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Sour Nix

June 12, 2009

Perhaps you are looking at a cocktail menu.  And it lists a variety of tasty and unusual drinks along with their ingredients.  Should you see the words “sour mix” anywhere on the page, I would urge you to reconsider that cocktail and order a gin on the rocks.

Sour mix is usually nasty stuff.

Don’t take my word for it.  I present to you the ingredients from Mr. & Mrs. T:
Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup, Citric Acid, Sodium Citrate, Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Gum Acacia, Polysorbate 60, Natural Flavors, Sodium Metabisulfite (Preservative), Glycerol of Wood Rosin, Yellow 5, Yellow 6.

Yuck-a-doo.

It is even more revolting if you are drinking a cocktail made out of lovingly crafted spirits.  It’s like a slap in the face to the master distiller.  Not to mention all of the bartenders across the world that take pride in their craft.

And it does not have to be like that.  Sour mix was created as a short cut for bartenders so they didn’t have to freshly squeeze their citrus.  Today there are great handheld squeezers that make quick work of lemons and limes.

A squeeze of juice combined with a splash of simple syrup, and you have it.  That is the origin of sour mix: Sweetened tart citrus.  You wouldn’t know it to look at the ingredients in the mix.  There is no lemon juice to be found on the label.

If you have ever tried bottled lemon juice, you may start to understand why sour mix skips it entirely.  Once the juice is bottled it looses a significant amount of its zip and tang.  The mix tries to make up for this with the combination of Citric Acid and Natural Flavors.  But if you have read Eric Schlosser, you may raise an eyebrow when you hear about natural flavors.

Fresh squeezed citrus degrades alarmingly fast.  Which is why I am not thrilled about finer bars that make their own sour mix daily.  These are serious establishments that do care about cocktails.  And without a doubt their sour mix is in an entirely different league from the commercially available plonk.  But really, it’s not as vibrant as it should be.  Still they do a very good job with what they’ve got.

It is important to watch how the people behind the mahogany mix drinks before you decide to let them make you a cocktail.  You can learn a lot. And I have sat at bars, sipping my whiskey, watching as the bartender poured ungodly amounts of sour mix into an extra-large margarita.  I pity the poor bastard who was forced to ingest such quantities of corn syrup.  But on the other hand, when you order a freakishly large cocktail, you get what you deserve.

The real tip off is the bar-gun.  Many places have one.  It’s a handy tool for dispersing water, seltzer and all manners of soda.  Lesser establishments that go through a lot of sour-mix simplify the procedure by piping the industrial dreck right into the bar-gun.  If that device seems like it’s surgically implanted into the bartender’s hand, you may want to reconsider your cocktail choice.

And frankly I would not trust an establishment like this to make a proper mixed drink.  The widespread use of sour-mix at a bar is another one of my handy-dandy red flags.  Drinks made with sour mix just don’t taste good.  They are always out of balance because without the bracing acidity of fresh citrus, sour mix is too sweet.

A good cocktail is all about creating a balance of flavors.  And to be fair, at some level this is a matter of personal preference.  Mrs. Fussy likes her drinks a little sweeter and I prefer mine a bit drier.  This is why the fussiest of bars provide droppers of simple syrup and lemon juice, like restaurants might provide salt and pepper, so you can season the drink to your taste.

By using sour-mix the bar is telling you that it really doesn’t care about the delicate balance of cocktails.  They are just going to make sweet things that will get you drunk.  And if that’s what you want, remember, you could always have this.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    June 12, 2009 1:05 pm

    I SO agree with you on this one. I’m such a citrus snob.

  2. phairhead permalink
    June 12, 2009 5:46 pm

    the next thing you need to blog about is where to find a decent whiskey sour in the capital district. everywhere i go, i end up w/ a drink that tastes like dirty water

  3. June 12, 2009 8:10 pm

    I used to have a friend who was a big whiskey sour buff (and this fact made me a little ashamed to go out with him). He was a large, lumber jack-esque type which made his drink of choice all the more ridiculous. One day we were at an establishment with a somewhat salty barkeep when my friend asked for a Jameson whiskey sour in order to attempt to impress a certain young lass with his discriminating tastes (no mere well whiskey for him!). The bartender poured the Jameson in a rocks glass and told him he could either drink it like that or get out of his bar. I found this to be one of the funniest things that I had ever seen.

    I’m not really too much of a cocktail guy, beer and scotch mostly do it for me, so I don’t really have much to do with sour mix. I agree with you though, that pre-bottled stuff is vile shit.

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