I love summer in Downtown Champaign. Downtown is at its best when the flowers bloom and the patios are busy. Although a large chunk of our usual population leaves over the summer, the change of pace is often welcome during the hottest months. For many establishments, summer also means a change in menu. The food gets lighter and the drinks are colder. When it comes to “summertime” drinks, fresh fruit is always a winner, but what about fresh vegetables? I’ve been noticing a trend in using garden staples in cocktails all around town, and wanted to see if veggies could ever replace fruit in a cocktail.

If you came here looking for Bloody Marys you can read a full review of Bloody Marys in the Champaign-Urbana area here and here.

Garden Party | Bentley’s Pub

The aptly named Garden Party at Bentley’s is the best way to start. The Garden Party features rosemary-infused gin, elderflower tonic, and soda. This cocktail is a creative take on a traditional gin-and-tonic. The first thing I noticed is that the rosemary flavor and smell really comes through, so if herbs aren’t your thing, this might not be the cocktail for you. I enjoyed how the cocktail was still light and refreshing, even with the very prevalent rosemary. It was served with a lemon wedge and was best enjoyed on the patio. 

Bentley’s Pub
419 N Neil St
Daily 3 p.m. to  2 a.m.

Pineapple Sage Daiquiri | Big Grove Tavern

When I went to Big Grove Tavern to try a cocktail, I was looking for the Bella Pepper. The past couple of years Big Grove has done a summer seasonal with red bell pepper that has been a go-to of mine. I was disappointed to see that it’s not on the menu this season. So, I had to compromise my vegetable heavy search with a cocktail that featured both fruits and greens. Made with Sailor Jerry spiced rum, fresh lime, vanilla, fresh sage, and pineapple, this is a balanced drink. It’s a little bit tart and sweet from the pineapple and is light on the booze taste. This daiquiri is served up, not frozen, and is garnished with a sage leaf that surprisingly doesn’t get in the way. It would be perfect to enjoy with some of their lighter menu items.

Big Grove Tavern
1 E Main St
M-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sa 10 a.m. to 11p.m.
Su 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Watson’s Wabbit | Watson’s Shack & Rail

Watson’s is a great addition to Downtown Champaign; the food and atmosphere are exceptional. It just so happens that one of my favorite drinks in town can also be found here: the Watson’s Wabbit. This bunny-friendly cocktail is made with carrot juice, honey-ginger syrup, lemon juice, and Chicago Distilling Finn’s gin. Although the drink is bright orange in appearance, the carrot juice is subtly sweet, and pairs well with the gin. The ginger syrup and lemon balance out the sweetness just enough. I went to Watson’s on a Tuesday and had the Watson’s Wabbit with the taco special of the day, a pulled chicken taco with slaw and hot sauce. The sweetness of the cocktail and the spiciness of the taco made for a really nice match.

Watson’s Shack & Rail
211 N Neil St
Tu-Th 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Avocado Margarita | Maize at the Station

Maize is a place that I’ve been told to try again and again. Admittedly, I’ve only been a few times, but I’ve had mixed feelings. The best way to sum up my experience there is to share my experience with their Avocado Margarita. I went one time and ordered the Avocado Margarita because I’m a big fan of the creaminess that avocados can lend when blended into shakes and drinks. I was really disappointed, because the drink I got was heavy on the tequila and didn’t have any creaminess to it at all. It was also ladled with chopped cilantro that made it hard to drink. I went back and tried it again a week later, however, and had a much different cocktail served to me. The second time there was no cilantro at all. The avocado was present and did actually lend a very nice creaminess that balanced the tequila. It was rimmed with Tajin seasoning salt, which is a chili-lime seasoning from Mexico. It tasted great with the avocado. I’m not sure why the cocktail was so inconsistent, but I really hope they keep serving the second version I got.

Maize at the Station
100 N Chestnut St
M-Th 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. + 5 to 9 p.m.
F + Sa 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Su 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The verdict is in: vegetables are a versatile food group that can be used to sweeten, balance, and soften the other ingredients in a cocktail. If used wisely, they provide a depth of flavor that is surprisingly refreshing on the palate. With many different options to try around downtown Champaign, there are plenty of flavors to explore this summer.

All photos by Katie Simpson