In the shaker: The sour

Born in the USA but enjoyed everywhere around the world, the Sour is based on just three ingredients. Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown trace the history of this simple yet refreshing family of mixed drinks

If any family of drinks can claim American provenance, it’s the Sour family. And while the vermouth family may share a stateside birth, it’s the inclusion of fresh-squeezed citrus juice that makes Sours year-round favourites, especially in tropical and subtropical climes.

The ready availability of citrus fruits from Florida and the speed of steam-powered transport aided the birth of this very flexible drink genre. A decade before the Daiquiri took the Sour-loving world by storm, an essential, yet no less delectable, Rum Sour was introduced by pioneering barman and hotelier Harry Johnson in his 1882 New and Improved Bartenders’ Manual.

According to Johnson, the Columbia Skin was a favourite among Bostonian sippers. And although Jerry Thomas had included both a Scotch Whiskey Skin and a Columbia Skin in his 1862 How to Mix Drinks, there was a distinct difference. Thomas’s recipes were more akin to hot toddies, mixing spirit and juice with boiling water. Johnson’s version transformed the drink from soothing to refreshing.

Fizz factor
Elaboration upon this simple formula emerged as bartenders discovered that soda water added an effervescent dimension, thereby increasing the popularity of the Sour just as the Gin Rickey, the Collins and Highballs gained overwhelming public approval. A unique twist called the New York Sour saw Alsatian restaurateur Louis Muckensturm add not only soda water to his take on a Whiskey Sour, but also a touch of claret, floated on top, imparting richness and colour to the concoction.

The Sour made its way across the pond as the Bright Young Things embraced cocktails at London’s growing number of watering holes. The American Bar at the Savoy, The Criterion, Ciro’s Club and the Café Royal were famed for shaking and stirring the fanciest refreshments for their A-list clientele.

In 1937, seven years after Harry Craddock had published the seminal compilation The Savoy Cocktail Book, William J Tarling issued the limited edition Café Royal Cocktail Book in honour of King George VI’s coronation. This volume demonstrates the variety of ways in which a Gin Sour could be prepared. Beginning with the basic spirits, juice and sweetening formula, Tarling offered up the more modern soda water finish. Then he proposed two increasingly popular variations, the Egg Sour made with gin, and an Egg Sour topped with soda water, which closely resembles a Gin Fizz.

The Sour even found a home in Burma, where the signature cocktail of the Pegu Club quenched the thirst of many a British officer and businessman. Naturally, the recipe came home to London, where the American Bar at The Savoy and Ciro’s Club placed it on the drinks roster. Even Scottish bartender Harry MacElhone added it to the list served up at the New York Bar at 5 Rue Danou in Paris.

Although the Pegu Club in Burma has almost been forgotten since the Second World War, its name and special serve were embraced by Audrey Saunders when she opened Pegu Club in New York’s Soho district in 2005.

Brimming with freshness and versatility, the simple Sour continues to stand proudly as the backbone of drinks lists around the globe.

From Louis’ Mixed Drinks, by Louis Muckensturm, 1906

Glass: Sour
Garnish: None
Method: Shake or throw ingredients over ice. Strain into a Sour glass. Top with soda and a float of Burgundy or Bordeaux wine.

30ml rye whiskey
Juice of half a lemon
Soda water to top
Burgundy or Bordeaux wine

Audrey Saunders

Glass: Martini/Coupe
Garnish: Lime wedge
Method: Vigorously shake ingredients over ice. Strain into glass and garnish with a lime wedge skewered on a pick.

60ml London dry gin
20ml orange curaçao
20ml fresh lime juice
1 dash Angostura Bitters

From Café Royal Cocktail Book, by William J Tarling, 1937

Glass: Sour
Garnish: Half a slice of orange
Method: Vigorously shake ingredients over ice. Strain into a Sour glass and garnish with a half slice of orange. Ingredient options include shaking fresh egg white into the mix, topping with soda, or even using both.

60ml London dry gin
20ml fresh lemon juice
1 dash sugar syrup

Old Cuban
Speaking of Sours, we salute Audrey Saunders for creating the Old Cuban, which perfectly blends the best aspects of a Daiquiri and a Mojito in a single coupe. Bruise six fresh mint leaves with 20ml fresh lime juice and 30ml simple syrup in a mixing glass. Add 45ml Havana Club 7yo and two dashes Angostura Bitters. Vigorously shake and strain into a chilled coupe. Top with champagne and garnish with a lime wheel and a mint sprig.

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