Springing into Sours

Variations on sunny weather cocktails

By Tony Cross

I’m happy to report that spring is here. Finally. There are bartenders who might get more creative during the fall and winter months, and then there are hacks like me who get giddy as soon as the sun kisses my skin. I’m all about some warm weather. And what better way to start out this spring season than whipping up different sours? There are other styles of drinks I enjoy this time of the year, but for now, it’s all about the sours.

So, what is a sour, you ask? Simply put, it’s citrus, sweetener and spirit, combined into a drink. The daiquiri (rum plus lime juice plus sugar), probably my favorite drink ever, is a sour. Jennings Cox may have been the first to do it, mixing rum, lime juice and sugar, right before the 20th century, in Cuba — and for that, I’m eternally grateful. There are many other drinks with basically the same formula, and all are sours. But what about drinks that have sour mix in them?

Like it or not — and I don’t — there are many restaurants and bars today that use sour mix, and I’m not speaking just of corporate-run restaurants where it’s pretty much out of the bartender’s control. Even some independent bars and restaurants use the high-fructose-corn-syrup-mess-of-an-excuse-for-a-mix as an ingredient.

Bartender and author Derek Brown says it best in his book Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World: “One of the things that helped bars like T.G.I. Fridays crank out cocktails for the masses was the use of sour mix. Powdered beverages then were not viewed with the total scorn we have for them today. In the 1970s, instant powdered beverages had taken a foothold all over the cultural landscape. The turn toward the worst versions (of sour mix) was ultimately done because they were cheap to make, cheap to buy, and saved a lot of time behind the bar. Later on, opposition to sour mix would become a red flag that craft bartenders hoisted in their war against bad tasting, chemical-laden cocktails. But this ingredient that would sour the craft rose to absolute dominance while the Bay City Rollers blared from the speakers and the bottom of their pants widened. One more reason to blame the ’70s.” Indeed.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with prebatching ingredients before a busy night behind the bar (especially if you are alone with absolutely no one to help), or if you’re having to dish out a few hundred cocktails within an hour at a big event. If you’re making each cocktail to order, or making drinks at home, add each ingredient at a time, and if you couldn’t tell from Mr. Brown’s excerpt, ixnay the sour mix. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, here are a few sour recipes to complement your future suntan.

Marmalade Sour

This is an oldie but goodie from bartender Jamie Boudreau, owner of the whiskey and bitters emporium Canon in Seattle. What I like about his cocktail is how you can experiment with the ingredients. If you don’t have cachaça on hand, try another rum, possibly an Agricole. Or try a gin! The same goes with the flavor of marmalade. I think I had this on my bar menu years back. Hellaciously good.

2 ounces cachaça

2 tablespoons low-sugar orange or grapefruit marmalade

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/4 ounce simple syrup (Boudreau recommends a 2-part sugar, 1-part water ratio)

2 dashes orange bitters

1 large egg white

Edible flower (optional garnish)

In a cocktail shaker, add ice and all ingredients (sans edible flower). Shake hard until shaker is ice cold and double-strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with flower.

You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, but I Feel Like a Million Bucks

This is one of the first cocktails I put on my menu when I started getting into this whole drink thing. A twist on a whiskey sour, it’s my blatant rip-off of the Billionaire cocktail from New York’s Employees Only. At the time, I didn’t have access to the bourbon the recipe called for, so I substituted Four Roses. For the sake of convenience, I’m going to switch one detail in the specs. The original Billionaire recipe calls for absinthe bitters — and I did make that behind the bar — but a touch of absinthe will do.

2 ounces Four Roses bourbon

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 ounce cranberry syrup* (do not exceed)

1/16 ounce absinthe

1 lemon wheel (garnish)

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake like hell until you feel satisfied. Double strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with lemon wheel.

*Cranberry syrup: Mix 1/2 cup of unsweetened cranberry juice with 1 cup (by weight) cane sugar in a pot over medium heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved and let cool before transferring to a container and refrigerating. Syrup holds for two weeks.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.

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