The Power of an Unadulterated Sour
If I told you that mixing a drink required you to squeeze the juice from a lemon into a glass and add a tablespoonful of sugar or some simple syrup, it wouldn't seem so difficult, right? It would be somewhat less complicated than, say, driving a car while chatting on your cellphone? Or if you worked as a bartender, perhaps less complicated than, say, drawing a Miller Lite from a tap while chatting up an attractive bar patron about her new lower-back tattoo?
Well, then, allow me to be blunt: I harbor a major dislike of bars that sidestep that simple maneuver by using commercial sour mixes made from concentrate or powder. That, of course, means I have a serious problem with a lot of what passes for bartending these days.
Most of us have by now shaken that mid-20th-century love of artificial and processed foods and drinks. We don't see a lot of Tang being served these days, or Salisbury steak TV dinners in aluminum trays, and I think most of us have given up the Jetson fantasy that we'll someday get all our flavor and nutrients from a little pill served by a robot. At least that's what the contemporary foodie narrative tells us.
Why, then, during this supposed golden renaissance of mixology does commercial sour mix persist?
This mix usually sneaks up on you, like a mullet seen from the front. And you usually spot it too late, once you've settled onto the bar stool. It's a hot day, and you're maybe thinking about a Tom Collins, and suddenly you hear someone down the bar order an Amaretto Sour or a Long Island Iced Tea, and out of the corner of your eye you see the bartender reach for the artificial sour mix in all its glowing-yellow, high-fructose glory. And then you start thinking a whiskey neat might be the safe way to go.
It's because of commercial sour mix that certain basic drinks -- even though everyone has heard of them -- rarely are served the right way. Prime among those are two hot-weather favorites, the Tom Collins and the Gin Fizz.
The two are very similar. Both use gin, fresh lemon juice and a little bit of sugar or simple syrup and are topped with soda water or sparkling mineral water. Very simple, very cool, very delicious. The key differences are that a Tom Collins uses slightly more gin and is built in an ice-filled Collins glass, while a Gin Fizz is shaken (sometimes with egg white) and strained into either an ice-filled Collins glass or an ice-less highball glass.
"What's the difference, if any, between a Tom Collins and a Gin Fizz?" asks David A. Embury in his 1948 cocktail geek bible, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks." "I insist a Fizz should actually fizz."
The Tom Collins is the simpler of the two, and it is always clear. It originally was made with Old Tom Gin, and its cousins, John Collins (genever), Mike Collins (Irish whiskey), Jack Collins (applejack), Pedro Collins (rum) and Pierre Collins (cognac) were soon to follow.
The Gin Fizz is also one of the great underappreciated cocktails, a palette on which to experiment. It's a late-19th-century creation that originally was served in a six- to eight-ounce glass without ice, to be consumed quickly as "an eye-opener, corpse-reviver, fog-cutter, gloom lifter," as David Wondrich calls it in his 2007 cocktail history, "Imbibe!"
Embury suggests keeping in mind a basic formula: sweet (sugar, syrup or liqueur), sour (lemon or lime juice), strong (the liquor) and weak (the sparkling water and ice). "If you keep these principles firmly in mind," he writes, "you can ad lib ad infinitum."
And there are so many variations to play with. A Gin Fizz with egg white is called a Silver Fizz, one with egg yolk a Golden Fizz, one with whole egg a Royal Fizz. A Crimson Fizz adds crushed strawberries, while a Green Fizz adds a teaspoon of creme de menthe. A Diamond Fizz eschews water for sparkling wine. An Apple Blossom is a Silver Fizz made with applejack. The Brandy Fizz replaces gin with brandy; a Sea Fizz replaces it with absinthe. A Purple Fizz uses sloe gin and grapefruit juice, while one of my favorites, the Pineapple Fizz, calls for white rum and pineapple juice.
This week I give you a variation called the Violet Fizz, which calls for the violet liqueur creme de violette instead of sugar. I like to add just a little egg white to really create a froth, as they did in the old days. And I've recently been using Apollinaris sparking mineral water; I was clued in to it by Derek Brown at the Gibson on 14th Street NW, who uses it to top off drinks such as rickeys (another close cousin of the Collins and Fizz). It adds an element of minerality that better balances the citrus, and it has nicer, smaller bubbles than club soda.
I will be excited to hear other Fizz variations from readers as we move into what must be called Fizz season. Just promise me this: You'll squeeze your own lemons and spoon in your own sugar.