The “Sours” taste profile is a little different than the other taste profile categories. True, it is a grouping of cocktails that all share the characteristic of being on the sour side of the scale. But it can also be thought of as the “surname” for a family of related cocktails. Much in the same way that the Tom Collins has spawned a host of variants using Collins as their family name.
The Sours taste profile consists of two major groupings, both of which share the same taste profile:
The first are the classic Sours. A Sour is a descriptive and technical term for a cocktail composed of a spirit/liqueur base, sugar, lemon/lime juice, bitters and often egg white, which is well to the sour side of balanced. This is just the same as a Collins being a descriptive and technical term for a cocktail composed of spirit, sugar, lemon juice and soda water (club soda), which is served tall. So just as a Vodka Collins is a Collins using Vodka as its spirit base, a Whiskey Sour is a Sour using Whiskey as its spirit base. Simple.
The second are other cocktails which are just as sour as the classic Sours but which take more liberty in their ingredients. The mere name Whiskey Sour tells you everything you need to know to make that cocktail. The name Sloe Sour Bitch is not as technically descriptive, yet the drink still firmly belongs in this category.
The defining characteristic of all Sours is unsurprisingly that they are sour. That is, they are significantly towards the sour side of balanced on the Sweet vs Sour axis. If you’re unfamiliar with how to achieve this in your cocktails, check out The Balance of Sour post.
But what about the other main axes? Where can a cocktail lie on them and still be considered a Sour?
Firstly, they tend towards the middle of the Strong vs Long axis and really can’t approach either extreme. A Sour must contain something which makes it taste sour. This is typically lemon/lime juice. So merely by the addition of this juice you automatically move away from the pure spirit extreme of Strong. But conversely a cocktail will struggle to stay sour as that lemon/lime juice is diluted by a mixer like soda water. So to remain really sour, a cocktail can’t be too Long either.
However, when it comes to the other axes, or tastes like bitter or spicy, pretty much anything goes. Sours which are also light, rich or dry are not too uncommon. Though aiming for the extreme of any of these axes is probably ill-advised as it is likely to compromise the sour nature of the cocktail.
As an example, a middle aged American businessman recently visited a former colleague of mine’s bar. Though wealthy and well traveled, he complained that he had never found a cocktail just right for him. So my colleague asked him the usual questions to figure out his tastes, and it turned out that he really liked sour and bitter drinks. My colleague shrugged and made the first thing that came to mind – a Campari Sour. Yes, that’s just a Sour using Campari as the spirit base. Not especially imaginative, but a good solid choice for a first attempt to match a customer’s tastes. He absolutely loved it, and asked why he couldn’t get something like that in the States!
Components of a Sour
I’d argue that there are six components that make up a Sour. However, very few Sours will actually display all six. Some will even drop as low as three.
- The spirit base. Like most cocktails, Sours usually rely on a single spirit to underpin their flavour and provide their alcoholic component. Sours which rely entirely on a single spirit for their alcohol are usually named after it – like a Pisco Sour.
- Liqueurs. In some Sours liqueurs are used to either complement or entirely replace the spirit base – as for the Amaretto Sour. They add supplementary flavours and will effect the Balance of Sour as they are sweeter than spirits.
- The sour agent. This is almost always lemon/lime juice, and in sufficient quantity to make the drink sour. Which you use is typically recipe specific.
- The sweetening agent. Classically this tends to be sugar syrup, although many recipes might call for honey, triple sec or other liqueurs instead.
- Bitters. Typically a couple dashes of Angostura bitters, though occasionally Peychaud’s or a flavoured bitters is specified.
- Egg white. A classic addition for the incredible frothy texture it provides, but optional and somewhat controversial in recent times.
Any of these components which require further discussion have or soon will have their own dedicated post so I won’t go into much detail here. Except to say two things.
First, you should always use freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is no substitute to freshly squeezed juice.
Second, when using egg white in cocktails, remember to dry shake (without ice) the cocktail before the main (wet) shake. This is to properly emulsify the egg white. Do this and the egg white produces a beautiful froth atop your cocktail. Don’t, and not only will the froth be lacking, but clumps of egg white may remain in the finished drink.
Types of Sours
I break down Sours into two main types – simple Sours and complex Sours.
A simple Sour is simple as it has but a single alcoholic and flavour component. This could be a spirit or a liqueur. But either way it is a singular flavour concept to which you then apply the other components of a Sour in order to bring the best out of it. Most of the classic Sours fall into this category, such as the Whiskey Sour, Pisco Sour and Amaretto Sour.
A complex Sour instead has multiple flavour components rather than one dominant one. These could be spirits, liqueurs, flavoured syrups or bitters etc. They often result in a Sour which is more complex in its taste, but arguably less pure in its focus. Few classic Sours appear in this group, since these are far more likely to be the result of modern bartending experiments. My own additions to the category include my signature Sloe Sour Bitch and the ever popular Nutbuster and World’s End.
In some cocktail books you’ll find a distinct sub-group of Sours called New Orleans Sours. These are distinguished by using triple sec instead of sugar syrup as the sweetening agent. I don’t accept this as being a useful concept. Firstly since, like the difference between a Collins and a Rickey, it is a difference which may once have appeared huge but now appears small given the sheer number of options available to us. As such I consider it to be an obsolete holdover from the past.
Second, it argues for the inclusion of some cocktails which I would not consider to be Sours. Is a Sidecar a Sour? No bitters or egg white and it’s served straight up, but it does fit into the Sour taste profile…so I’d accept that one. How about a Margarita? Not really, since that has moved out of being sour and into balanced territory. And a Cosmopolitan? Forget it!
A good base for Sours
You can make a Sour using any spirit or liqueur as a base. You may have never encountered a Rum Sour before, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make one. So a fair question to ask is why some spirits make classic Sours and others make obscure ones?
Quite often it’s in the taste. Bourbon and Rye Whiskey make for excellent Sours with wide appeal. Scotch and Irish generally don’t. Because the flavours that make them special and distinct just don’t complement lemon juice nearly as well as those of Bourbon. Not to most people’s palates, anyway – though some disagree. Meanwhile, the slightly bittersweet nature of Amaretto works perfectly for a classic Sour.
However, when you make a single spirit/liqueur the flavour base of a cocktail, it sometimes works best with a different Balance of Sour than the one you intended. For example, you can make a Tequila Sour easily enough. But the somewhat less sour Margarita works better for most palates. Same with a Rum Sour vs a Daiquiri. Or a Cognac Sour vs a Sidecar. In each of these examples making a Sour is possible, but there’s a good reason why it’s less popular than its closely related classic.
One note though. At first the idea of making a Vodka Sour seems pointless. After all, why use a spirit which tastes of nothing as a cocktail’s primary flavour base? But when you start to consider using flavoured vodkas, then you open up a whole world of possibilities…
Finally, a word about Sour mixes, of which there are two types – fresh made, and pre-packaged.
Often in bars I’ve worked in we’ve received free samples of “Sour Mix”. A pre-packaged mix of lemon/lime juice and sugar which has been sterilized and pasteurized etc to increase its shelf life. Those who produce it tout it for its speed and efficiency – always a concern in high volume bars. Since it was free I experimented on it to determine its value. After thorough examination I can conclusively tell you that this stuff is vile. Absolute shite! Anyone who claims otherwise likely has a financial incentive to do so. Now I suppose there might be a place for it in high volume bars who don’t care about quality cocktails. But if you’re ok with that, then what are you doing here?
Fresh made Sour mixes are another matter all together. This takes the idea of using freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice for your cocktails, but squeezing and mixing it with sugar syrup in advance rather than cocktail by cocktail. Now I suppose that if you don’t have a Mexican Elbow but do have some sort of electrical juicer then this makes sense. You could create bottles of “freshly squeezed” juice to use on command. This counts as smart prep work before a big event.
But what I don’t understand is why you would want to actually make a Sour mix. Sure, bottles of freshly squeezed lemon/lime juice are quite useful, and quicker/more efficient to add to a drink than squeezing each half on demand with a Mexican Elbow. But once you mix it with sugar syrup in a set quantity you surrender all control over the Balance of Sour. It’s now set and can’t be changed. To my mind that is a mistake.