The Tailgate:
How to Make Cocktails for the Big Game

Sporting events are now all-day operations in North America, thanks mainly to the tailgate. Whether before or after the game, whether operating on a literal truck tailgate in the stadium parking lot or comfortably at home and in front of the big-screen television – or perhaps some other place altogether (see below) – the tailgate is a perfect combination of pageantry and indulgence.

But what to indulge in, drinks-wise?

Bringing a big cooler of beer is easy enough, but you aren’t going to win any points from fellow fans. And don’t you want to be the guy or gal that makes everyone else jealous? If you really want to amp up your ’gate, you’re going to need a cocktail program. No, you’re not going to need, or want, to start whipping up boozy Manhattans and martinis (although that could be fun). Instead, you’ll probably want to master a mix of simple daytime drinks – long, light, and easy to make – that can come in the form of everything from spritzes to beer cocktails to punches and pre-batched libations. Tailgating is a marathon, not a sprint, and these drinks will be the perfect sippers to get you from that expected early morning arrival all the way to game time – with still enough lucidity left to actually root your favorite team on.

America’s Top Tailgates

Ole Miss – University of Mississippi (Oxford, Mississippi) – While rarely rooting for a title contender, hundreds of thousands of Rebel fans pack The Grove to drink whiskey at one of the best-dressed tailgates in America.

Penn State – Pennsylvania State University (State College, Pennsylvania) – The high-tech campers start pulling into the lots Thursday evening, for what will be in some cases a 72-hour tailgate, breaking for a mere four hours to actually watch the big game.

LSU – Louisiana State University (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) – Tiger faithful surround Death Valley to enjoy Cajun bites and drunken revelry.

University of Washington (Seattle, Washington) – The only tailgate on a lake, Husky fans “stern-gate” with crab legs and fine wine.

Green Bay Packers (Green Bay, Wisconsin) – Just like you pictured it: lotsa brats, lotsa cheese, and enough beer to keep you warm in the Wisconsin tundra.

Kansas City Chiefs (Kansas City, Missouri) – Long considered the NFL’s best tailgate, the parking lot has room for 25,000 cars and about the same number of BBQ smokers.

The Preakness Stakes (Baltimore, Maryland) – One of the rowdiest tailgates in America, young’uns pack the infield for nothing short of drunken debauchery.

Bristol Motor Speedway (Bristol, Tennessee) — With 160,000 fans and a short track, this NASCAR tailgate can get LOUD.

What to Bring to the Big Game

Now is not the time to bring that bottle of 30-year-old single-malt Scotch (save that for when your team finally wins a championship). Likewise, you aren’t going to need to lug 100 bottles around with you just to ensure you can make any drink possible. A massive number of cocktails can be made with less than a dozen bottles on hand.

Do It Yourself Tailgate Bar - How to Make Cocktails for a Tailgate

Start with the base spirits, all of which can be grabbed for $20 to $30 at most for a decent bottle. Your must-haves include: a vodka (recommended: Deep Eddy or Stoli), a gin (Beefeater or Tanqueray), a light rum (Wray & Nephew White Overproof), a silver tequila (Espolón), and a bourbon (Old Grand-Dad, Wild Turkey 101, or Maker’s Mark). A spiced rum (Gosling’s or Appleton Special Reserve) and reposado/añejo tequila would be nice, but not necessary.

As for alcoholic mixers, opt for a sweet and dry vermouth (Dolin, in both cases), one versatile amaro (Campari or Aperol), as well as some aromatic bitters (Angostura). For non-alcoholic mixers, grab some tonic water and soda water (Schweppes or Canada Dry is fine). The night before the party, squeeze a good quantity of both lemon and lime juice [NOTE: one lemon/lime is equal to about 1.5 ounces of juice]. Fresh juice will really up your cocktail game.

Additionally, lug along some more lemons and limes for wedges and swaths, along with oranges and cherries (skip those neon-red “Maraschino” cherries and instead go for ones a little higher-end). Bring a shaker or two, something to stir with, and a paring knife for cutting garnishes. You can also never have enough ice.

Tailgate Drinks that ‘Work’

Tailgates are all-day affairs, often starting before noon and ending after the game, when it’s already dark. Thus, if you want to be sipping on cocktails all day long, it’s going to have to be something light. “Spirit-forward” cocktails – as they’re called in the industry – may be delicious, but they’re not appropriate for tailgating festivities. What you’ll want to make so-called “long” cocktails – yes, that actually refers to length of the glass – made with a touch of spirits but mostly composed of fruit juices, tonic and soda waters, and, of course, plenty of ice.

Five Daytime Cocktails - How to Make Cocktails for a Tailgate

Examining Beer Cocktails

For your fellow fans who aren’t quite the hard-liquor type, temper their trepidation about mixed drinks with a beer cocktail. Beer cocktails are yet another great way to make a complex drink that will impress the crowd while still keeping alcohol levels mild. You’ve probably even had a beer cocktail and not realized it – think of a Black & Tan (a mix of a pale beer and a stout), a Snakebite (lager and cider), or even a Michelada (beer mixed with lemon juice, salt, Worcestershire sauce, and/or hot sauce).

Make a Beer Cocktail - How to Make Cocktails for a Tailgate

Nowadays, though, beer cocktails have become even more complex than the aforementioned, and it can be fun to play around with combinations. Instead of topping a spritz with seltzer water or sparkling wine, try a hefeweizen. Instead of topping your tequila with lime juice, try a Mexican lager or Belgian witbeir/saison. And a spiced rum or bourbon can play perfectly with a fruity beer or even an IPA. Play around and discover flavor combinations you like – the tailgate is your oyster!

Punching Up a Punch

Of course, the smartest way to up your tailgate cocktail game is to simply make a punch. With a punch, all you need to do is make one giant cocktail – not dozens or even hundreds every time yet another person needs “freshening up.”

Make a Large Batch Cocktail - How to Make Cocktails for a Tailgate

You should be long past those college days of pouring a cheap bottle of vodka or grain alcohol with a few quarts of prepackaged juice or fruit punch. Today’s punches are just as complex, layered, and sophisticated as drinks prepared one at a time. The best thing about a punch, though, is that exact measurements are not as important. The morning of the game, or even the night before, grab a few bottles of booze and start mixing and matching them in the container you wish to serve from – whether that’s a pitcher, a plastic punch bowl (remember, you’re in a parking lot – now is not the time to bring out grandma’s crystal punch bowl), or even a giant Igloo cooler. Once you’ve found a flavor profile you like, you’re good to go. Just be sure to add some ice and any carbonated/sparkling components (champagne, prosecco, seltzer, etc.) at the absolute last second before people arrive to start drinking. Label the punch with what’s in it – you don’t accidentally want nondrinkers or children hitting the hooch – and let people feel free to knock themselves out... literally. And now feel free to schmooze, have a drink yourself, and prepare for the big game!

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