In today's Washington Post, Jason Wilson touches on a topic that's the pet peeve of many craft bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts: the prevalence of sour mix in many restaurants and bars. In "Sour With a Natural Power," Wilson notes that squeezing a lemon (or a bunch of them before a shift) and adding some sugar or simple syrup is a pretty simple and straightforward activity.
Why, then, during this supposed golden renaissance of mixology does commercial sour mix persist? This mix usually sneaks up on you, like a mullet seen from the front. And you usually spot it too late, once you've settled onto the bar stool. It's a hot day, and you're maybe thinking about a Tom Collins, and suddenly you hear someone down the bar order an Amaretto Sour or a Long Island Iced Tea, and out of the corner of your eye you see the bartender reach for the artificial sour mix in all its glowing-yellow, high-fructose glory. And then you start thinking a whiskey neat might be the safe way to go.
Bar manuals from the 19th and early 20th centuries always reference the use of fresh juices; it wasn't until the mid-20th century that the convenience of industrially produced, often artificially colored and flavored sour mix began to appeal to a large number of bar owners. Until relatively recently, sour mix was a standby in virtually all bars, either poured from big plastic bottles or fired directly off the gun—a device hooked to a hose that dispenses sour mix, soda water and other mixers at the push of a button. Home mixers haven't been immune; bottles of sour mix cluttered up our refrigerator when my parents hosted cocktail parties back in the '70s.
With the growing interest in craft cocktails, fresh lemon and lime juice is finding its way back into drinks. Squeezing a lemon for a drink at home is no problem, but on a commercial scale, for a restaurant or bar, it can get a little trickier. Some bars have kitchen staff or bar backs squeeze large amounts of lemons and limes before the bar's busiest hours, while others buy fresh juice from local vendors that service a number of regional bar clients. In Las Vegas, some casino bars buy massive quantities of a freshly produced sour mix—made by mixing fresh lemon and lime juice with simple syrup, which helps extend the product's life span for several days—from a local producer. At the opposite end of the spectrum, bars such as Drink, in Boston, regularly replace hours-old juice over the course of an evening to ensure that all the citrus juice at the bar is at the peak of flavor and freshness.
Even in restaurants that emphasize fresh, local and seasonal cuisine, it's not uncommon to see sour mix used at the bar. What's your experience at your favorite places? Have you seen the fresh-juice mantra spread outside the small core of ambitious cocktail places, or is your whiskey sour still made with mix that's been sprayed from the gun?