The beginning of football season calls to mind tailgates adorned with crushed Budweiser cans scattered on the ground, red Solo cups filled with watered down bourbon on clumps of gas station ice and flat mimosas poured from a jug. To drink heavily in preparation for an afternoon between the hedges is nearly as important as the outcome of the game itself. And while there is nothing wrong with remaining true to your traditional pre-game beverages, a little preparation and the right priorities, you can take your tailgate experience to the next level.
When cocktailing a tailgate party, there are a few key things you must keep in mind. For one, there will be a preponderance of hangovers present, and these must be attended to. Also, it’s likely to be hot, especially in the early part of the season when the games are early and the sun bears down like pulling guard on a cornerback. Best be prepared with coolers locked and loaded and a variety of drinking options to get people back in the game.
Tailgating essentials include: a shaker, an arsenal of easy-drinking white wine, plenty of citrus and a small shrine to your team of choice.
1. Bring Ice — Lots of It
The most important item to have in abundance is ice– a shortage of it can devastate a proper tailgate. You’ll need some to pack a cooler of beer. You may want ice for fruit or juice or sodas or sandwiches or other snackies. And you need to have ice in a cooler all to itself for cocktails and mixed drinks. Ice. Count on a good bit melting. I’d guess 2-3 gas station sized bags for your beer cooler, a bag for your food, and a bag for making drinks. Keep ‘em all in decent, separate coolers to reduce the impact of melting ice.
2. Pack Your Cooler’s Base Layer
A tailgate requires some level of planning, but you don’t have to go overboard. You will, however, want to pack your beer cooler before you get there. And though it may sound silly, there is a right way to pack a cooler; namely, beer and wine first. Fill up the empty cooler with the boat beer of your choice (I recommend at least some Miller High Life bottles, for reasons I will get to shortly), but Miller Lite and Budweiser cans work great. PBR if you must. And no more than a 6-pack of whatever fancy mouth-drying IPA or new ‘session ale’ you’d like to include. Don’t forget the white wine. Vinho Verde is perfect; some will prefer Sauvignon Blanc (avoid New Zealand wines if possible), but leave the chardonnay at home (or at the grocery store). Once your cooler is filled with room-temperature beer and wine, evenly distributed across the bottom, start icing. Give it a good layer that covers any cans on the bottom, then you can add a few more cans on top and hit it again. Ice to the brim. Now you’ve packed a cooler.
3. Gather Your Other Provisions
From home, don’t forget your cutting board, knife, a hand-held juicer (available at the check out line of your favorite Target/TJ Maxx/Stein Mart) and something to shake and measure with, cups and shot glasses will do. Next you hit the grocery/liquor store. You’ll need (at least) a liter of vodka, a liter of gin, a liter of bourbon, a six pack of Schweppes or other club soda and tonic, a six pack of Blenheim spicy ginger ale (look for the red tops–the hotter, the better), a few limes and lemons, a bag of oranges and a bag of grapefruits, and a bottle of Zing Zang. I like to bring enough to keep anywhere from 10-20 fellow Bulldawgs happy, with plenty to offer strangers, and particularly women in town for the opposing team– this type of olive branch is appropriate before the game, as their will be no such mercy after kickoff. Now, it’s time to get to the party.
4. Prepare Your Starter Beverage
Begin by making everyone a drink before you get to the cocktail. Something to start beating back that hangover we discussed. A screwdriver or a half a bloody mary—both with a splash of soda—work for many people, myself included. Someone might opt for a gin and tonic. For wine drinkers—and I love this drink—a little white wine on the rocks with a squeeze of lemon or lime, some club soda, and maybe even a dash of vodka, works great. For beer drinkers, a Pomosa. This is where the High Life comes in. Take a bottle of the Champagne of Beers and let your guest drink off the neck. Next fill the bottle up with your fresh squeezed orange juice (put that cutting board, knife, and hand held juicer to work). Have your guest invert the bottle, thumb over the opening, so the orange juice gets incorporated. When they turn it back, it’s certain to foam over. Make sure they’re ready to drink it down a bit. If you haven’t spilled some, you haven’t done it right.*
5. Set Up Your Workspace & Prepare Your Cups
Now that everyone has a drink in hand and your cooler is properly chilled, you can set up your drink station. Get the cutting board, knife, and juicer from above, and find a tabletop, or cooler top, or best yet an actual truck tailgate. You’ll also need a bottle opener, a jigger or shot glass, and a sleeve of plastic Solo cups. There are better options for the cups if you can find them. Try compostable cups, or old Styrofoam (don’t buy new ones!) that you can reuse. My favorites are leftover Master’s golf tournament beer cups. They’re hard plastic and reuseable for years, and they let the color of drink show. But I digress, the key is to have plenty of cups, almost like ice, one for everyone to drink from, one to mix with, and one to use as ice scoop. Now that you’re set up, let’s a make a drink.
6. Make Your Cocktail
When it comes to tailgate cocktails, it’s important not to get too fancy. But don’t shortchange yourself either. To strike a balance, I like to have options. You’ve got your bases covered from hangover cures to classic mixed drinks like G&T and Vodka Soda, and you can find various ways to crush white wine. But as any self-respecting southerner knows, gamedays revolve around bourbon. And they should. It’s kind of the rules down here. There is no shame is going bourbon and coke, but I suggest a drink some friends and I concocted nearly ten years ago: the National Tonic. This drink meets all the gameday requirements: it’s got bubbles, it’s got bourbon and it’s got a healthy dose of Vitamin C to get you through a long rowdy day of cheering on your team.
Recipe: The National Tonic
- 2 oz bourbon
- Juice from half of one grapefruit
- 1 bottle of Blenheim Spicy Ginger Ale
Pour 2 oz of bourbon (or a shot and then some) into your cup of choice. Slice half a grapefruit and juice it into your cup. Using a second cup, scoop ice to the brim into your drinking cup. Crack open a bottle of Blenheim spicy ginger ale, and fill up your drink. Take a third cup and turn your drink into it, then back again.
*Note: all of these drinks have bubbles: a crucial element for day-drinking.
The author at work, squeezing grapefruit for a National Tonic.