"Time for a proper sundowner, eh what?" our professional guide suggested cheerily. Having just returned from a bone-jarring drive through Botswana's Moremi Game Reserve, where we'd witnessed lions chasing Cape buffalo, we were both excited and exhausted. In other words, we needed a drink. There, outside the mess tent, waiting for us like an oasis in the desert, was a stand holding a tray of glasses, an ice bucket, and bottles of scotch, gin, and a few mixers. It took about one minute for us all to be clinking glasses and toasting the setting African sun.
On that trip we learned that a "sundowner" is far more than a decently refreshing mixed drink taken at the end of the day. It's a welcome ritual that marks the passage from day to night, combined with a no-nonsense approach to imbibing. The term sounds British, and it is. Back when world maps showed the British Empire girdling the globe, all those hardworking colonial types in pith helmets needed something to unwind with after a hard day of quelling border bandits and playing polo. For solace they didn't turn to wine or beer, but to more serious whisky and gin based drinks, particularly those mixed with malaria-protective quinine (tonic water, to you) and scurvy-fighting lime juice (a manly source of vitamin c).
But those chaps also understood something even more important: that the sundowner was a drink that got half its deliciousness from the setting. That's why the tradition of marking the end of a day with a drink endures in any place where you can actually view the sun sinking. Sundowners and the great outdoors, particularly in summer, belong together. Few things beat sharing drinks crowded together in the cockpit of a sailboat at anchor, gathered around a riverside campfire after a day shooting the rapids, or sitting on a dock that juts out into a sleepy lake at sunset - or, for that matter, standing on an apartment terrace looking out at lights coming on in the city, against a backdrop of darkening sky.
There's more to the sundowner than setting, of course. Classic sundowners are dust-cutting, heat-beating, thirst-slaking drinks that need lots of ice - cooling drinks that stand tall in the glass. And since they're pre-dinner drinks (it's sundown, remember), they're basically simple. Those silly drinks with three straws in a coconut shell that you get on cruises to the Bahamas just don't cut it, and fruit juice concoctions which really belong at brunch - screwdrivers, bloody marys, and various cranberry cocktails - don't either.
The sundowner has been an unfussy drink for decades. It's true that in colonial days, when gentlemen sat around in white linen suits underneath ceiling fans in tropical bars, a sundowner might be a very elaborate drink indeed - but, back then, the bartender,, in those places wore turbans and there was always someone to bring your drink out to the verandah, while you sat in a very large rattan chair and smoked a very long cigar. Since it's likely that you don't have a man on your staff whose sole job it is to be in charge of your drink, it makes sense to stick to recipes that require that you pour no more than three ingredients over ice, twirl once with a finger, and serve.
Even though the drink may be simple to make, we think sundowners deserved to be served with a bit of ritual. Prewar clubs in the tropics often had strict traditions governing when one could begin to bend an elbow - for example, not until the sun dropped behind a certain hill, or before the afternoon shadows crept up the courtyard wall of the clubhouse and reached the flagpole-unless it was a holiday, of course.
Nothing wrong with that logic.
By now, it should be pretty obvious what you ought to have on hand to produce a variety of decent sundowners. In addition to liquor (coming up), you need glassware-solid-bottomed, 8- to 10-ounce straight sided glasses, and some shorter old-fashioned glasses as well (yes, plastic is convenient outdoors, but drinks never taste as good as when they're served in real glass). Ice, of course, is indispensable and a bucket (preferably an insulated one) to keep it in is very handy. In addition, you should have a selection of mixers on hand, such as lime juice (Rose's is the best), various sodas (lemon-lime for coolers, colas for Cuba Libres, ginger beer for Moscow Mules, etc.) bottled spring water, club soda, tonic water, and a few fresh lemons and limes.
Liquors for sundowners constitute a fairly standard lineup, but you won't improve your drinks by using so-called bargain spirits. Stick with premium brands, such as Johnnie Walker Black for scotch, Maker's Mark for bourbon, Courvoisier V.S.C.P. for Cognac, Beefeater for London dry gin, Finlandia for vodka, Cruzan Premium Light for white (silver) rum. Add in any specialized liquors needed for any particular recipes (such as cherry brandy and Benedictine for Singapore Slings, Campari and dry vermouth for Dry Negronis, etc.) and any personal favorites (Pimm's cup or whatever).
Scotch and soda 2 oz. blended Scotch 5 oz. sparkling water or club soda Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice cubes. Pour in the Scotch and fill with sparkling water. Stir.
Cuba Libre 2 oz. white rum 5 oz. cola I lime wedge Fill a highball glass with ice cubes. Pour in the rum, then fill with cola and garnish with lime.