I know an Australian globe-trotting type who skis in Chamonix, lives in England and says he has been served only one "really great" martini all his life. Particularity in cocktail lovers can exceed the exactitude of the more common wine nut. The wine nut approaches his subject like a jazz lover, bird-watcher, baseball expert or any other fellow who finds joy in classifying things by teensy statistical differences, creating a hierarchy in a vast universe that has, at the top, God, Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth, a $1,000 bottle of Pétrus and the whooping crane. The true cocktail nut (not the retro poseur) is different. No mere observer, he is a formulator, an experimenter, a brother to the chemist. Sure, he drinks out, but if he's serious he eventually sets up his own lab and dispenses.
I wasn't a cocktail nut, but that may have changed. Signs: the $40 cocktail shaker I recently bought; the jar of homemade "simple syrup" in the fridge; lemons and limes recently squeezed totaling thirty-eight; a bottle of angostura bitters, now running low; and a new taste for pisco. All this in pursuit of the formula for the perfect sour cocktail.
The idea that there is such a thing as a perfect sour cocktail first struck me fourteen years ago in Rio, after I had spent six hours drinking caipirinhas (crushed limes and sugar with ice and cachaça, a Brazilian sugar-cane brandy) while watching the street frenzy of Carnivale. The notion came into focus a couple of years ago at the Temple Bar in Manhattan, a dark clubby velvet-hung establishment where the whiskey sour, though quite different from a caipirinha, is equally delicious. The bartender noted that while a regular whiskey sour gets its pucker from lemon juice, the Temple Bar's version contained a mixture of lime and orange. This puts a slightly modest drink in high heels. The bar's owner did not return my call to confirm the recipe, so I got out my beakers. After developing a reasonable imitation of the Temple whiskey sour (variations with scotch and bourbon), I moved on to the gimlet, the gin fizz, the gin sour, the vodka sour, the margarita, the daiquiri, the French 75 and the pisco sour, then looped back to the caipirinha.
Why this obsession with the sour?Because truly drinkable sweet cocktails are few. Drinks with crème de cacao, chartreuse, amaretto, cherry heering and the like may taste fine at first, but they can induce a horrific foreboding of hangover. The totally dry martini, on the other hand, is impeccable—but it's also severe, as if conceived by an alcoholic yogi. Sour cocktails cut a sexy samba line down the middle. Properly made, they have a boozy kick but also a quenching tang. What ties most of the world's great mixed drinks together, it seemed to me the other day, pouring a rickey, was the sass of citrus.
At Bemelmans Bar, recently reopened in the Carlyle Hotel in New York City, I checked my logic with Dale DeGroff, the ultracosmopolitan barman behind the Rainbow Room's rise to cocktail fame in the late eighties. It turns out that DeGroff, whose new book, The Craft of the Cocktail, comes out this fall (for a foretaste, visit his personal web site, kingcocktail.com), is religious about using fresh juices. In what he considers the "lost decade" of the seventies, brown liquors were shunned and mixers came from cans. This offended the academic in DeGroff. Methodical cocktail making, he notes, began in the early nineteenth century. Juices were often the foundation of drinks like the Glasgow Punch, which usually consisted of dark rum, limes, lemons and a sugar/lemon mixture called "sherbert." Forget the stunt drinks like the B-52 and even the fairly straightforward Manhattan, says DeGroff: "It's the sweet and sour drinks that separate the men from the boys."
What we are leading up to here is a general theory of the sour cocktail for the amateur home barman. The time is ripe: These are fantastic drinks for summer, and little gear is required. You'll need a good cocktail shaker to get drinks ice cold very quickly, as well as a jigger and some of those V-shaped glasses. But you must squeeze your own fruit. Bottled lemon and lime juice taste cooked; lime cordial (like Rose's) is no good except in gimlets; and canned orange juice tastes like something imported from a hotel bar in Romania. As for mixes: Would you really buy anything from a couple as uncouth as Mr. and Mrs. T?
"Margarita mix is an abomination that should have brought the death penalty on its inventor," says James Robertson, the martini expert cited earlier. "If I see a bartender pull a bottle or a can of mixer, I automatically cancel my order and go elsewhere." While we may quibble over the severity of Robertson's proposed punishment, he's right about premade mixes. He is also an impassioned eccentric concerning the whiskey sour—he likes it with lemon, no sugar at all—and recalls where he had his best one: in a TWA airport lounge. He has penned a fine collection of recipes.
Inventing a signature sour cocktail of your own is easy. The fruit flavor can be simple—lemony tart or lime perfumed—or more complex, with your own mix of lemon, lime, orange juice, even grapefruit or passion fruit. (See if you can locate frozen passion-fruit pulp in the Latin American or Caribbean section of your supermarket; it's worth the search.) The fruit melody is amplified by the booze. Cachaa, tequila and pisco give a drink a noticeably sharp, grassy taste; the experience is similar to drinking in a fragrant thatched hut. Rum and whiskey lend the blend a slight sweetish luster, while gin contributes bitterness, and vodka, which I rarely use, adds only kick. After concocting a basic sour blend, you'll want to experiment, varying the liquor to different effect. This isn't rocket science, but it is a happy sort of chemistry, with its own lab protocol: measure, shake, pour, taste, tweak, eureka.
Shake, Shake, Shake
To mix your own signature sour, toss the ingredients into the shaker with a fistful of ice, shake like mad but not for long, then pour through a strainer until the last drops dribble out. To make a great simple syrup, dissolve two parts sugar in three parts warm water, then cool. The amount of syrup in the recipes below can be adjusted to taste. If you're using orange and grapefruit juices, Tropicana not-from-concentrate will do.
THE T&L GOLF SOUR
Brazilian cachaça, used in caiphirinhas, gives a slightly herbal taste to our three-juice sour.
2 jiggers cachaça
1 jigger lime huice
1 jigger lemon juice
1 jigger pink grapefruit juice
1 to 2 tsp. simple syrup (to taste)
THE T&L GOLF SCOTCH SOUR
Dewar's lends a hint of smoke, surprisingly delicious. Avoid single malts. Bourbon is okay, but simpler.
2 jiggers Dewar's
1 jigger lime huice
1 1/2 jiggers orange juice
1 tsp simple syrup
THE PISCO SOUR
Pisco is a South American brandy that tastes a bit like cachaça, a bit like grappa; it makes for a deliciously lemony sour.
2 jiggers pisco
1 jigger lemon juice
1-2 tsp. simply syrup (to taste)
Several drops angostura bitters
THE CLASSIC MARGARITA
1 jigger 100% agave clear tequila (El Tesoro, ideally)
1 jigger triple sec
1 jigger lime juice
Scotch Whisky, Skye In a Bottle
From the seaweed-strewn shores of Loch Harport on Scotland's Isle of Skye comes a spirit as rich and potent as the land's long history. "For years, Talisker had a distiller's edition single malt for the European market that was not available here," says Jonathan Goldstein of New York City's Park Avenue Liquor Shop (212-685-2442; parkaveliquor.com). "They finally decided to do something special for the United States." That something is a limited edition, twenty-five-year-old numbered-bottle Talisker that reached our shores in May. Talisker, the only single-malt maker on Skye, produced just 6,000 bottles of this nectar. At about $225 per bottle, it costs more than four times as much as ten-year-old scotch from the same source. "This whisky is cask strength, 119.8 proof," Goldstein says. "Any fan of Talisker will surely want to taste it." To locate a bottle near you, call your local specialty store or visit whiskeypages.com/specialty.html.