A Treatise on Tending Bar – Part One: Sour

It’s six thirty at night. It’s taken you an hour and a half to drive twenty miles on the highway. As you finally pull off the exit, you sigh in relief. You’re meeting your wife, her co-worker, and her co-worker’s husband for dinner. You don’t really know the other couple, but after the day you just had, you can’t even think that far ahead. As the light turns green you make the turn and pull swiftly into the parking lot of the hottest new restaurant in town. Your wife’s been talking about it for months and even though you really should be home working on that assignment your boss gave you three weeks ago, a little R&R might do you some good. You park the car, hop out, and adjust your scarf to cover your ears. It’s mid-January and there’s a storm on the way. You hurry inside, nod to the hostess and spot your group at the bar. After introductions are made you grab mightily at the drink list. Hmm… strange beer selection. What kind of wine is this? A cocktail menu? You just want a drink, dammit. How hard can this be?

This shit is overwhelming, I get it. I see it every night. There’s the scratching of heads when a familiar product is sight unseen on the wine list, confusion when there’s no domestic light beer on tap, and a propensity to stare at my cocktail menu as if, perhaps, it were written in cuneiform. I get it, I do. And I sympathize. I’m here to guide you through this, you’re here to relax and enjoy. My job is about changing mindsets, and that starts with what is, and moves to what can be. Despite much of the hard work these past ten or so years (over 25 if you go back to the Rainbow Room and Dale Degroff), to elevate the craft of bartending to a level commensurate with any other respectable profession, there is still something about the beverage side of the service industry that fails to change on a grand level . Despite my initial frustration in the moment, a step back lays the protracted issue at the feet of the service industry itself, and more specifically its management. If we were all doing this the same way, to the best of our abilities and held to the highest standard, the one who would benefit the most is the guest. But we’re not, and the guest suffers. In this series, we will explore why our business needed a revolution, and how all of us, on both sides of the bar, can better contribute to its positive growth.

Prohibition dealt a death blow to my profession. To be fair, not every barman that existed before January 17, 1920 was flinging bottles over their shoulders and slapping sprigs of basil to lay over their cocktails. Just like any vocation, there was a hierarchy of talent and skill, but it existed as a profession, nonetheless. Tending bar was considered a trade. There was no cocktail bar bartender versus dive bar bartender. They were all the same, performing their part in slightly different ways depending on their demographic. Most likely, the head bartender at an establishment was either the owner, or had been hand-selected by ownership to deliver not only quality product and service, but train the younger, less experienced staff in the art of the craft. There was still apprenticeship, and close study allowed the trainee the possibility of a larger role, and eventually a bar all his own. Once the service and sale of “intoxicating” beverages became illegal, those that wanted to continue in the business either sought work in Europe or Cuba, or switched over to the less reputable, speak-easy side of the law. It became every man for himself.

The dark years of Prohibition saw the end of an era. While all industries must adapt to industrialization and the push to economies of scale (just ask the local American farmer,) in reality no other specific profession has ever suffered the swift and precise death blow like that of the American Bartender. To make an analogy, imagine you are a carpenter, and carpentry is made illegal (the government has done stranger things, I assure you.) The world would likely learn to build with another material. Metal? Stone? With a family to feed you might choose to learn masonry, or help build skyscrapers, or maybe even switch to another trade like plumbing. Then, one day, carpentry becomes legal again. But the world has moved on, adapted to life without it. Some aspiring entrepreneur sees the massive overgrowth of trees in American forests and decides to reintroduce the profession. The problem? No one remembers how to build with wood anymore. But capitalism pushes its way forward, and a new breed of carpenter begins to construct their own way, using novel techniques and innovative tools. Maybe, the trade is made more profitable. Maybe the fresh methods improve the industry as a whole. But you harken back to memories of how it once was, before things changed, when it was a labor of love, and not just a business.

This isn’t the study of the long-term social and political effects of Prohibition on the United States. That battle is best kept to future posts. What is worth mentioning, however, is the deliberate and purposeful obliteration of an entire industry by the federal government, the likes of which had never been seen before, and haven’t been seen since. As noted by Jack S. Blocker Jr., a renounced scholar on Prohibition and the American Temperance Movement, there existed in 1916 1300 breweries producing full-strength beer in the U.S. Ten years later, there were zero. Over the same time frame 85% of distilleries went out of business, the rest surviving on the production of industrial alcohol. “Legal production of near beer used less than one tenth the amount of malt, one twelfth the rice and hops, and one thirtieth the corn used to make full-strength beer before National Prohibition. The 318 wineries of 1914 became the 27 of 1925. The number of liquor wholesalers was cut by 96% and the number of legal retailers by 90%. From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to less than $13 million, and revenue from fermented liquors from $117 million to virtually nothing.” This is worth mentioning because we are still seeing the effects of it today. As Blocker summarizes, “To wipe out a long-established and well-entrenched industry, to change drinking habits on a large scale, and to sweep away such a central urban and rural social institution as the saloon are no small achievements.”

The decades following prohibition saw a rise in quick, pre-portioned, RTE foods and drinks. Even though Prohibition ended in 1933, distilled alcohol was essentially commandeered a second time to aid in the war effort. The beer and liquor surviving World War Two was a shell of itself, and the mixed drink scene was one often fashioned and perpetuated by the industry itself. See my post on the Moscow Mule for an example. While some great cocktails were invented in the decades leading up to and following the Second World War (see Manhattan Musings,) most were refashioned slop from the Prohibition years, or copious amounts of booze in a glass, hidden beneath bottled juices and cheap flavored liqueurs. Because whiskey stocks need time to age, Americans turned to Canada, Scotland, and Ireland for their brown liquor. American blended whiskey, because of its quick production time, found a home in American glasses. Vodka and Gin, themselves needing no time in the cask, ran rampant. Beer drinkers, having grown accustomed to adjunct-laden near beer, were quick to embrace macro-brewed lagers that would eventually grow into the tasteless domestics of today.

Americans were devoting time and resources to war, and in the years after, to raising families and earning a living. The average drinker was no longer concerned with the sporting lifestyle of the pre-Prohibition era. Prohibition had trained the drinker to drink as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and preferably in a way that masked the awful taste of the inferior quality spirit used. When Prohibition ended, bad habits continued on both sides of the bar. With no trained barmen to offer the customer a quality drink, and customers who either didn’t care or want one anyway, the craft of the bar was seemingly lost for good. This new trend ran concurrent with two others, technology and large-scale marketing, to produce a viral-like trifecta perpetuating the continued demise of the trade. The downward spiral would last half a century, and although some good came of it (as some good always has a propensity to do,) most of it was debilitating. In an age with TV dinners and Kool Aid, who could be bothered with fresh recipe and flavors? Before Prohibition, mixed drinks like sours, fizzes, fixes, and daisies used fresh juices and imported cane sugar. By the 1950’s and 60’s, pre-packaged, powdered sour mixes were the norm rather than fresh lemons and limes. The mixes contained high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, just re-hydrate with water and you’re in business. We were too busy, in too much of a rush to worry about ingredients. Just make it taste good.

It is only because of some pioneering and daring bartenders like Dale DeGroff, that a renewed focus on fresh ingredients in the bar trade was revitalized. Tapped, in the mid 1980’s, by famed restaurateur Joe Baum to helm the stick at New York City’s newly renovated Rainbow Room, DeGroff was given the monumental task of creating the first bar menu in the city with entirely fresh ingredients. After months of exhausting research, Degroff succeeded, and modern bartending was born. For a great read, check out Craft of the Cocktail, here, or Degroff’s website, here.

So what’s so bad about sour mix anyway? Why go through all the trouble to squeeze lemons and limes? Why not just squirt some pre-mixed yellow-tinged lemon water from a soda gun at the bar? It’s got sweetness mixed in, so that saves another step, and we’re three deep on a Saturday night, so who cares? Surprisingly, almost everyone who tastes one next to the other. A fresh sour is remarkable for its crisp acidity, clean sweetness, and ability to refresh as well as whet the appetite, not suppress it. And just like the slow food movement and farm to fork dining proved, over the last decade, how fresh is best, a quick glance at the label on a box of commercial sour mix may help me do the same. Sorry, Al, whomever you are….


Confused about what these ingredients are? Leave it to me:

Sodium Benzoate: a food preservative, a salt derived from benzoic acid. When you combine an acid and a base, you get a salt. Mix sodium hydroxide with benzoic acid, you get sodium benzoate. (Sodium Hydroxide plus hydrochloric acid equals sodium chloride (table salt), and so on.) Sodium Benzoate works very well at killing bacteria, yeast, and fungi. It will only work in a high acid environment, where the pH of a food is less than 3.6. It does not occur naturally in foods. Government regulations allow no more than .1% by weight to be added to products. If you combine ascorbic acid (vitamin C) with sodium benzoate, you get benzene, a known carcinogen. The leading cause of benzene in soft drinks is due to the decarboxylation (removing a carboxyl group, releasing CO2 gas) of benzoic acid in the presence of vitamin C. You may be surprised to hear Coca-Cola is phasing out sodium benzoate from many of its drinks, but not Fanta and Sprite. As of now, Coke Zero still contains potassium salt (a form of benzoate.) So… what if the bartender mixes orange juice into your cocktail containing sour mix? Cancer anybody?

Potassium Sorbate: produced by neutralizing potassium hydroxide with sorbic acid, this colorless salt is very soluble in water, and used to inhibit molds and yeasts, and increase shelf life in foods and soft drinks.

Sodium Hexametaphosphate: scientific theory suggests that the antimicrobial effects of sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, can be greatly enhanced with the addition of polyphosphates, such as sodium hexametaphosphate. It behaves synergistically with preservatives to allow manufacturers to reduce the amount of the other ingredients in the system, while maintaining the same shelf life. Think of it as a steroid for preservatives.

Sodium Citrate: The sodium salt of citric acid, it has a salty, sour taste. It gives club soda, and most lemon-lime soft drinks, their sour and salty flavors. It increases the tartness of foods, and aids in preservation. It is nearly identical to citric acid, in that citrate is simply the form in which citric acid exists at neutral acidity, and is combined with sodium, which separates from citrate in water. This is why you get a salt and sour flavor.

Citric Acid: a small molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. All acids taste sour, but not all acids are edible. Citric acid is both acidic and edible. It can be added to foods to preserve, impart a sour flavor, emulsify fats, prevent crystallization of sucrose, or in place of fresh lemon juice. While citric acid tastes sour, it doesn’t taste like lemons. It may be easier to demonstrate the difference using vitamin C, as an example, compared with orange juice. Help yourself to a supplement bottle’s worth of vitamin c, in a form that dissolves in your mouth. Taste the orange? Now drink some 100% fresh squeezed OJ. Taste the same?

Pectin: a naturally occurring polysaccharide, found in berries, and other fruits. When heated with sugar, it causes thickening, characteristic of jellies and jams.

Quillia (or Quillaia, if you want to spell it correctly): the milled, inner bark, or small stems and branches of the soapbark. Also called China bark extract, Murillo bark extract, Panama bark extract, and Quillai extract. It can be taken for cough, bronchitis, or applied to skin to treat sores, athlete’s foot, and itchy scalp. It can be found in dandruff-fighting shampoos, as well as hair tonic, and even in douches for vaginal discharges. Yum! So how is it used in sour mix? As a foaming agent. The same application used in fire extinguishers. In South America, quillaia bark is used to wash clothes. It works because of a high concentration of tannins, very astringent chemicals. They thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. As a plus, one website claims quillaia contains a chemical that may help stimulate the immune system.

You’re on your own with the sweetener blend, the sour flavor, and the cloud #whatever. I don’t think there’s much more to say about this. Still want this crap in your drink? Only together, bartenders and customers, can we demand better from ourselves and others. Revolutions are slow, but then they gain critical mass and eventually become the status quo. In the next post, we will explore how the revolution began, how it’s made some mistakes along the way, and how we can work together to make it perfect.

In closing, allow me to offer two recipes that can aid in your development of proper technique, and will lead to a tasty cocktail every time. Substitute different liquor for different flavor profiles, and once you master this, start to swap out the sugar and the triple sec for other sweeteners, both non-alcoholic and liqueurs.

The Sour

  • 2oz – 2¼ oz Spirit (Whiskey, Gin, Vodka, etc)
  • 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • .5oz 2:1 (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) non-alcoholic simple syrup
  • Shake with ice and double strain up into a chilled cocktail glass, or over freshly cracked ice in a rocks glass (Some say pouring over ice makes this a Fix)
  • I like to garnish whiskey sours with a lemon twist, gin and vodka sours with a lemon wheel, and rum sours (daiquiris) with a lime wheel. Lime twists can have overpowering flavor profiles. You might reserve one for a more assertive, funky rum like Ron Zacapa 23yr.

The Daisy (Brandy for a Sidecar, Tequila for a Margarita, etc)

  • 2oz Spirit
  • 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • 3/4oz – 1oz triple sec or curacao (Cointreau, Triplum, or other brand)
  • Shake with ice and double strain up into a chilled cocktail glass, or over freshly cracked ice in a rocks glass.
  • Take note of garnish for specific drink. Salt rim for a margarita, sugar for a sidecar. Lime for a margarita, orange for a sidecar.


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1 Comment

  1. Such an interesting article. I do enjoy a nice whiskey sour, but I confess to using the store bought powder. A friend visiting the house one evening was appalled by this and offered to make me a “real” whiskey sour, such as you recommend. I didn’t want to impose so I declined the offer, which I’ve regretted ever since. Now I hope to rectify the situation with your recipe.


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