Start Your Summer With a Delicious, Easy, Bittered Gin Sour
The Fitzgerald and the difference bitters make.
Summer drinking is upon us, which means it’s time for sours.
Sours, of course, encompass one of the most basic cocktail categories. Typically, they involve a spirit (gin, rum, mezcal, whiskey, and so forth), plus either lemon or lime juice, and some form of sweetener (such as a sugar syrup). From this trio of ingredients, you can concoct a nearly infinite number of variations, especially if you’re willing to add an additional ingredient or two to the mix, which is what we’re going to do with this week’s drink.
In last week’s newsletter, we discussed tips for refining your cocktail taste buds. One of the big takeaways was the importance of focusing on small differences to help fine-tune your drinks and your palate. So this week, we are going to drill down on a single small difference by looking at how the addition of just a few drops of bitters changes an ordinary gin sour.
The cocktail in question is the Fitzgerald, a 1990s creation by cocktail maestro Dale DeGroff. With just four common ingredients and a flavor profile that leans sweet, it’s easy to make and easy to enjoy.
It’s also the sort of drink that I have sometimes described as a great teaching drink, in the sense that you can learn a lot by making and drinking it. For example…
The origin story shows both how far the cocktail-consuming public has come in terms of cocktail knowledge and expectations.
The origin also demonstrates how to slightly modify a common cocktail template in order to create a new drink.
The difference between the way DeGroff originally made the cocktail and the way I make it now shows how tastes have changed over the last several decades, and also how to modify a classic spec to your own preferences.
The cocktail also shows the subtle but significant power of adding just a few drops of basic Angostura Aromatic bitters to a drink. If you think of every ingredient in a cocktail as a guest at an exclusive and carefully vetted dinner party, this drink will help you understand what, exactly, bitters are doing at the table.
It’s also quite reminiscent of the South Side, another gin sour with a seemingly small but important modification — mint rather than bitters.
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And for those who may be more concerned with drinking than with learning, it’s also easy to make, incredibly tasty, and start-of-summer-friendly — which is to say it’s the sort of cocktail that should be in every home bartender’s repertoire.
So to kick off summer sour season, let’s make a slightly modified version of the Fitzgerald, and then look at a couple of exercises designed to help you appreciate the subtleties of this cocktail.
Bitters? In a Gin Sour?
I’ve written about Dale DeGroff’s cocktails on a few occasions before, but if you don’t recognize his name, the thing to understand is that he was making and thinking about craft cocktails before just about anyone. He worked at the Rainbow Room in New York in the 1990s, back when vodka-and-something ruled the cocktail world, and sloppily made X-tinis were what passed for cocktails even at joints that purported to be cocktail bars. But DeGroff took his drinks seriously, making homemade syrups and fresh juices, free pouring but with care about proportions, and designing his drinks around classical cocktail structures, many derived from the recipes of pre-Prohibition bar star Jerry Thomas. There’s a reason that these days, DeGroff goes by the moniker King Cocktail.
When DeGroff was running the Rainbow Room in the 1990s, even relatively sophisticated drinkers weren’t very familiar with a lot of the ingredients we now take for granted.
These days, of course, you can purchase dozens of different flavors and brands of dasher-bottle bitters on Amazon. But back then, bitters of any kind were quite unusual, and brands and flavors other than Angostura Aromatic bitters were essentially unheard of.
Even if a bar stocked a bottle of Angostura, it might go essentially unused. In The Essential Cocktail: The Art of Mixing Perfect Drinks, DeGroff told an old barkeep joke meant to demonstrate how rarely bottles of Angostura were actually used: Which lasts longer — a bottle of bitters, or a marriage?1