We'll start with the class of pre-dinner cocktails classified by David Embury, back in the late 1940s, as the Sours. They are named Sours not because they taste sour but because they consist of a spirit combined with lemon or lime juice and some sweetening agent. This can be a liqueur, simple sugar syrup, a fruit syrup or a combination of these.
Early Sour Recipes
There was once a Brandy Sour but it didn't survive Prohibition. (This is no loss—I haven't yet found a cocktail based on cognac that I like.) But the Whiskey Sour, first written down in the 1850s, survives to this day. It is a simple combination of bourbon or rye whiskey, lemon juice and sugar syrup. It's not listed amongst our favorites but it's where the story begins.
Switch the spirit to rum and use lime juice instead of lemon and we have the Daiquiri which comes from Cuba during the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century. It is definitely among our favorites but not on the top shelf. For a simple drink that is on our top shelf just use gin instead of rum and add a dash of bitters. This is the Bennett Cocktail, invented in 1922, and it is wonderful. Like a little seasoning on food, it is the bitters that really make this drink shine. The Pisco Sour rounds out our favorite simple Sours. It is from Peru and Chile in the early 1900s and uses pisco brandy as the spirit. It also includes an egg white. The use of egg white was more common in Sour recipes prior to the mid 1900s than it is today.
Adding A Liqueur
Once we replace some of the sugar syrup with a liqueur made from bitter oranges (orange curaçao, Cointreau, Grand Marnier or triple sec) we arrive at some of today's most popular cocktails. The Margarita probably hails from Tijuana in the 1930s. It's not on our top shelf because of the inevitable faint aftertaste of paint-stripper that seems unavoidable in even the very best tequilas. (At least the very best tequilas we can afford.) The Mai Tai has long been on our top shelf being the gold standard against which we compare all others. It was invented in Emeryville, California in 1944. It adds orange curaçao and orgeat but it doesn't contain pineapple juice or grenadine no matter how often they serve it that way in Hawaii. The Cosmopolitan is perhaps the greatest drink ever to have come out of the marketing department—first from Ocean Spray's cranberry juice campaign in the 1960s and later from the test-marketing of Absolut Citron vodka. The cranberry juice comes out on top but it wouldn't work without the spirit and lime juice combo of the basic Sour recipe.
Switch back to gin and lemon juice and add crème de cassis, a blackcurrant liqueur, and you have the Bramble created in London in the 1980s. Change the liqueur to maraschino liqueur and Crème de Violette and you have the Aviation—a delicate cocktail with a wonderful pale violet color created in 1916.
Green Chartreuse is a French liqueur said to be made from an ancient formula of 130 alpine herbs. The stuff is wonderful! It was a major discovery when we came across it. It imparts a delicate herbal flavor to a cocktail. Add it to gin and lime juice with maraschino liqueur and you get the Last Word—a recently rediscovered cocktail from the 1920s. But leave the Last Word on the second shelf. Swap the maraschino for elderflower liqueur and add a dash of orange bitters and you have the Lumière, a definite improvement we came across on the Internet and it proudly sits on our top shelf. Finally, go completely nuts, and use mezcal with jalapeño-agave syrup and you have a Rio Verde, a cocktail Kathy found in the Wine & Roses Restaurant in Lodi, California. It is a delicate herbal concoction with a smoky paint-stripper foretaste and a runaway freight train jalapeño aftertaste that just keeps on going. Go on, you have to try one!
We may be stretching the definition of a Sour some but if we add pineapple juice to a rum based Sour with apricot liqueur we arrive at the Hotel Nacional a once famous celebrity hangout in Havana, Cuba. Pineapple has its own acidity and blends well with the lime in this recipe from the 1930s. Do the same with gin and use a combination of cherry liqueur, Grand Marnier and Benedictine and you arrive at another famous hotel, Raffles, with a Singapore Sling in your hand. The drink was created around 1915. It is a little sweet with all that fruit juice and liqueur but the pineapple cuts through beautifully. If you have the time to make a blackberry reduction, you can transform a simple margarita into The Fire of Olympus by adding it to jalapeño infused tequila—a recipe we discovered in the Lokanta Restaurant, Pleasanton, California. And while we are talking about transforming drinks, you can move the daiquiri up to the top shelf by following Papa Hemingway's lead adding grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur. The grapefruit blends well and comes over strongly in the Hemingway Daiquiri.
If instead of the citrus juice of the Sour we use an aromatic modifier, typically vermouth possibly combined with an Italian amaro (a bitter liqueur), we find a class of cocktails defined by David Embury as the Aromatics. Not everyone appreciates the bitter taste of these drinks, Kathy for one, but they too date back to the early days of cocktail history. We don't have many on our shelves yet, so clearly there's a need for more research, but here's what we have discovered so far.
Probably originating in the Manhattan Club around the 1870s we have the Manhattan. This is a simple combination of rye whiskey and Italian sweet vermouth. We don't have to travel far from Manhattan to get to Red Hook named after a Brooklyn neighborhood. It is a recent riff on the Manhattan which uses Punt e Mes, a less sweet and more bitter vermouth, and adds maraschino liqueur to take the edge off the bitterness.
Taking a different direction from Manhattan, swap the whiskey for gin and add Green Chartreuse as the liqueur and you have the Bijou a wonderful old recipe from the 1890s. The herbal notes of the Chartreuse shine through brightly and if you use a colorless sweet vermouth this shine is opalescent. Finally, if you swap the Chartreuse for Campari you get my favorite of the aromatics, the Negroni. A wonderful old recipe created, so they say, one fine day in 1919 in Florence, Italy, when Count Camillo Negroni decided he was in the mood for something a little stronger.