Sour mix is an ingredient that many beginners find to be rather confusing. Hopefully I can assist in removing some of the mystery of this very simple ingredient, as well as provide some pointers on it's proper usage.
In the very early days of my cocktail experiences, I would occasionally try to make some of those cocktails which I was already familiar with. Drinks such as Margarita, Cosmopolitan, Kamikazi, etc. Many times, the recipes I would encounter for these would list some amount of "sour mix" as being one of the ingredients. I distinctly recall my frustration at checking out my stores trying to find this, and never seeing a product listed as "sour mix" on the shelves. Usually all I could find was "Sweet & Sour Mix", which clearly must be a different product. This was all pre-internet, and so having quick and easy access to information which could have solved this problem was difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Of course Sour Mix, Sweet & Sour Mix, Whiskey Sour Mix, Daiquiri Mix, and even Margarita Mix (for the most part) are all essentially the same thing. With very few exceptions, all of the commercially available products are little more than a bucket of chemicals pretending to be "quality" products.
When you look at many common cocktails, you will regularly see them combining a sweet ingredient (such as sugar or simple syrup) and a tart citrus (such as lemon or lime). Properly done, these drinks rely heavily on a proper balance of the sweet against the sour. Take a drink like the Whiskey Sour, which is whiskey, lemon juice, and simple syrup. After you've settled in on the ratio of lemon juice and simple syrup that you think works best, it might dawn on you that you could mix the lemon juice and simple syrup ahead of time, thus making it necessary to simply add whatever whiskey you wanted to use and be able to spend a little less time making the drink. You then notice that the Lemon Drop is essentially the same drink, only with vodka instead of whiskey. You could now use this same mix to make both the lemon drop and the whiskey sour.
Such a realization was first the discovery of bartenders who would use this mix to simplify their drink mixing, and allow them to get drinks to customers quicker. Later on, an ambitious entrepreneur saw an opportunity to make such a mix in bulk and then sell it to bars to use. Such commercial mixes may have started out using fresh wholesome ingredients, but it of course didn't take long for them to realize that they could use citric acid in place of fresh lemon juice, corn syrup in place of sugar, some other chemicals as a preservative, and perhaps even other chemicals in an effort to make their product better, and/or cheaper. Today, there is no comparison between what is made commercially, and what can be made fresh by bartenders.
If you want to make your own fresh sour mix, the process is fairly simple and inexpensive. As mentioned above, it is simply a sweetener and a citrus. Traditionally this is done by simply combining equal parts of simple syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Simple syrup is another product which you would need to make, which is just equal parts of sugar and water, mixed together until completely dissolved. Simple syrup is in general a useful product to have on hand by itself, so it might be a good idea to make up more than you need for the sour mix. Here then is a full recipe for making both sour mix and simple syrup.
- 1 part sugar
- 1 part water
Bring the water to a simmer in a saucepan, and then stir in the sugar, continuing to stir until completely dissolved.
Remove from the heat, and allow to cool before bottling.
You can also make this without heat just by shaking it until it is dissolved.
For what is known as a "rich" simple syrup, you would use 2 parts sugar to 1 part water.
- 1 part simple syrup
- 1 part lemon juice
Combine, and shake well to mix.
It probably goes without saying, but the "part" reference in the recipes above, is simply indicating you can use whatever amount you want, just make sure that it is the "same" measure being used. If you don't want to make a lot, you could make your simple syrup with just 1/4 cup of sugar and 1/4 cup of water, and for your sour measure out however much simple syrup you ended up with (it will be less than a half cup), and then add that same amount of lemon juice to it.
You may want to make some adjustments to the final product; the goal is to have something that all by itself has a good balance of sweet to sour, thus making it quick and easy to produce a balanced cocktail by simply adding a spirit.
Now that you have your sour mix, what do you do with it?
Well, for one thing I recommend you never list it as a recipe ingredient.
That's right. You should never see "sour mix" listed in a recipe, at least not in any recipe that is trying to present itself as a "Quality" recipe. It would be sort of like telling somebody to use "instant rice" in a Paella recipe. Some bartenders might comment that there isn't anything wrong with listing sour mix, especially if it is a home-made sour mix as opposed to one of the commercial chemical laden mixes. The problem however, is that this is often not something the reader of these recipes will know. If the average reader sees "sour mix" listed in a recipe, they will typically think it is the commercial product being called for, and unsuspectingly destroy the cocktail because of it. And a craft bartender, who is making their own sour mix, will typically have a slightly special recipe/ratio that they are using, something which could never be reflected by simply saying "sour mix". It is far better to simply break the recipe out into its actual ingredients. List "simple syrup" and "lemon juice" (in the proper amounts), if that is how you make your sour mix. This will allow any reader to make the cocktail properly, and if a knowledgeable craft bartender sees this they will realize that they can also substitute their house-made sour mix if they choose. For "staff" at the bar of course, you could list the recipe with sour mix, since you can easily control and educate them on the right way to make the drink.
So, you are making your own house made sour mix. The next question is in what drinks do you now use this product?
The answer? Well, none of them, or perhaps in the best case, only one of them.
You are free to disagree with me if you want, but I personally feel that sour mix shouldn't be used in ANY cocktail. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, sour mix is such a simple, simple, recipe. Just simple syrup and fresh citrus juice? Does it really save THAT much time to pre-mix it? What are you, lazy?
Another reason not to use sour mix, is that it becomes far too easy to treat it as thought it were a hammer, in which case you begin to see everything else as a nail, and find ways to use your home-made sour mix in them. To help you understand this a little more, let's just take a look at a few drinks which sometimes call for sour mix.
Whiskey sour. In this drink, a traditional run-of-the-mill quality sour mix will work well in. The "recipe" is simply whiskey, simple syrup, and lemon juice. It's easy to see that the simple syrup and lemon juice is plain ordinary sour mix.
Now let's take a look at the Daiquiri, another simple "sour" style drink like the whiskey sour, made from a spirit, sugar, and citrus juice. Again it might be easily seen as a candidate for our home-made sour mix. There is a difference however, properly made, a Daiquiri is made with lime juice and not lemon. And we were using lemon juice in our simple syrup. Ok... so perhaps after a little bit of experimentation, you feel that combining lemon juice and lime juice instead of just one of the other, provides a good compromise. But, it is a compromise.
The Margarita is another recipe that often calls for sour mix. So much so that I've had folks email me to tell me that my recipe is wrong since it doesn't use sour mix. A Margarita is still in the same format as the "sour", being a spirit, a sweetener, and a sour. Just use tequila and sour mix, and you've got a Margarita, right? Well no, the sweetener in a Margarita is supposed to be triple sec, which is an orange flavored liqueur (and the citrus is lime juice). So you could simple use triple sec AND sour mix, right? Well, then you are either not getting enough of the orange flavor, or you are making it too sweet. So what if you add a splash of orange juice to your sour mix? Would that give you the flavor profile you wanted, without unduly affecting the Whiskey Sour and the Daiquiri?
Hopefully, you see now the slippery slope we are heading down.
Even in drinks which call for just simple syrup and lemon juice, it shouldn't necessarily be thought that the "ratio" in these drinks should always be the same. This means that in a best case scenario, when you are making a truly great sour mix, which can make a truly great cocktail, it will most likely only be appropriate to use in a single cocktail, which means you will have to have several different sour mixes made up in order to have what you need on hand for each of the specific drinks you want to make. Frankly it would be a lot easier to just keep simple syrup on hand, and add the citrus juice when you make the drink.