Sunday 29 September 2013

Golden Ratios: The Sour

When I'm behind the bar I often get asked how much time I spend memorizing drink recipes. The answer is basically none. Most cocktail bartenders would likely say the same thing. The reason is not because we as a group have photographic memories or peek at cheat sheets before making every drink, it's because mixed drinks as a whole tend to share one of a few classic structures (except Tiki, but that's a different story altogether). While everyone may have slightly different recipes for specific drinks and for this reason there is no right recipe for any drink, they can all be grouped into certain categories using common ingredient ratios. From there, ingredients can be swapped to create different drinks or to create original ones. For example, a Margarita, Whiskey Sour, Sidecar, and Clover Club can all be made by using the same ratio and just swapping out specific ingredients. The best way to understand these structures is to understand the history of mixed drinks and to be familiar with the classics. Any bartender interested in making quality cocktails should learn this history, as the majority of all modern drinks are variations on old ones.

The easiest place to start is the Sour. By definition, this drink is simply a combination of a base spirit, a sweetening agent, and a souring or acidic agent, usually citrus juice. First a brief history...

Long before the "Cock-tail" or "Bittered Sling" the Punch was the king of the mixed drink world. Appearing first in at least the mid 16th century, Punch became a staple in home and tavern drinking from the mid 17th century until the mid 19th. It consisted of simply a collection of local spices, seasonal fruit, liqueurs and spirits, and later - if one was so fortunate to have any - a block of ice. It was in the the mid 1800's that sitting around a bowl of Punch for hours on end lost its appeal and drinkers preferred something smaller and quicker. So, Punch shrank from bowl-size to glass-size and thus birthed the Golden Age of Mixed Drinks. The simplest of Punches became the simplest of juice drinks - The Sour - and variations ensued, including the Fizz, Fix, Collins, Smash, Daisy, and so on. Changing the presentation or ice, adding a little or a lot of soda, and adding cordials and liqueurs created new drinks with new names, but the basic idea remained the same.

Later bartenders such as David Embury in the 1940's took an analytical approach to mixing and designed a system of categorizing drinks and their ingredients. This is very useful to understand as a bartender for remembering recipes, balancing flavours, and creating original ideas. The system is evident by looking at even the oldest recipes, but Embury is worth reading (and you can see my post on him here). Here is a generalized idea:

- The main ingredient of your drink is the "base," which should in almost all cases be a spirit (using a liqueur as your base would make much too sweet a drink). The other ingredients are added to accentuate the flavours of your base.
- The acidic ingredient, "souring agent," or "modifying agent," is present to both soften the alcohol and enhance or add flavour to the base.
- The sweet ingredient, or "sweetening agent," is present mainly to balance the acidity of the souring agent but will also soften the alcohol and can add flavour.

Once you understand the role of each ingredient you can learn the basic structure. As I mentioned, each bartender has his or her own favourite recipe. The best one is the one you like the best - but I warn you not to make your drinks too sweet! Embury, for example, gives a ratio of 8:2:1 for his Sours - that is 8 parts base to 2 parts sour to 1 part sweet. The oldest recipes tend to be on the much sweeter side, sometimes with double the sweet to sour. At home I often prefer a 4:1:1. However, where I work, for the purpose of consistency we all use the same Golden Ratio, a starting point I highly recommend: 6:4:3 for base to sweet to sour. Translated to measurements, this is:

1.5oz base spirit
1oz sweet
0.75oz sour 

This will undoubtedly give you a very balanced drink. You may prefer something a little different for your own palate, so find what you like, though I recommend not going much sweeter than this.

Now we have the ingredient types and a ratio to use for basically all sours. Let's refer back to our list of variations at the start, using our ratio to separate our ingredients. 
Drink Name            Base (1.5oz)        Sweet (1oz)           Sour (0.75oz)        Addition
Margarita               Tequila                  Cointreau                 Lime
Whiskey Sour        Whiskey               Simple Syrup          Lemon                 (Egg white)
Sidecar                   Brandy                 Cointreau                Lemon
Clover Club            Gin                       Raspberry Syrup      Lemon                  Egg White

Others would follow suit:
Tom Collins           Gin                        Simple Syrup          Lemon                  Soda
Golden Fizz           Gin                        Simple Syrup          Lemon                   Egg, Soda
Jack Rose             Applejack               Grenadine               Lime       
Daquiri                Rum                      Simple Syrup          Lime

The list goes on and on.

Perhaps your bar is limited at home. You want to make Margaritas but you have no triple sec of any kind, but you do, however, have St. Germain. Being a liqueur, it will act as a sweetening agent, so use it in place of the triple sec for a tequila-elderflower sour. You can make Whiskey Sours with lime instead of lemon, or a Clover Club with a different kind of berry cordial. The options are endless. Creativity begins when you recognize similarities in ingredients and pair new products with old structures. Try pairing more than one sweetening agent, souring agent, or base spirit together. As long as you still follow the overall ratio, it will still work (for example, 0.5oz lemon and 0.25oz lime, or 0.5oz of two different liqueurs). Try adding a dash of complimentary bitters, such as celery bitters with gin, or aromatic bitters with dark rum. You can even get really creative and use orange, grapefruit, amaro, or home-made flavoured syrups as sweeteners, or vinegar and shrubs for acidity. You will start to notice changes in dryness due to varying sweetness in the liqueurs, varying proofs in your spirits, and varying acidity in your citrus (for example, lime is more acidic than lemon). You’ll start making minor adjustments and come up with your own signature drinks while developing your palate.

The possibilities are endless and that’s the fun of making drinks. Learn a little history, understand the role of ingredients in a drink, and memorize only some basic structures and you won’t have to memorize pages and pages of ratios and recipes.


  1. I agree with you on the personal preference for 4:1:1 sours. I think I like it because it satisfies my personal preference for keeping the base spirit forward in the drink. I don't hold to it slavishly, but it makes a great starting point.

  2. Definitely, and you can then just apply that ratio and swap your ingredients accordingly. I think the ratio I use as my example above makes for a spirit-forward and balanced cocktail time and again, just my palate prefers something a little less sweet.
    There are certain drinks that deserve their own specific ratios and don't belong in the golden ratio conversation, such as the Aviation, but this usually just applies to drinks with very particular or potent ingredients.