A Look at the Lemon Drop Revival

Artists often draw inspiration from those who have preceded them. Mixologists do the same. As such, many contemporary drink makers draw inspiration from one of the most successful cocktails in the modern era—the Lemon Drop. Its celebrity status has returned it to the spotlight.

The cocktail originated at Henry Africa’s in San Francisco in the early 1990s. In a time when drinks leaned toward the sweet end of the spectrum, this exceptionally light and refreshingly tart cocktail bucked the trend.

The Lemon Drop is a cocktail made with citrus-infused vodka, simple syrup and fresh lemon juice. The ingredients are shaken vigorously and served in a chilled cocktail glass. The interactive nature of the original garnish likely fueled the Lemon Drop’s tremendous popularity. It was a sugarcoated lemon wedge and the ritual was after each sip to take a lick of sugar and suck on the lemon. Slowly that gave way to the drink being presented with a sugared rim.

In its earliest incarnation, the Lemon Drop was little more than a well-presented Vodka Sour. To this day many reputable drink guides still list the drink’s ingredients as citrus-infused vodka, lemon juice and simple syrup. But the cocktail’s big break came when mixologists began using Cointreau as the sweetener, instead of simple syrup. The addition catapulted the cocktail into a more elite status. The classic liqueur imbued the drink with better balance, more body and contributed considerably to its depth of character.

The Lemon Drop’s appeal is nearly as universal as that of lemonade. There’s something especially tantalizing about a cocktail that can deftly deliver so much lip-smacking, mouth-puckering flavor and do it with class. It’s a cocktail with great creative potential as well. Here are the best kept secrets behind America’s greatest Lemon Drops.

            • Spirit Options — The Lemon Drop is a clean and uncomplicated cocktail, qualities that make it ideal for presenting top-shelf vodka brands, citrus-infused or otherwise. The better the vodka, the better the Lemon Drop.

For more than a decade, however, the nation’s mixologists have refused to leave well enough alone. As it turns out, the cocktail adapts beautifully to a wide array of flavored vodkas. An excellent example is the Pineapple Drop, a signature at Seattle’s ultra-swank Ibiza Dinner Club. The cocktail is made with Van Gogh Pineapple Vodka, Cointreau and lemon juice.

The Lemon Drop is also marvelous when prepared with light rum, flavored rum and blanco tequila. An illustration of its flexibility is the Lemon Balm Drop, a specialty cocktail of the Jade Bar at luxurious Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain. The drink is made with Bombay Sapphire Gin, lemon balm leaves (an herb related to mint with a lemon fragrance), triple sec and fresh lemon sour mix.

            • Liqueur Drops — Substituting Cointreau for simple syrup in the Lemon Drop elevated it into stardom. Liqueurs are capable of doing that to cocktails. Staying within the orange taste profile, Grand Marnier and Gran Gala are marvelous in Lemon Drops. An excellent example is the Herbert Hoover Lemon Drop, a specialty of the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. In addition to Grand Marnier, the drink contains Absolut Citron, a splash of lemon-lime soda and lemonade. The touch of effervescence and the cognac in the Grand Marnier are welcomed additions. Another potential leap in evolution is modifying with the cocktail with a handful of brands, such as Midori, ZEN, PAMA, limoncello, or Chambord.

            • Base Modifiers — Making lemon sour mix (a.k.a. sweet ‘n’ sour, sweetened lemon juice) from scratch is uncomplicated and often yields the finest results. In a classically uncomplicated cocktail like the Lemon Drop, using the freshest ingredients possible makes a perceptible difference.

Another creative course of action is modifying the cocktail’s base mix. An example would be the Prickly Pear Drop, a specialty cocktail at Scottsdale’s Mosaic Restaurant. It’s made with Stoli Strasberi Vodka, Cointreau and three teaspoons of prickly pear puree. The drink is shaken and served in a glass rimmed with pink colored sugar.

Finishing a specialty Lemon Drop with a splash of Perrier or San Pellegrino will add effervescence without altering the flavor of the cocktail. In some cases, however, especially when the drink is on the tart side, a splash of lemon-lime soda is just the thing to balance everything out.

Lastly, there are mixologists extraordinaire who advocate adding a dash of Angostura Bitters to Lemon Drops. It may initially give one pause; that is until you actually taste a Lemon Drop concocted with bitters. The additional burst of flavor is much appreciated.

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