I have two indelible scars from the tart, citrus-inflected family of drinks we call “sours.”
New Year’s Day, New Jersey, 1979: I am 8, searching the refrigerator for a morning beverage. I see what looks like our regular plastic juice pitcher — the one Mom usually dumps the frozen concentrate in, then stirs with water. On this day, the juice smells a little funny, but I pour some anyway for me and my 5-year-old brother. We take a gulp. Yuckiest O.J. ever!
Just then, my mother groggily pads into the kitchen and, with alarm, registers what is happening: “No! Spit it out! That’s the whiskey sour from last night!”
Spring Break, Florida, 1992: I am at a beach bar. The sunshine is bearing down on my pasty-white posse of college boys and girls from Vermont. A Jimmy Buffett-esque musician plays guitar and sings, badly. He breaks into the Eagles’ “Tequila Sunrise” and someone decides to order a round of the bartender’s “signature” tequila sunrise, heavy on the orange juice (from concentrate) and fluorescent grenadine. And then they order another. And another. Maybe a few more.
The next morning, the damage is tallied: a lost wallet, a lost camera, a lost relationship, lost dignity, at least one raging headache. “I can never drink orange juice ever again,” someone says.
Suffice to say my early introduction to sours was less than successful. But it stands to reason. By the late 20th century, the sour — along with its cousins, the Collins, the fizz and the daisy — had become a collective abomination. The major reason, of course, was the creation of artificial sour mix to replace fresh-squeezed citrus.
The sour once occupied a place of pride at the bar. “When American meets American then comes the whiskey sour,” declared the Atlanta Daily Constitution in 1879. From the 1860s into the 1960s, the sour was “one of the cardinal points of American drinking,” according to historian David Wondrich in his 2007 book on early American cocktails, “Imbibe” (Perigee Trade).
A sour is a simple drink: base spirit, citrus juice and a sweetener, such as simple syrup. Within cocktail circles, there is much discussion over small points of taxonomy between sours and similar drinks. To wit, a Collins is a sour that is built over ice, with soda water; a fizz is a Collins that is shaken, often with egg white; a daisy uses a liqueur or grenadine as a sweetener, rather than simple syrup.
A true tequila sunrise, for instance, is simply a tequila daisy. The original, served in Prohibition-era Tijuana, used lime instead of orange juice and creme de cassis instead of grenadine. If we think about the Spanish word for daisy, then we can begin to understand how another very famous drink evolved from the sour family. Just switch out the creme de cassis for an orange liqueur like Cointreau, and the margarita is born.
The introduction of orange juice into sour cocktails — into any cocktail, really — has always been a source of consternation. As Wondrich writes, in pre-Prohibition days it was “not an acceptable cocktail ingredient.” Perhaps it is my own history, but orange juice has never been my favorite ingredient, either.
But a few weeks ago, I rummaged around a used-book sale and came across a 1995 edition of Charles Schumann’s “American Bar.” What makes Schumann’s cocktail guide a curious American classic is that Schumann is German, owner of a famed bar in Munich. The mid-1990s were pretty dark days for American cocktails. They followed a bad decade of drinks such as Fuzzy Navels and Amaretto Sours and Redheaded Sluts — and lots of orange juice and sour mix and peach schnapps.
It was interesting to see how Schumann was a man of his era, yet able to elevate his drinks to something higher. For instance, his Apple Brandy Sour is a perfect marriage of spirit and fruit: a fresh autumn day in a glass.
Even more surprising is his Apple Sunrise, an apple-brandy-based take on the old tequila sunrise. Schumann calls for orange juice, which is a very 1980s choice. He then eschews grenadine, opting for creme de cassis. The result is surprising and delicious. It made me rethink a number of things beyond the tequila sunrise. My childhood. The ’90s. Orange juice.
Wilson’s column appears twice a month in Food. Follow him on Twitter: @boozecolumnist.