The Sweet Simplicity of the Sour

The Sweet Simplicity of the Sour banner image

When Prince died, there was a great resurfacing of all sorts of pedestrian concoctions in blog posts and social media instructional videos. I would call them vile, but such hatred implies an undue level of passionate engagement with their mediocrity. No, they were simply pedestrian. Quite a few mixed drinks have borne the title “Purple Rain” over the years. By and large, the primary objective in these recipes has been to turn some kind of booze purple. One example I encountered was, fundamentally, a fuchsia-tinged vodka and lemonade. An exotically coloured spirit-mixer does not a cocktail make, and if you disagree, you are likely an irredeemable cretin.

Determined to come up with something with rather more substance, I thought back to the flamboyant guilty pleasure of the Brandy Alexander. The hackneyed Samuel Johnson quotation came to mind, too: “Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy”. Hackneyed or not, any drink had to reflect the flamboyance of the departed. And every cocktail starts with its fundamental booze, to be tweaked and costumed for a turn in the spotlight. The ostentatious, frilly, star-quality of brandy was clearly the only option. Therein, though, lay the problem. Realistically, it would still have to be purple, so the clear option would also have to be a clear option.

I looked first to modify the Sidecar, ending up with Chilean pisco as a colourless spirit component, Blue Curaçao as a blue triple sec, lemon juice, and a dash of grenadine purely for colour purposes. Shaken and strained into a cocktail glass with a twist, it looked and tasted the business – far better than the vodka fizzes denigrating the memory of a great entertainer in beverage form. That said, ultimately, I had just found myself in the long-established domain of the sour, somewhere between the Sidecar and South America. Purple aside, this was well-charted territory, so I decided it was time to bone up on the versatile simplicity of an old and truly essential class of cocktail.

The sour is a magic bullet which can do pretty much any liquor justice. The key requirements are simple – a sweet, a sour, a strong. Sugar, citrus, spirit. The concept has been laid down in print since the mid-nineteenth century – time immemorial when it comes to cocktail history.

Recipes differ on the optimal ratios, which sharp fruit to use, and whether sugar or syrup should be the sweetener of choice. I wholeheartedly encourage the exploration of the best ingredients for each and every blend, but keeping lemon and some simple syrup to hand is undoubtedly the best way to take advantage of the sour ad hoc. Some of the big sour names, including the Sidecar mentioned above, will demand particular liqueurs as their sweet component. But that shouldn’t put you off dipping your toes into the elegantly simple home mixology on offer here.

I like my booze boozy, so, loath as I ever am to provide anything approximating a recipe, instead encouraging research and tastebud experimentation, my personal starting point is generally a 4:2:1 – that is, four parts of your spirit, two parts of your sour component, and one of your sweet (assuming the use of a simple syrup). Stick them in a shaker with plenty of ice, shake until your hand starts to go numb, and then strain and enjoy.

There is one further matter to consider – the inclusion of egg white. Some gloopy albumen will give your finished cocktail a wonderful froth atop it, and an irresistible silky texture. It’s de rigueur for the Whiskey Sour, and the IBA demands it for a Pisco Sour (I agree, but it’s the subject of a brutal diplomatic impasse between Peru and Chile). It’s not right in every situation, and no sour absolutely demands the egg, but I’m of the opinion that for the best of the bunch, once you crack, you don’t go back. I’ve had perplexed looks aplenty from novices when plopping it in, only for furrowed brows to melt into rapturous ecstasy upon experiencing the flavour and mouthfeel combination.

That’s a discussion better left to individual incarnations of this tantalising tipple triptych, though. In the meantime, sour yourself as you see fit, and see what fits.