but an easy sauvignon blanc, or even a rosé works, too. Half wine, half seltzer over ice with a squeeze of lemon or a dash of bitters is all you need—trust us, it takes work to make a bad spritz.
A lot of these recipes call for simple syrup, which—as the name suggests—is simple to make (one part sugar to one part water, heated in a saucepan until the sugar dissolves), and is also great for sweetening cold brew coffee in warm weather (and, let’s face it, cold brew season has arrived).