Thank goodness it’s finally starting to feel like summer. I love all the changes that come with shifting seasons: the brilliant colors of fall leaves, the pops of green of new life springing forth...and thirst quenching summer cocktails. I feel so lucky that we have so many great local bars that have fun with their seasonal cocktail menus. Many downtown Champaign establishments shifted to their new seasonal menus a few weeks ago. I had been seeing many rave reviews about Big Grove Tavern’s spicy cherry margarita, so I had to check it out — along with several others on the menu!

First up: one Spicy Cherry Margarita ($8) and one Fashion Antiguo ($10) for the hubby. The margarita was the perfect balance of sweet, sour, and heat. It’s made with Piedra Azul Blanco (silver) tequila, so it gave the cocktail light and refreshing look, really making the jalapeño and Luxardo cherry garnish pop. The tequila is 100% agave, clean and smooth with hints of sweetness, citrus, and spice. I can see why it was chosen for this cocktail. The heat from the habanero pepper bitters was just right and not too overpowering. I got just a little tingle in the back of the throat. It wasn’t overly sweetened and the fresh lime really punched through. You can order it with a salted rim by request, but I would recommend skipping that. I think it would really overpower the flavors of this beautifully crafted cocktail. 

spicy cherry margarita

fashion antiguo

I didn’t think about it at the time, but it was fitting that we ordered these two first together as they both feature Piedra Azul tequila. The Fashion Antiguo is crafted with Reposado. The Reposado rests in oak barrels for four months (this gives it its color) and boasts hints of vanilla and citrus. The nose on this cocktail is wonderful. I would buy that candle. I was a little apprehensive about the tobacco bitters thinking it would be a bit too smoky for my tastes (though, this is what sold my husband), but it was just the slightest hint as I’m sure a little goes a long way with that particular bitter. One of those that you’d miss it if it wasn’t in there, but it’s not smacking you in the face. With my first sip, it reminded me of an old fashioned. It had the sweet, syrupiness of an old fashioned. It was very smooth, a bit fruity (grapefruit) with a little bitterness that hits the back of the tongue. I asked the bartender what sweetener was used and he explained that they use a process called oleo saccharum (basically translates to sugar oil). Oh, do tell! Oleo saccharum is the process of extracting oil from citrus peel. Short story: zested grapefruit combined with sugar that, through osmosis, becomes a sweetener. It gives so much more flavor and body to a cocktail as opposed to using simple syrup. So far, two thumbs up from these two cocktail nerds.

patio pounder + liquid sunshine

Round two. The Patio Pounder ($8) is back, but the recipe has been refined a bit more to include fresh mint and a change in gin. You can’t go wrong with mint, lime, and cucumber. Such a refreshing combination. The drink was heavy on the gin, but I like that. I got my hands on the Liquid Sunshine ($8) and was very pleased. It was like a liquid jolly rancher, but in a good way, I promise. The fresh strawberry flavor really came through and it wasn’t too sweet because the lemon added the perfect amount of sour. You could definitely keep sipping on several of these while sitting on BGT's outdoor patio.

champagne sour + aviation

We were also so excited they had an Aviation ($10) on the seasonal menu. It’s one of our favorites. (V. Picasso makes a fantastic one too.) BGT shakes up the classic recipe a bit by using chareau aloe liquor instead of a maraschino liqueur. When we inquired about it our bartender brought over the bottle and let us try a sip. I wanted to buy it right there on the spot! This is another good example of how beneficial and great fun it is to make friends with your bartender. You learn so many cool tips and techniques (and tastes!). And particularly, if it’s a slow night, they just love sharing about their process and how they came up with their recipes. I think the only notes I had for the Aviation was a string of excited expletives. So with that being said, you have to try it.

spiced pear daiquiri

Bella Pepper ($9) is seasonal and it may already sound familiar to you as it made an appearance last year as well (very unique, earthy, definitely the taste of summer, and spicy). Mojitos are one of my favorite summer drinks, BGT does a great one ($9). The Champaign Sour ($9) started out seasonal, but was so popular, you can find it on their cocktail menu permanently now and I love, love, love this one. After I tried to make my way through most of the summer seasonal ones, I must admit, I ordered this one as well (a Spiced Pear Daiquiri may have also found its way to me too).

We really enjoyed all of these. No matter what you end up choosing, you can’t go wrong and with some you may even be pleasantly surprised. I want to thank Matt Musick at BGT — he’s extremely knowledgeable and my husband and I had great fun chatting and trying new things. And if you order a Liquid Sunshine from him, ask him to slap dat mint for you. Stayed tuned for more seasonal cocktail menu reviews. Don’t forget to tip your bartender!

Big Grove Tavern is located at One East Main Street Champaign, and open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.; and Sun. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

All photos by Bobbie Bonebrake.