Ask Your Bartender: Sour Mix in Two Parts

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Sour mix is a gateway drug. It can lead you down a very dark path, or it can open up a new world of fresh flavors or ingredients. As proof of this, I submit to you two examples:

One scenario involves the novice bartender using prepackaged mix as a medium for all sorts of vile concoctions. Let’s face it: bland, weak, artificially-flavored sour mix is the vodka of non-alocholic mixers. Add some raspberry to it, it tastes pretty much like raspberry. Add some whiskey and it’s, uh, flavored whiskey. I guess.

But this other path is one that I’ve been asked a lot about lately, and is the subject of this article: how do you make and properly apply fresh sour mix to cocktails?

Hey Bartender

I have a simple question. Why is it that 90% of the time when I order a whiskey sour I get a giant glass of Country Time Lemonade with a shot of Jack Daniels in it? Or worse, Squirt with some Black Velvet? Sour mix is just lemon and sugar right? I don’t understand why this is such a hard drink to get made correctly. Maybe it’s because I live in Nebraska.

Charles


Hey Bartender

I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now (since well before the layout changed) so I’ve come to learn through and through that you despise pretty much any premixed cocktail mixers; Sour Mix, Bloody Mary Mix, etc… there are places online that offer ways to make “homemade” sour mix etc… but seeing as I haven’t developed with them one of those creepy checking-their-blog-for-updates-everyday thing that I have with your blog, I thought I would ask your advice on making homemade equivelents. For example, a good whisky sour from scratch, or even just simple syrup.

How do you personally prepare these cocktail mixers ahead of time on the job or on a drink-to-drink basis at home?

Anyways, thanks for the good reading.

Mark

Hey Guys

First of all, it’s not just Nebraska, it’s everywhere. The reason you’re getting something that tastes like Country Time Lemonade is because that’s pretty much what bottled sour mix is. Bars in this country use bottled sour mix for a variety of reasons:

  • It’s cheap.
  • It never spoils.
  • It doesn’t require any preparation time.
  • Nobody remembers how to do it the right way.
  • It tastes delicious.

Just kidding. It actually tastes like shit.

So the question is, how do we do it the right way? Well, first I want you to make yourself some simple syrup. That’s right, one part hot water, one part sugar. Stir it until it’s clear, put it in a nice-looking bottle, and away you go.

Now get yourself some sort of juicer, any kind. There are hand juicers, motorized juicers, attachments for your KitchenAid, crank/press juicers, just about every imaginable method for extracting juice from a piece of fruit awaits you at your local MegaMall. Just make sure you pick up a little strainer, too, because bits of pulp in your drink are a big no-no.

With your new juicer, that bottle of simple syrup, and a bag of lemons at your side, you’re just about ready to go. Squeeze and strain that lemon juice into a pretty bottle and meet me back here when you’re done.

I’m going to show you how to make a whiskey sour today, but you can substitute any primary liquor for the bourbon. Yes, even Midori. I guess.

There are a lot of conflicting whiskey sour recipes on the internet right now. Most will tell you to use one part lemon juice to one part simple syrup. That’s pretty standard but it’s a little sweet for me and I think bourbon is sweet enough already, so here’s my whiskey sour recipe:

Whiskey Sour

2 oz bourbon
1 oz fresh lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup

Shake ingredients with ice and strain over fresh rocks in a short 8 oz glass. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

That’s it! Just remember: as with any recipe you’ll find, it’s open to interpretation. If this one’s too sour for you, just add a little more syrup.

Now, what about a more versatile “sour mix” that you can make in larger quantities and use in place of Country Time Lemonade?

Sour Mix

2 parts simple syrup
2 parts lemon juice
1 part lime juice

Make as much, or as little, as you want. Bottle it and use it anywhere, in place of the crap you find at the supermarket. Want a whiskey sour? 2 ounces whiskey, 2 ounces sour mix, on the rocks. Margarita? 2 ounces tequila, 1 ounce triple sec, 2 ounces sour mix. Pisco sour? 2 ounces pisco, 2 ounces sour mix, .5 ounces egg white. Enjoy, baby.

Now that you know how easy it is to make your own freshly-squeezed cocktails, maybe you’ll start demanding more from the bars you frequent. Tell them how easy it is and maybe we can all be on our way down a brighter path.

48 Replies to “Ask Your Bartender: Sour Mix in Two Parts”

  • Dan says:

    Great post, Jeff, and I’ve got a lovely relevant story to tell…

    I was at a bar the other night with a few friends and this particular bar, for some reason, has a huge collection of…board games. I challenged a friend to a game of Battleship and loser bought the winner a drink. Well, I lost and I owed her a drink. So, I asked her what she would like and she replied, “a tom collins, please.”

    My beer was getting a little low, anyways, so I went up to one of the bartenders and asked for another guinness and a tom collins. This is where it goes to hell.

    The bartender grabs a highball glass and fills it with ice. He then proceeds to pour barely an ounce of gin directly into the glass, and follows it up with a *disgusting* amount of bottled sour mix. He then added a splash of soda and garnished with a cherry. I did not accept the drink and asked him for something else which was made all right…

    By the way, I use the same whiskey sour recipe at home. They go down a bit too easy…

  • Mark says:

    This is excellent, I’m going to try it tonight. Thanks for the help.

  • Jeffrey says:

    Stay tuned for the collins episode… I’ll write more soon, I promise!

  • Chuck P. says:

    Perfect Jeff! There will be at least one (or 3) decent whiskey sours imbibed tonight in Nebraska! Your advice is always appreciated.

    CP

  • Jimmy says:

    Sounds good Jeffrey. Do you make fresh mix every time, or do you keep it?

  • Jeffrey says:

    I don’t actually use mix at my bar, Jimmy, I make every drink to order. However, I don’t see a problem with making a quart of mix before service each night…

  • Dominik MJ says:

    Hm – still I don’t see a point to prepare sweet & sour mix – it is quite too easy to use fresh lemon or lime juice and simple syrup (normally I use for kind of European & American drinks more lemon and for Latin American and Caribbean drinks more often lime).

    Even I don’t use self made simple syrup, as I use (bought) gomme syrup – this is simple syrup with added gum arabica (the mouth feel is great and the heads of the drinks are more steady)!

    For my sours, fizzes and collinses I even use less syrup, (ratio 4-2-1) which I think is better working for me!

    But… Margaritas I only drink with just Tequila (personally I prefer a 100% agave tequila), fresh lime juice and Cointreau. No prepared sweet and sour mix and no cheap triple sec curaçao…

  • Dan says:

    I think Margaritas taste fantastic with a splash of both lemon juice and simple syrup.

  • B says:

    Long time lurker with a quick comment.

    I’d been agonizing for months over how to keep my simple syrup (and, btw, I use 2 parts sugar to 1 part water, just personal preference), and with no “container store” near me and “kitchen stores” wanting crazy amounts of money for squeeze bottles, I was using small tupperware containers. These got very messy after two or three uses, and it looked like I had some kind of kinky syrup fight in the kitchen whenever I used it.

    I found what I wanted at a dollar store, of all places. Cheap, overseas-manufactured ketchup and mustard squirters. 2 to the package for $1, they even have a little cap for the nozzle. Perfect for syrup, lemon juice, lime juice, whatever, even a peanut butter sauce I made for brownies.

  • Angie says:

    Have you ever heard of a “Solarita”? I had one at a Mexican restaurant in Atlanta – very refreshing! They put what they called ‘lime sour’ in a salt-rimmed tumbler over the rocks, then you pour a bottle of Sol beer over it. Incredibly good. I understand you can do the same with Corona.

    BUT – my question is – what exactly is the proportion to make it LIME sour, instead of just SOUR? It did look slightly green, so it just has to be in the proportion, right?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Jeffrey says:

    Angie, the drink you describe is sometimes called a “Cubana” in Mexico – sort of a mild cousin of the Michelada using fresh lime juice, ice, salt and beer.

    But the sour mix is sort of a beer margarita, a trend that’s becoming more popular here. I’ve even had people asking me for them at work, as they’re a much lighter version of a hard-alcohol margarita.

    As far as a lime sour mix is concerned, just try reversing the proportions of lemon and lime in my recipe and let me know how it goes!

  • Jack says:

    Another lurker of the cocktail blogosphere rears his head…

    Jeffrey, I’ve always made my own cocktails with fresh juices and simple syrup so that I can adjust the ratio of sweet to sour. But now I’m contemplating actually trying my hand behind the stick in a professional environment; should I ever find myself having to use sour mix, will I need to reformulate every drink in my repertoire?

    And what about drinks that call for triple sec or maraschino to counterbalance a sour ingredient? How can bars that rely on sour mix make margaritas, sidecars, aviations, and so forth?

  • Jack

    Yes, you will either have to reformulate all of your recipes, or just not make those drinks altogether. There’s just no substitute for fresh ingredients. You can’t make a Sidecar with sour mix.

    However, what about slowly convincing your employers to incorporate fresh-juice cocktails into their business?

  • Jack says:

    That’d be sweet. Or sour. Hah!

    Of course, convincing the ol’ employers to do things Jack’s way would be ideal, but cocktail knowledge nonwithstanding, I doubt my own ability to waltz onto a job with no prior professional experience and start changing how things get done. And from one perspective, that’s totally righteous. I mean, so I can make a bitchin’ Mai Tai off the top of my head. Doesn’t mean I know anything about the restaurant business, other than what those Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Jamie Boudreau blokes tell me via the interwebs.

    I could do it. But it’d take awhile, and in the meantime… I don’t even comprehend how you could bartend with mix! Kamikaze. Easy, common drink at high-volume establishments (or so I hear). Something like 3:2:1 vodka, triple sec, lime juice. Sub sour mix and you’ve got to either eliminate the triple sec (becomes a crummy Lemon/Lime Drop) or serve the Kamikaze way too sweet. Have you ever worked at a bar with sour mix? Do you have any idea what such places do in similar situations? My curiosity is piqued. I’ve never ordered a sour anywhere that uses mix, and I’ve not the desire (nor the cash) to go out and experiment. What the hell are people actually consuming when they order a Kamikaze at a lousy bar?

  • It’s true, if you listened to me or Boudreau, you’d be lighting the place on fire, so don’t take our advice. Well, listen to Jamie, just don’t take any of my advice.

    I always used Rose’s Lime Juice in a Kamikaze when I worked in clubs (oh yes, I’ve worked at plenty of bars that used sour mix), and I don’t think it tasted that bad. After all, it’s just a vodka gimlet with triple sec, right?

    Then again, if you make a Kamikaze with fresh juice you’re essentially making a vodka Margarita, am I right?

    You sound like you’re just getting started in the business, so my advice is to keep your mouth shut for a little while and learn how they want you to do things at the bar you’re working in. As you become a more experienced bartender you’ll find yourself in a position to make changes and recommendations – and be taken seriously for them.

    As a bar manager, I cringe at the thought of someone telling me how to run my bar based on something they read in a couple of blogs. So put your head down and get to work, Jack!

  • David says:

    I was at a hotel bar one night (away at training and killing time) drinking whiskey sours. After the second lemon-lime soda and whiskey, I asked the bartender to microwave 2 oz of water with 2 oz of sugar. Once done I had her add 2 oz of lemon juice and 2 oz of whiskey and pour over ice… finally, a decent drink! After repeating this a few more times, she tried one for herself and was dumb founded at how much better it was.

    Yup, the sugar/juice ratio is left much to taste, but the fact remains that bar made sour mix or lemon-lime soda is NO substitute.

  • WHAT IS THE BEST BOTTLED SIMPLE SYRUP? THINKING OF USING IT FOR CAPARINHA’S.THANK YOU.

  • Gee, I don’t know, Tommy, I’ve never used bottled simple syrup.

    Why don’t you just take A CUP OF SUGAR AND MIX IT WITH A CUP OF BOILING WATER?

    It’s going to be much cheaper than bottled simple syrup, and probably taste a lot better.

    Jeff

  • scott in the LBC says:

    Just wondering, Jeff, how long simple syrup can keep in a refrigerator. If I were making it at home, it wouldn’t matter because it’s so easy to make. But, I want to convince my bar to start stocking it. They can’t make it there (no kitchen), but the owner also owns a restaurant across the street…

  • Oh, I would imagine it would last a week or so without spoiling. Make it in big one-gallon batches and truck it across the street.

  • Garretto says:

    Jeff,
    I saw a video (new orleans best cocktails: Whiskey Sour) where the bartender–great guy, uses the exact recipe here, but adds an eggwhite –superb!! But, is there something else other than the eggwhite that can give it that thick and creamy feel without the need to explain to every guest the potential (if slim) chance of salmanela–and compromising the flavor?

  • Larry Spies says:

    “WHAT IS THE BEST BOTTLED SIMPLE SYRUP? THINKING OF USING IT FOR CAPARINHA’S.THANK YOU.”

    Tommy, do not use simple syrup for a “Caipirinha”! A big no-no, use fresh Tahitian limes and super fine sugar…

    1.75 oz Cachaca (I use Fazenda Mae De Ouro!! Great Cachaca!!)
    Juice of 1/2 Tahiti lime
    1-2 tsp superfine sugar

    Muddle 1/2 a lime with sugar in a 9oz rocks glass.
    Fill the glass with cracked ice.
    Pour the cachaca into glass then pour entire contents into a shaker and shake for 20-30 seconds…(I prefer shaken over stirred…and unstrained)
    Pour contents back into rocks glass and serve…

    http://www.caipirinha.us/

  • Larry Spies says:

    Garretto

    Use pasteurized eggs whites…

  • Garretto says:

    Oh geez!! Of course!
    I’m buying some tonight and having a killer smooth whiskey sour!
    Thanks,
    Larry

  • Larry Spies says:

    no problem Garretto!

    Might give that a try myself…I love the texture egg whites give to a drink like a Pisco Sour or a Ramos Gin Fizz…

    Also fresh eggs whites are pretty safe from salmanela, the egg yolk is where the bugs hang out, if the whites are separated correctly, you should be fine. I use the pasteurized egg whites just to be safe, also egg white powder can be use as well. Just rehydrate the egg white powder with water or you can add the powder directly into the cocktail shaker with the liquor/juice. Just give it a few more shakes, you don’t want any lumps in your drinks!

    Enjoy!

  • Garretto says:

    Yeah, Larry, give it a try in a whiskey sour —-sublime.
    Thanks for the additional info.
    This site is great!

  • Jeremy says:

    I have seen the light!

    I’ve sworn off all mixes. If I don’t may it myself, I don’t serve it.

  • Larry Spies says:

    Hey Jeremy!

    What made you see the light? a bad batch of bloody mary mix? lol

  • Jeremy says:

    To be honest, I like to host parties at my humble abode and serve various drinks (usually what the subject of the party prefers.) One birthday party, I asked the birthday boy what drink he wanted featured, and he suggested the Whiskey Sour. This mix made the night. Everyone was drinking them.

    I just made another batch for another party this weekend.

  • Bill Cook says:

    Great tips. But you forgot the water. NY has great tap water..not.
    We use bottle water for the sweet/sour mix and the ice. (for special people)

  • Chris says:

    Simple syrup is hydroscopic, like honey. It’ll keep a looong time, even without refrigeration.

  • Zach says:

    I was wanting to mix up a whiskey sour using a whole pint of whiskey. It is far a party where I wouldn’t be able to mix the drinks one at a time. So I was going to mix it up in bulk.. Any ideas?

  • Zach – Just follow the recipe. A pint of whiskey would be:

    1 pint whiskey
    1 cup fresh lemon juice
    ¾ cup simple syrup

    Cheers

  • TQ White II says:

    A year and a half after the question was asked, “How long will simple syrup last?” I see that it still has not been answered correctly.

    It’s true that it’s hydroscopic and so, bacteria will not easily grow. However, mold likes it very well.

    At room temperature, I’ve seen mold (and I used a commmercial dishwasher to clean the jar) in a week in the summer.

    In the fridge, there’s something growing in about a month.

    tqii

  • Andrew says:

    The Sour Mix sounds fantastic, but what measurement would be equal to a “part?” One cup? Or is it more subjective than that?

  • TQ White II says:

    It depends on how much you want. When I make it, one part is actually two cups. That is, two cups sugar and two cups of water for the sugar syrup.

    I don’t make sour mix ahead of time. I don’t think it retains the flavor very well for more than a day. So, in a drink, we switch to smaller ‘parts’. Usually an ounce.

    For the whiskey sour above, that means two ‘parts’ whiskey, ie, two ounces. One ‘part’ lemon juice, ie, one ounce. I will leave the .75 parts of sugar syrup as an exercise. 😉

    I express all of my recipes in relative terms, ie, parts. That way I can easily, when I want to make a bunch of something, scale it up to fill a pitcher.

    Good drinking!

  • Cutter says:

    I prefer equal parts lemon and lime for a smoother balance. That and a demera or cane based (or both) simple syrup.

    I tend to stay away from egg whites in cocktails as a liability issue.

  • TQ White II says:

    Cutter, I agree with you. Though I consider it to be non-standard usage, I feel a lemon-lime combo is a little bit richer in flavor. I’ll call you brother (sister?) from now on.

    As for egg whites, I’m a non-commercial guy so I don’t worry about killing people with egg whites. Most of my friends are dispensable.

    Plus, I have never known person that suffered from egg illness, nor have I ever known a person that has known a person. Since I buy my eggs from an actual farmer, I figure it’s a small risk.

    Good on you for being careful about what you feed people. It shows a caring spirit.

  • Joel Musser says:

    As for salmonella in eggs, this comes from the deplorable and disgusting conditions that industrial chickens (i.e. all chickens except those from your local farmer or from free-range farms) live in and lay their eggs. Otherwise, under normal conditions, there’s only a trace amount (negligible) of Salmonella in eggs–and that’s on the outside of the shell. I buy my eggs locally or free-range and just wash the shell before use.

    As for a whiskey sour, try it with rye and you’re eyes will be opened. If I do make it with bourbon, I omit the sugar. I can’t wait to try it with egg whites!

  • mk says:

    your sour mix recipe was perfect!! I used it to make some bad a** Long Island Ice Teas tonight!! I like that I can be in control of the amounts of alcohol and the quality of ingredients!! Thanx for the recipes!! 🙂

  • Charles says:

    How long can you keep simple syrup? Well it depends on how you make it. Simple Syrup NF (national formulary) is 85 g sugar per 100 ml of water. This is approximately equal to the 2 to 1 syrup. Pharmacies keep this stuff at room temperature for as long as the manufacture’s expiration date (a year or more!) Microbes can’t grow in this due to high tonicity. More dilute syrups such as the 1 to 1 are subject to mold growth unless preservatives are added. So refrigerate this stuff and don’t keep it too long. Best advice is make the two to one and use half as much in your recipe and an equal amount of water, thus making 1 to 1 on the fly! From a pharmacist. Charles

  • Roark says:

    Can you make sour mix last longer by adding vodka a a preservative? I hear that works with simple syrup.

  • Ryan says:

    Yes adding vodka will extend the life span of simple syrup. At home I don’t use it every day so a small batch of 1:1 ( 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, 2 oz vodka ) will stay healthy for at least a month and a half, which is the longest I have kept it without using it all.

  • Greygoosetall says:

    I own a local dive like bar in Georgia and we have used fresh juices from day one. Except OJ in the winter. We use Simply Orange then.

    I would never go back. In fact the three “upscale” places near me have all converted because their $10 drinks were horrid next to my $5 drinks.

    We make it every day but it’s allowed to be used for three shifts, or a day and a half. We are a live music venue and we get slammed so we can’t squeeze per order HOWEVER, the citrus fruits taste better between 4 and 8 hours than they do at squeezing.

    Try aging it four hours and make two drinks one with that and squeeze one then. You’ll agree

  • Colin says:

    What a great post! I would love it if more bars used a home made sour mix. I just want to play devil’s advocate here for just a second and point something else out. Remember that any bar using freshly prepared sour mix is going to drastically effect the price of the drink you order. Most people will be fairly upset when they find out their margarita costs $10, but that may be the kind of thing you run into with a place using product like this. Remember limes cost about a dollar a piece right now and there isn’t a whole lot of lime juice you can squeeze out of a single one 🙂

  • joyce says:

    Instead of simple syrup I use organic agave syrup. I love margarita’s, and I get tons of compliments on my homemade recipe. I get request for them every party I go to.

  • Pat says:

    Hi Joyce,

    I have been searching the web looking for something to add to a gallon of Margarita’s that are a little to sour. I ran across your statement about the organic agave syrup. Sounds like it would be something I would like to try. What do you think and how much would I add to a gallon just to take that little bite of to much sour out. Thank you for any advice you could give me and also do you share your recipe.
    Thanks again, Pat from Akron, Ohio

  • Jesse G says:

    The major reason that a drink containing sour ‘MIX’ sometimes tastes like crap is because of the bartender who makes it. Funny that Martinis and Manhattans were originally stirred and not shaken (thanks 007) and now EVERYONE shakes them. (technically called ‘bruised’)
    Sour ‘mix’ was invented as a mixing agent to add flavor and froth or ‘head’ to a cocktail. Hence the use of egg whites in original recipes. That being said, ANY drink containing sour ‘mix’ needs to be vigorously shaken. Simply shaking sour mix by itself actually changes the flavor of the mix itself in most cases. For some unknown reason, over the years as bartenders started shaking Martinis more and more, they started shaking cocktails with sour mix less and less. Now a days I RARELY see a bartender shake a drink with sour mix in it, even when they are trained to.

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