When you ordered a G&T in the before times, you would be presented with a long list of gins & tonic by your mustachioed mixologist, all served in balloon glasses with ever more ridiculous amounts of delicately tweezed and coiffured garnishes. We’d built up a mystique around preparing cocktails, calling ourselves mixologists and posting artful portrait mode stories of our clinical ‘lab’ prep. It was easy to overwhelm our guests with choice paralysis, carefully NLP-ing our menu copy to maintain that margin percentage, and forget that for that guest we sit in a long line of ‘the usuals’, and instead of novelty, we should pride ourselves on execution of the simplest drinks. And one of the simplest drinks is the Sour; a easily balanced mix of citrus, sugar and booze.
But before we get to the recipe, let’s talk about that booze. 9 months ago I was still the (part) owner of Every Cloud in Hackney Central. I also lived in the flat above the bar and one of my quiet, routine pleasures was stock taking on Mondays. The bar was closed, still musty with the weekend’s antics, and I’d potter round, dutifully totting up each bottle, then make myself a Manhattan and sit quietly in the empty bar and ponder the various spirits and liquors we’d run out of. There’s a story in that data, I’m sure, but I also know that truly reading the entrails of a bar isn’t about finally reordering that bottle of pechuga you’ve been upselling for months, but a special collection of bottles that sit out of the way, labels invisible to the guest, placed and ordered so the bartenders can grab them blindfolded or blind drunk. These are the pouring spirits, or, in the States, the well. They are the mainstays that appear in almost every drink, don’t cost too much and are, above all, delicious.
When you have a wealth of incredible spirits and liqueurs in arms reach, and every ingredient for cocktails no-one but other bartenders order, what you choose to use as a default in the categories that most people order from is still the truest face of your bar. After all, most cocktails aren’t a carefully balanced mix of all the elixirs and potions sat on the back bar; they’re a way to showcase the best of one bottle. Sometimes that bottle _should_ be something esoteric and rare; white dog, sotol, poitin, or some other category whose main value is having to be explained, but really, play the fucking hits and reach for the well.
- Vodka (Absolut or Stolichnaya Red)
- Gin (Beefeater)
- Tequila (El Jimador or Olmeca Altos)
- Light rum (Havana 3 Year Old)
- Dark rum (Havana Anejo Especiale)
- Irish whiskey (Jameson)
- American whiskey (Buffalo Trace)
- Blended scotch (Johnnie Walker Black Label)
I’m sure as you read that list you recoiled at a few of the options, but these are the big players in the cocktail pantheon and we can make a cracking sour with any of them. And I bet you’ve got at least the dregs of one of these somewhere in the house. Let’s make a cocktail with it. Most of the drinks that really let a single bottle shine are either a wildly perfect combo of spirit and mixer; your gins & tonic, Southern Comforts & cranberry, Archers & lemonade and so forth, or they’re the spirit in question perched on a 3 legged stool of sweet, sour and dilution.
Sweetness can come from as many sources as our spirits themselves (and often the same ones). Simple syrup, just an equal weight of sugar and water, dissolved, is the most common, but we’ve also got honey, maple syrup, brown sugar, jaggery, treacle, golden syrup, fruit nectars and on and on. There’s two ways to look at sweet ingredients; how _much_ sugar there is, and what kind of sugar. The sugars we work with are glucose and fructose. Glucose first, it tastes flat and almost synthetic. The good stuff happens with fructose, the fruit sugar. This sweetness hits faster and harder than glucose, and yet it doesn’t cloy. Your bag of white sugar is roughly 50/50 these two; sucrose. Sugars that aren’t white are, in some way, caramelised. That means we’ve got long chains of various other complex sugar molecules, tangled up and crossing over and getting complex; these caramelised sugars contribute to the taste of everything from the sear on a steak to maple syrup on your pancakes.
And when it comes to sour stuff, we don’t just have lemons and limes; there’s bramley apples, rhubarb, vinegar, soursop, tamarind, pomegranate molasses and even Tangfastics. It’s acidity that we taste, and the acids in all of these tend to be a mix of citric, malic, tartaric and lactic acids. Want to taste them? Lemons are mostly citric acid, limes roughly 60% citric and 40% malic acid. The tang of Granny Smith peel is malic acid, and so are the crystals of deliciousness on Tangfastics. Sour grapes are mostly tartaric acid, but under fermentation that can become a mix of tartaric, malic and lactic acid that gives champagne its buttery tang. Sauerkraut is mostly lactic acid, so, Champagne tastes like a mix of sauerkraut, tangfastics and unripe grapes. QED.
We’re not quite done with the science yet, but hopefully this idea is a bit more familiar to you. We need to flatten the curve of these flavours. Different sugars and acids ‘come up’ in different ways, and to have a great time we want a smooth build up, an intense but manageable high and a long, mellow come down. And, like class A’s, experimentation is really the key to figuring out what you like.
“One of sour, two of sweet, three of strong, four of weak”
This Barbadian rhyming mnenomic for punch is a great starting point for making a cocktail, and the secret of that is in the weak ingredients. But don’t think this means adding a glass of water at the end; the weakness comes not just from dilution, but also our other ingredients. The citrus and sugar syrup in a daiquiri, margarita or whiskey sour are not just tangy, they’re diluting the spirit. The additional melted ice from shaking is just the finishing touch; shake your drink hard for at least 30 seconds, with plenty of ice, in a cocktail shaker if you have it, but anything you can seal works great, even a jam jar. Dilution is the ‘cooking’ of making a cocktail, and it’s the reason most of your cocktails at home don’t taste as good as they do in a bar.
- 50ml Light Rum
- Juice of half a lime (roughly 20ml)
- 20ml Simple Syrup
Shake hard and strain into a stemmed glass.
- 50ml Blanco Tequila
- Juice of half a lime (roughly 20ml)
- 15ml Agave syrup
General Purpose Sour Recipe
- 50ml Spirit
- Juice of half a lemon
- 20ml Simple syrup
- 1 egg white/10ml aquafaba (this makes the drink foamier, but it’s not essential).
These all roughly conform to the Barbadan formula above but we can go so much further. Here’s one of my favourite recipes from Manhattans Project that makes such a simple substitution; just switch the lime juice for rhubarb and experiment to tweak that curve
Five Go To Mexico
- 50ml Blanco Tequila
- 25ml Rhubarb juice
- 10ml Agave syrup
Or this, which works great with gin or vodka
- 50ml Gin/Vodka
- 10ml Apple Cider Vinegar
- 20ml Green Pepper Juice
- 20ml Simple syrup
If you don’t have a juicer, just cut up some peppers or rhubarb into little pieces, blend them and strain with a sieve, coffee filter or muslin bag, whatever you have.
All spirits work great in a sour cocktail like this, and you’ll find flavours you love in this simple serve with anything from Glenn’s vodka to single malt scotch. Just balance your sweetness and sour and add the spirit
So, pick up that bottle you already have and make yourself a cocktail. You’ve got stuff in your kitchen that can make something delicious, personal and completely unexpected in the way the best bartenders can only dream of. Be your own mixologist. Taste as you go, and start with the cheapest ingredients, and be thankful that if your experiments fail you won’t need to account for them on the next stock take.