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DRINKING DIXIE

Southern Cocktails stirs the tradition of front-porch hospitality.

Summertime and the drinkin' is genteel. Even dainty, refreshing and right potent.

Certainly it was in the Deep South when Denise Gee grew up around the Natchez, Miss., parlor porch and party bar of her Aunt Nannie.

There was pimiento cheese in the ice box, spiced pecans in the pantry, a well-stocked liquor cabinet, a full ice bucket and a diverse glass menagerie. Odd shapes and styles matched flips, frappes, slings and every other cocktail that made the evening sun go down with a smile.

Drinking was different because of down-home social traditions and dad-gum heat that made even Rhett, frankly, take a dram.

"It's also the history behind the drinks; you say Sazerac and people think of the Napoleon House in New Orleans,'' says Gee, who counts the late, great Southern food expert Lee Bailey as kin. Gee herself covered foods, homes and entertaining for various magazines around the South. "Cocktails are more refined and Southern hospitality was like that, taking care to use the right glasses and nice ice tongs."

To preserve those memories and toast the hosts she has met, Gee compiled Southern Cocktails (Chronicle Books, $14.95). It will instruct and refresh drinkers stuck in an ugly July on either side of the Mason-Dixon. Her husband, Robert Peacock, provided photos that glisten like a julep cup at a garden party.

The book incudes a recipe for Bee's Knees, a gin drink sweetened with homemade honey syrup and introduced to Gee by friend Debbie Clifton Perez of Tampa.

"I can see why she fell in love with her husband, Fernando, over a round of these," Gee writes.

Today Gee and Peacock still view cocktails at home as a gracious adult custom.

"I really like Sunday evening. I work all week but that's me time - it's sort of a nice palate cleanser, an intermezzo before I get back at it. If we have people over, it's Sunday evening, early, before sunset so we can enjoy it.''

Besides ice, and perhaps because of it, the other ingredients in the Southern way of drinking are strong spirits and flavors, a bit sweet and bright with fruit.

This is brown-bottle mixing from the days before overpriced call brands, when flavor and proof made the drink, not the label or celebrity buzz.

Consider what's on the bar and in Gee's recipes from plantations, party bars and the cocktail capital of the South, New Orleans.

Sturdy stuff like brandy, bourbon and rye is joined by sweeter booze. There's heady licorice of absinthe, vermouth, Benedictine, the ginned-up herbs of Pimm's No. 1, Peychaud's Bitters, blackberry cordial and Cointreau.

They're tamed by lemonades, orange juice, peel and zest, maraschino cherries, fresh mint, milk or cucumber slices. They've come together for 150 years in planters' punch, sugared whiskey crusta or the glorious Vieux Carre (rye, brandy, vermouth and a splash of Benedictine). Newer recipes for blueberry martinis and the like can't compare.

To mix them, Gee kits out a home bar with tools of propriety and practicality:

- A cocktail strainer looks silly, but that spring coil makes shaken drinks cold, not weak.

- A long metal cocktail spoon doubles as stirrer and muddler.

- Cut-glass decanters make fun dress-up for liquors (and affordable yard sale finds).

- A jigger, 1-, 1.5- or 2-ounce, is mandatory for careful mixing - and measured intake.

Gee advises drinking whatever you make in a Southern fashion:

Slowly. Garnished with a story.

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or csherman@sptimes.com.

Watermelon Crush

8 cups seeded, cubed watermelon (about 4 pounds)

1 1/3 cups light rum

1 1/2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice, or more to taste

1/2 cup orange liqueur

1/4 cup powdered sugar, or more to taste

2 ounces freshly squeezed lime juice

- Put the watermelon cubes in a plastic freezer bag; freeze for at least 8 hours.

- Puree the watermelon and remaining ingredients in batches in a blender or food processor until smooth, scraping down the sides occasionally. Combine the processed mixture well.

- Serve in a large old pickle jar or a punch bowl and scoop the mixture into Mason jar, tin cups or other festive glasses.

Serves 6.

Source: Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $14.95)

Bee's Knees

4 ounces gin

1 1/2 ounces honey syrup (see note)

1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

Lemon peel curls for garnish (optional)

- Pour all ingredients except the garnish into a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake well.

- Strain into chilled cocktail or martini glasses. Add the garnish, if desired.

Serves 2.

Note: To make the honey syrup, combine 1 1/2 cups honey, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Heat to a boil while stirring. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is reduced by one-fourth. Let cool. Using a funnel, pour into a clean container and refrigerate for up to several months.

Source: Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $14.95)

Derby Cooler

2 ounces bourbon

1 ounce light rum

2 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice

1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice

Dash of grenadine

Star fruit or orange slice for garnish

- Pour all ingredients except the garnish into a cocktail shaker filled with ice and mix vigorously.

- Strain into 2 cocktail glasses filled with ice. Add the garnish.

Serves 2.

Source: Southern Cocktails by Denise Gee (Chronicle Books, $14.95)

Book signing: Denise Gee will sign books at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 10 during a cocktail hour sponsored by Inkwood Books and Mise en Place at the restaurant, 442 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.

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