Boat Drinks
Premixed pick-me-ups for those long days on the water.
By Dana Sturn

Whether or not fishing is successful, a nice cocktail is a good way to bring your day on the water to a close.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that this little story is going to somehow weave that old Jimmy Buffett song "Boat Drinks" into yet another one of my gin-soaked contributions to FFI (Fly Fishing Inebriated) Magazine. That I’ll find a clever way of riffing on classic lyrics like “This morning… I shot six holes in my freezer, I think I got cabin fever, somebody sound the alarm.” And that I’ll also try to convince you that tall, fruity, boozy concoctions are a great afternoon choice on a boat deck or anywhere there’s water.

Nope. The classic boat drinks? Too much work. Fiddly to make and fussy to serve. We need a new standard that’s both easy to mix and to carry . . .with simple ingredients, because you don’t want to be lugging around a bunch of booze bottles everywhere you go.

Simplicity is Key

Whenever I fish BYOB places, I always bring along a big bottle of something to share and enjoy. At the end of the week, I leave whatever remains on the bar. This is one reason why most lodges have a few things around, often left behind by generous guests paying it forward. In some cases, a wise camp manager contributes a bottle or two, knowing that a few bottles of the standards will be appreciated, and likely lead to better tips. Vodka and gin are common; Scotch and rye or bourbon less so, but you’ll usually find at least one of them on hand. So the challenge is: What can we make with these and nothing—or almost nothing—else?

Of course, you’ll want something chilled. Though I always have coffee in the boat for cold starts, the afternoon calls for something cool and refreshing, no matter the air temperature or what kind of water you’re on. With all this in mind, and after extensive research and testing in the FFI FunLab, I’ve settled on five cocktails that require few ingredients and travel well in a boat cooler. Best of all, these beverages are all booze, so you don’t need to worry about mix or garnish.

Some basic ingredients and a little ingenuity is all it takes to mix some tasty libations.

The Camp Martini

The martini is a favorite, and one of the easiest cocktails to make with almost nothing at all (you can find my take on it in the recently published “The Steelhead Martini” here at FFI Magazine). Whether you’re making a classic or a custom version, martini prep is an artform that transfers quite well to remote locations. To keep it really camp- or lodge-simple, take a small ½-liter Nalgene bottle with you and, the evening before you start fishing, fill it with gin (or vodka, if you must) and perhaps a capful of Scotch. Slip it into the lodge freezer or your ice-filled beer cooler overnight, and don’t forget to transfer it to the boat cooler in the morning. If you don’t have a little Yeti cup with you, your coffee cup or thermos cap will work in a pinch, if you first rinse it out with a little water. Or don’t rinse it, and who knows? You might even invent a new martini flavor!

The Kharlovka Vesper

Named for the Kharlovka River on Russia’s Kola Peninsula, this concoction of gin and vodka is a nod to James Bond’s famous Vesper Martini and an homage to a river of dreams that I will likely never fish. The Vesper first appeared in Ian Fleming’s 1953 Bond novel Casino Royale: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel…”

Kina Lillet is no longer available, and today Lillet Blanc is the substitute. But like vermouth, you’re not likely to find this at a lodge, or remember it when you’re packing for camp. The solution is to nix the Lillet, and stick with the gin and the vodka. Once again, the Nalgene bottle is key. Mix your Kharlovka with three parts of gin and one of vodka, and like the Camp Martini above, toss it in the freezer. And don’t forget it in the morning!

Old Fashioned Lite

Here’s one that’s best to test in advance, because you’ll need to sort out how much sugar you like. The Old Fashioned is a rye- or bourbon-based drink, and since there’s usually a bottle of one of these around (it might be the one you brought along yourself), it should be easy to mix.

The cocktail for one calls for 2 ounces of your preferred booze, a sugar cube, a dash of Angostura bitters, a little water or club soda, and an orange twist. Forget about the bitters, club soda and orange twist. Figure out how much you want to make, and experiment with the amount of sugar to include (a sugar cube is basically a teaspoon of sugar). It’s never as simple as just doubling or tripling a recipe. Once you have it sorted, commit it to memory so you can replicate it on site. Then it’s just a matter of filling your Nalgene with your preferred amount of rye or bourbon, tossing in the sugar, giving it a few swirls to mix, and leaving it in the fridge or camp cooler overnight.


The Viejo is a vodka-based martini, with a whole lot of vodka and a little (or a little more) tequila. What could be easier? This is another one to first try at home to get the ratios right. The single recipe calls for 2½ shots of vodka, ⅙-shot of tequila, and ¼-shot of vermouth. But leave out the vermouth and just go with ¼-shot of tequila, especially if you’re somewhere south of the 30th parallel. Into the freezer it goes overnight, and enjoy it in the boat tomorrow.

Vieux Carré

Ok, I’m going to cheat a bit for this one. I’m not sure how realistic it is to have all of the ingredients on hand for this wonderful drink. But I’m writing this a few days before Mardi Gras, and if you haven’t had one, I hope this will inspire you to give it a try.

The Vieux Carré (from the French, meaning “old square”) is named for the French Quarter in New Orleans, so it’s a great cocktail to consider when Mardi Gras rolls around. You’ll find many variations of the original mix online, but my favorite calls for 1 ounce of bourbon, 1 ounce of cognac, ¾-ounce of Benedictine, 3 dashes each of Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters, and a lemon twist for garnish.

This is a cocktail that you stir with ice in a large mixing pitcher, then serve in an Old-Fashioned glass. Again, if you’re planning to make a Nalgene-sized batch of Vieux Carré, it’s best to practice at home to get your preferred ratios. If you’re setting up your own camp somewhere on a trout stream, then having everything along is certainly an option. But if you’re fishing a lodge that has most of these ingredients on hand, with maybe the addition of one or two that you bring yourself, please let me know, because I’d definitely like to fish there.

Bonus: The Saratoga

If you have everything you need to make the Vieux Carré, except you can’t find Benedictine, then the Saratoga is your drink. Add one shot each of cognac, rye or bourbon, and sweet vermouth to an ice-filled mixing glass, along with 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, and stir until cold. Then strain into your favorite glass and enjoy. In camp, I wouldn’t worry about the bitters. This drink seems to handle simply doubling and tripling the recipe, but take it easy on the vermouth. If you’re making a batch, start with half the vermouth, because you can always add more.

As you work through these offerings, especially if you are trying them out at home, you may find them a bit raw at first. Fear not! This will all change once you’re on the water. The places we fish, and the companions we fish with, should have a most satisfying way of turning almost anything into the best drink you’ve ever had, anywhere. And if they don’t, well, then you should plan to come fishing with me.

Dana Sturn

Dana Sturn is a steelhead devotee and the founder of Spey Pages. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and can be found each year, minus 2020 of course, swinging up chinook and steel on the Dean River, among other places. Follow him on IG @danawsturn