Backyard Playlists

One of the things we men in late middle age miss – one that we will go on about at some length, given the opportunity – are cassette mix-tapes. Most of you aren’t old enough to be familiar with them.

Mix-Tape (n.) – There was a time when music enthusiasts – mostly boys and men – could record music onto blank cassette tapes, write liner notes on a piece of cardboard that came in the clear plastic case, and give them to girls we wanted to impress. This was an exercise designed to show that we had hidden depths. Surprisingly, this sometimes worked. – Heavy Table: Your One-Stop Source for Service Journalism 

In our minds, the Age of the Mix-Tape was a long one, but in fact, it only lasted a dozen or so years. The technology required for a casual listener to record onto a blank tape only became commonly available in the mid-to-late Seventies, and by the 90s, home recording had switched over to compact disks, which, in turn, faded away in the early 2000s in favor of digital playlists.

The main selling point of a mix-tape was directly tied to its limitations – it was carefully curated.

Because it was difficult to listen to a particular song on demand, mix-tapes were designed to be listened to one side at a time, in a particular order. Let’s say that I wanted to impress a girl with what a splendid fellow I was. I might record a sequence of songs like this:

English Beat,Mirror in the Bathroom” – I’d open with a fun, boppy, singable song to impress on her how fun I was.

Cream, “Tale of Brave Ulysses” – She would think this was weird, but hopefully in an intriguing way. (Bonus – It uses the word “naked” in it.)

Sarah Vaughan, “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” – This would introduce the overt theme of selling you as a hot product. But in a retro, classy way. It would strike you as being extremely subtle. You would wonder if she’d pick up on your point.

Golden Earring,Radar Love” – Aside from being a straight banger of a song, this would remind her of that time you drove through the night to be with her. (Well, you brought a cheeseburger to where she was babysitting, but the concept is similar.)

Aladdin Soundtrack, Prince Ali” – Included to drive home the point of what a catch you I was, this may have been a miscalculation.

You get the point.

So, returning to the present, we are left with digital playlists, which are fine – even superior in some respects – but are hampered by their convenience. Yes, we can collect music thematically – songs to fall asleep to in hotels, jazz for cooking, etc… – but the “skip” button is too tempting. If we’ve gotten tired of a song, we can ignore it, which inevitably changes the artistic dynamic of the exercise.

Also, there is one other, glaring flaw with modern playlists, for our purposes. The vast majority of them have music for driving – songs to get you pumped up for work on your commute, low-key, mellow jazz for grocery store runs, etc… – or for working out. And, although it may seem as if I’ve forgotten this – this is a cocktail column, and cocktails pair very poorly with either of these activities.

So, where else would a sophisticated, interesting person like yourself listen to a dedicated playlist?

I posit that the deck in your backyard, or the porch at the front of your house is an ideal place for listening to such a list.

Which brings us to the crux of this discussion, namely, what music should be on this list?

I’m glad you asked.

At Least One Song by Queen:

I’m sorry, it’s the law.

But, which song? We are somewhat spoiled for choice; during a reasonably brief period of time during the 80s, Queen put out a surprising amount of amazing music – challenging, sing-alongable songs, as well as the soundtracks to two iconic movies – Highlander, and Flash Gordon

The first option that springs to mind is “Bohemian Rhapsody”. This is a solid choice. It is catchy, absolutely begs you to sing along, and follows the requirement that all great rock standards must meet – it makes no objective sense, whatsoever.

Then, there’s “Fat-Bottomed Girls”. Anyone who would fault you for choosing this clearly hates joy and is in denial some basic scientific facts about the Earth’s rotation.

But my choice would be “Somebody to Love”; it’s familiar, has a beat that makes you feel like a backup dancer, and lends itself to full-throated accompaniment. Sing this in your backyard, and the squirrels will know you mean business.

Fortunately for us, there are a surprising number of cocktails inspired by Queen songs, including this one, developed by Danielle Mitchell at The Spaniard in New York.

Somebody to Love

½ oz gin – I’ve been using Wiggly Bridge lately and really like it. 

½ oz fresh lemon juice – The lemon will take a leading role in this, so make sure you are using a very ripe one, with a lot of flavor – maybe one that’s been sitting around long enough that it has shrunk down on itself and you can see a hint of its ribs. This will be its swan song.

½ oz simple syrup

½ oz St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur

5 sprigs fresh dill

  1. Combine all the ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker, reserving one sprig of dill for garnish. This will seem like too much dill; it is not. Just as the heart wants what the heart wants, dill has its own reasons for doing what it does. Trust the dill.
  1. Shake thoroughly – for longer than you think you ought to. You are using the ice to break up the dill and let it infuse into the gin. So, why not just muddle it to begin with? You want little broken pieces of dill frond floating, suspended in your final cocktail, and this is probably the easiest way to make sure that happens.
  1. Strain into a chilled coupé glass. In this case, “strain” means through the big holes in a julep strainer or through the gap between the glasses in a Boston strainer. If you use a fine-mesh metal strainer, it will remove those tiny dill fragments we are looking for.
  1. Garnish with the remaining sprig of dill.

“Crisp” is probably the best word to describe this cocktail. The acidity from the lemon juice provides the backbone of the drink, complemented by the floral sweetness of the elderflower. In spite of the intimidating amount of dill in this recipe, its herbiness really comes through in the after-taste.

Your best bet is to double this recipe. Enjoy one – sip, gulp, make toasts – whatever suits your mood, then top off your glass and you will be fully prepared to belt out the chorus of this song when it rotates through again. This is a light enough drink to allow you to do this for a – to any teenage children – distressingly long time.

A Broadway Musical Number

In a similar vein to having a song by Queen, a good playlist should have a song made to sing along to at the top of your voice. For many of us, this means a show-stopping number from a musical. 

Let’s look at a case study:

Imagine Sergio.

Sergio is – in a very low-key way – going through a mid-life crisis. In his youth, he dreamed of fighting crime in a mask, or playing shortstop for the Twins. Somehow, he never saw himself walking around the backyard, picking up toys. A lot of toys. A truly surprising number of toys.

And yet, here he is. 

He’s not complaining; it’s not like someone is beating him with sticks or anything – it’s just not as.. dramatic as he’d hoped grownup life would be.

That’s where Broadway comes in. There’s nothing like playing an “I Want” song, then stopping at the chorus, holding a wiffle bat in the air like a sword, and belting out a song about leaving your small town behind and seeking your fortune in the bigger outside world.

We’ve all been there.

So, what kind of musical number should you include?

An obvious choice – maybe even a little too obvious – is the opening song from Hamilton. It’s lyrical, incredibly singable, and astonishingly clever. Classics are classics for a reason.

Also on the Incredibly Obvious List is Let it Go from Frozen. Yes, if you have daughters, you have probably heard this song enough to last you a lifetime, but if you are looking for a song that will stop your kid from rolling her eyes at you and sing along, it is this one. Even if she is seventeen, wears goth makeup, and insists on being called Arsnyk, she’ll buy into this.

But I’m going to go a bit Old School and choose something a little edgier – “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” from Oliver

Is it old? Absolutely. 

Is it a little cheesy? Unapologetically. 

Does it have more personality in its left thumb than an entire season of Glee? Yup.

It is impossible to sing this without wiggling your fingers and smiling evilly.

By the way, a great exchange from this scene in the Oscar-winning movie:

Urchin – “These sausages are moldy!”

Fagin – “Shut up and drink your gin!”

Good advice.

Fagin’s Thumbs

2 oz. Medium quality gin. You want this to have a bit of a raw bite to it. At the same time, you don’t want to go blind or anything.

5-6 oz. Ginger beer. Not ginger ale – proper ginger beer. Again, feel free to go with something with a bit of a bite. Remember, you’re representing the slums of Victorian London here. I like Goya; it’s a bit spicy.

10 drops Liquid Smoke. Yes, I know. Trust me on this; aside from the whole 19th Century London thing, this highball could use just a touch of savoryness.

¼ Lemon for juice and garnish

  1. Mix all ingredients over ice in a tall Collins glass. Go ahead and squeeze the lemon, but keep the carcass floating in it as a reminder to – I’m not sure. The chipmunks? – of who they’re dealing with.

Yes, this is a riff on a Dark & Stormy, a classic summertime drink, But there is something about the combination of gin and smoke that is really refreshing. Lemon and gin always go well together. The real ringer here is the ginger beer. It’s easy to forget just how good it is and how well it goes with summer.

Not for nothin’, but this would also be a great drink in December – the ginger would sneak everyone else in, wearing a Santa hat and take your party guests completely by surprise.

A Gardening Song

Like a lot of people, I slid into gardening a couple of years ago, during Lockdown. I’ve backed off on a lot of the other hobbies I took up – I’m not making sourdough bread three times a week anymore, for instance – but the gardening thing has, if anything, intensified since I’ve been allowed to walk the earth again, striking up conversations with other enthusiasts in nurseries and garden centers.

Gardening lends itself to podcasts and audiobooks. Being able to spend some time calmly tending plants lends itself to listening closely to people in a way that you don’t always do when you are cooking or driving.

But if you are looking for gardening-themed music, you will find yourself back in Soundtrack Territory, this time with Little Shop of Horrors, the greatest garden-themed musical of all time. It combines early MoTown riffs with science fiction, pulp, and general weirdness.

An obvious choice – at least for weeding – might be “You’ll Be a Dentist”. It will help you channel that streak of sadism that you usually keep well under wraps. It helps to imagine the weeds weeping in terror as you chuckle gleefully.

If you’re in a more sentimental, nurturing mood, you might go with “Somewhere That’s Green”. It specifically mentions gardening in the lyrics, plus it’s got “green” right in the title.

But for my money, the best song for standing back and admiring your work – the part of gardening that I’m best at – is “Suddenly Seymour”. It’s a hopeful song about finding a small bit of grace in a dumpster-fire world – which, when you think about it, is what gardening is, too.

And, as luck would have it, there is a drink called The Seymour. It’s a bit… uptown for a backyard though – mine anyway, so here is a simplified, streamlined version that we’ll call, inevitably…

Suddenly Seymour

Peel from a tangerine – about 20 gr. Most recipes will make a big deal about carefully slicing the rind away from the white pith underneath to keep things from getting bitter. Because bitterness is a big part of this drink’s profile, you don’t have to worry much about that. This time.

1½ oz Apple brandy – I like Laird’s Applejack

½ oz Campari

1 oz Fresh-squeezed lemon juice

½ oz Ginger or honey syrup

  1. Muddle the tangerine peel in the bottom of a cocktail shaker for at least a full minute, tossing it several times to make sure you are brutalizing all of it equally.
  1. Add the apple brandy and dry shake (without ice) the peel/brandy mixture. You are doing this without ice to allow the alcohol to strip out the flavorful oils from the citrus peel. Ice would help beat up the peel, but would dilute the alcohol.
  1. Let the peel/brandy mixture sit for five minutes. Use this time to sugar the rim of a cocktail glass and put it in the freezer to firm up.
  1. Add the Campari, lemon juice, syrup, and ice to the shaker. Shake thoroughly.
  1. Strain into your sugared glass.

If you make this cocktail with honey syrup, your first sip will remind you strongly of grapefruit – the bitterness, the color, the acidity all hint at grapefruit, but there is a roundness of flavor that you don’t always get with actual grapefruit. Ginger syrup with give it a little more of a spicy bite and make you think of girl you used to know. Maybe a girl you used to be.

This may be the most drinkable cocktail I’ve had in years. It’s very social; it will invite more and more of its friends to join it in your belly, until there is a distinct possibility that you will find yourself sitting in your flower bed, singing showtunes.

An Aspirational Song

Every good playlist includes at least one Statement of Identity. In most cases, this is not so much a statement on who you actual are, but more of a wishlist of who you’d like to be. There are mild-mannered accountants who psych themselves up for big meetings by playing the theme to “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly”. There are daycare teachers to drive to work, listening to “Bitch Better Have My Money”.

I can’t speak to your particular dreams, but mine have shrunk in scope and ambition over the years. I don’t need to save a school bus full of orphans or anything, but I would like to have someone sing a ballad about me in Spanish.

Or hint that I’ve got an exciting, secret personal life

But for gritty, aspirational songs, you really can’t beat Tom Waits

I can’t, anyway. I like to imagine this being played at my funeral.

Fumblin’ With the Blues

1½ oz Szechuan pepper-infused gin – See below

½ oz Blueberry syrup – See below

1 oz Fresh-squeezed lemon juice

  1. Combine all ingredients over ice, in a cocktail shaker. Shake enthusiastically.
  1. Strain into a martini glass.
  1. Drink in your back yard, thinking about what might have been.

This drink wants to be sweeter. Given its color and ingredients, you would think that it would be sweet.

I mean, it’s sweet enough, but that’s not the takeaway you get when you drink this. Considering that it only has three ingredients – four, if you count melancholy – there is a lot going on here. We’ve already established that gin is excellent at chaperoning spicy and herbal flavors. We’ve also discussed that gin is on very good terms with lemon. Lemon and blueberry dance beautifully together – in pies, scones, and clearly in cocktails. The Szechuan peppers add a fairly subtle background flavor to this drink – definitely no stronger than that of the lemon – but a few seconds after you have sipped this, their tongue-numbing properties kick in and you will find yourself sitting on your deck, questioning more than a few of your life-decisions.

Should you have had more of this in your life?


Szechuan Pepper-Infused Gin

1 cup/8 oz./237 ml. Good-but-not-very-expensive gin

1 Tbsp. Szechuan peppercorns

  1. Combine the gin and Szechuan peppercorns in a small bottle. Forcing the peppercorns through the neck of a funnel with a chopstick will break them up just enough.
  1. Cap the bottle and shake it. Let the mixture infuse for 24 hours, shaking it periodically.
  1. Strain and rebottle.

Blueberry Syrup

  1. Combine one package of frozen blueberries with an equal amount, by weight, of white sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring and/or mashing occasionally with a wooden spoon.
  1. Remove from heat, stir in the juice of one lemon, then allow to sit for one hour.
  1. Strain, bottle and refrigerate.

A “Wow, What a Woman!” Song

It’s a given that a man wallowing in late middle age like myself will have a backyard playlist skewed a little toward other middle-aged men. I acknowledge that.

But every playlist – every single one, regardless of the age, sex, or orientation of the person compiling it – needs at least one song that knocks them back on their heels and makes them say, “Wow, what a woman!”

Much like the inclusion of Queen, I’m pretty sure it’s a law.

I’m not necessarily talking about something by a “diva”. That term can be a useful label, but in this particular case, we’re not talking about someone’s professional or cultural standing; rather, we are talking about a singer’s ability to stop you in your tracks and wash over you like a force of nature.
There is, of course, the entire catalog of Aretha Franklin, particularly “I Say a Little Prayer”.

I would also put in a word for Annie Lenox.

But for deeply immersing yourself in backyard, er… backyardisms… for my money, you can’t do better than KT Turnstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”. This song radiates waves of power and magic. More than a few previously boring people have made radical changes to the directions of their lives while listening to this song.

Black Horse and the Cherry Tree
My wife is a remarkable woman. My best non-wife friend is a woman nearly as excellent. This is a very good drink to have while talking to either or both of them on the deck, while being strafed by hummingbirds.

The downside is, of course, the danger of breaking out into song.

1 oz Kirsch

1 oz. Cocoa-infused vodka – see below

5-6 oz cherry cola

  1. Mix all ingredients over ice, in a tall glass.

This is sweet, bubbly, rich with the taste of cherries and rounded out with an aftertaste of cocoa. It is a late afternoon homage to wonderful things beyond your comprehension.

And it tastes like black forest cake. So, there’s, that.

Chocolate Vodka

750 ml mid-shelf vodka – any subtle flavor notes will be completely obliterated by the chocolate, so save your expensive stuff for something else.

½ cup (2 oz/60 gr) cocoa nibs

  1. Combine vodka and cocoa nibs in a wide-mouthed jar and store somewhere dark for four days, shaking twice per day.
  1. Filter, bottle, and label.

An Old Song

Every playlist needs at least one old song on it. It doesn’t matter if you are incredibly young, incredibly fresh, and on the cutting edge of style; you still need something old to anchor your list with something to give it a sense of history.  (Granted – depending on your particular age, “old” could mean Pre-Lemonade Beyoncé.)

If, hypothetically, you were doing general backyard maintenance, you could do a lot worse than “Spring Cleaning” by Fats Waller.

On the other hand, sitting on your deck, cocktail in hand, feeling very self-satisfied calls for vintage Sinatra.

But for a song that is always appropriate, that doesn’t care if you’re in the mood for it because it will put you in the mood, it’s this one. Do you remember Arsnyk, our grumpy, goth friend from earlier? Even she would sing along to this one.

And if you are sitting with your crew in the backyard, belting out sea shanties, there is one obvious choice for a drink to go with it:

Navy Grog [1]

Grog is, in its own tipsy way, the Patriarch of Tiki Drinks. It has been a classic for sailors and for those of us who like to imagine the excitement of a life at sea – minus the boredom, the fragrant company, and the scurvy – for over three hundred years. Because of this pedigree, you can serve this to anybody without feeling the need to apologize. At the same time, because of its piratical associations, you can put your own spin on it – again, without apologizing to anyone, because who’s going to judge you? A bunch of pirates who would love to drink whatever you’re serving and who have been dead for a couple of hundred years, in any case?

Here’s my take on Grog.

(By the way, there has probably never been a better name for a hail-fellow-well-met drink like this. Seriously, try it – after two or three of these, shout out, “Arrh! More grog over here!! That’s a lass, thank ye!” It will be a real voyage of self-discovery.)

1 oz Black rum, the darker the better. I like Cruzan’s Blackstrap for this.

1 oz Golden rum – I’ve got a bottle of Kirk and Sweeney that I save for special occasions like this.

1 oz. White rum – Bacardi is fine for this. The white rum in this recipe is like the friend who is seriously underdressed to get into a club, but is able to brazen her way through because of her fancy friends.

1 oz Honey syrup

¾ oz Grapefruit juice

¾ oz Fresh-squeezed lime juice, plus half a lime for garnish

1 oz of Aggressively bubbly seltzer – I like Topo Chico.

1 sprig of Fresh mint for garnish

  1. Fill the large half of a cocktail shaker to the top with ice.
  1. Pour the ice into a clean tea towel. Wrap the ice in the towel, then beat it brutally with something heavy. (I use the billy-club-sized pestle from my largest mortar and pestle for this.) Beat the towel until you have a variety of ice shards – from half cubes, to pebbles, to legitimate snow. Pour this ice back into your cocktail shaker. It will take up significantly less room than before.
  1. Add the rums, honey syrup, and citrus juices to the shaker, and shake thoroughly.
  1. Add the carbonated water, then stir gently with a bar spoon.
  1. Pour the entire contents into a glass. Does it have to be a Tiki mug? It could be; again, who’s going to judge you? But frankly, any large-ish glass, mug, or mason jar will do.
  1. Squeeze the remaining half lime into the glass, then drop the carcass in to class the joint up a little. Finish it off with the fresh mint.

Considering that this is GROG, it is a surprisingly sophisticated drink. The black rum plays extremely well with the honey syrup, which would be too sweet, if not cut by the acidity of the citrus juices. Too much of the black rum would be overpowering, but this drink benefits from being a bit more boozy, so the white rum steps in to lift it a bit. Too much white rum would take us into Spring Break Territory, so the golden rum is there to keep things civil.The hint of grapefruit puts a hand on the lime’s shoulder and says, “It’s okay, Irving (most limes are named Irving), I’m here; we’ll get through this together”. 

Really? Is that it? That’s actually a pretty short playlist.

True, but it’s also about twelve ounces of alcohol and a lost weekend, so let’s think of it as a starting point. More importantly, what lesson can we take away from all this?

Speaking probably only for myself, it’s the realization that singing loudly to your favorite music is a lot like a good cocktail – it will work beautifully, if you throw yourself into it with complete conviction.

  1. A keen observer might notice that I have turned a Little Mermaid doll into a planter. “Why?”, you might ask. Because the plant has aerial roots.