Over the past 20 years, as I’ve reported from the land of shakers and jiggers and coupes, I’ve watched the cocktail return from the dustbin of culinary history, leaping from the pages of discontinued, pre-Prohibition bar manuals back into the mitts of millions of reengaged drinkers.
Now, it’s been with a certain amount of curiosity and, yes, gratification that I’ve observed, over the past month, beleaguered and housebound earthlings rediscovering the grand old tradition of the cocktail hour, marking a proverbial quitting time with a celebratory glass (even if some of us are not exactly quitting anything on a day-to-day basis).
Survival and sanity are goals worth honoring with a sunset toast or two, are they not? We got through another day! Here’s to us!
But, before you crack open those deep-dish cocktail books you bought years ago but never actually used, before you call the liquor store to order every obscure amaro and liqueur they have in stock, just so you can finally make that Corpse Reviver No. 27 ½ from 1934, let this booze journalist clue you in on a piece of hard-won wisdom: Don’t overthink it.
Oh, you could make tinctures, syrups, and shrubs until this horrible pandemic is over. You could refine your ice-freezing process until your cubes are so clear you can read the instructions on the back of the Clorox bottle through them. Chances are, you have the time to embark on a project or two.
Or you could just learn a basic bartending trick or two and have those serve you from now until that glorious sunny day when we shelter at home no more. Cocktails should be fun and relaxing, after all. For now, you could even just focus on a single recipe, and it’s not even a “recipe” so much as it is some seriously simple advice.
Sours may be both the most ubiquitous and most overlooked of cocktail genres. They encompass many of the most classic drinks, from the ancient Brandy Crusta to the modern Cosmopolitan. (Here’s to you, Ina!) At a sour’s core are three things: a spirit, a sweetener, and a citrus juice, a.k.a. the thing that makes it a sour. Making most of them is literally as easy as one, two, three.
First thing, make some simple syrup. It is, as the name indicates, simple. Combine equal parts sugar and water, simmer in a pot until the sugar dissolves, let the mixture cool and refrigerate. Make a quart of it; you may be here a while.
Next, however you get your groceries right now, buy all the citrus you can. Lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits, pomelos, whatever (but err on the side of lots of lemons and limes). Now, assuming you have at least one bottle of some type of hard alcohol at home, you’re in business.
Say that bottle is gin. (Count yourself lucky if it is.) You can make gin sours. Not a lot of people think about making gin sours. They should; gin sours are delicious. Combine 2 ounces of gin, ¾ ounce of simple syrup, and ¾ ounce of lemon juice. Shake with ice and strain the blend into a cocktail glass (or rocks glass or jelly jar or whatever the hell you’ve got in the cupboard.)
Then, remember those proportions: 2 ounces spirit, ¾ ounce syrup, ¾ ounce juice. Those specs will serve you well for most every sour. Apply them to bourbon and lemon juice and you’ve got a whiskey sour; to rum and lime juice and you’ve made a daiquiri.
The variations are more or less endless, and you can, of course, tinker with the “recipe” to tailor it to your liking: If you like a less boozy drink, use 1 ½ ounces of spirit instead of 2; if you like a more-sour sour, use 1 ounce of juice; if you like a sweeter drink, use 1 ounce of simple syrup. Once you find your favored formula, it works pretty much across the board. Try it with anything: the resulting drink will (a) never be bad, and (b) still qualify as a “cocktail.”
From there, you can start to get fancy, and by “fancy” I mean add another ingredient. If you have some Cointreau or curaçao or other orange liqueur in stock, you make a margarita, with tequila, lime juice, and curaçao. Even if you don’t have orange liqueur, you can make a Tommy’s Margarita, which is tequila, lime, and simple syrup. (Actually, it calls for agave syrup, but, hey, now is not the time to worry about that.) If you’ve got some grenadine handy, meanwhile, you can make a Jack Rose (applejack, lemon juice, and grenadine). If you possess honey, you can make a honey syrup (one part honey, one part water) and make a Brown Derby (bourbon, grapefruit juice, honey syrup) or Gold Rush (bourbon, lemon juice, honey syrup)
The riffs don’t stop. The sour is a foundation upon which you can erect further categories of drink. Add a dose of soda water to a gin sour and you’ve got a gin fizz. Take that gin fizz and serve in a highball over ice and you’ve got a Tom Collins. Take that same gin sour and serve it over crushed ice and you’ve got a gin fix. Do something else to it, invent something new, and call it whatever you want!
The cocktail family is just a world of small variations that make for a big difference. By the time you’ve tried them all, we may be back to work.