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How to Make the Classic Vodka Cocktail

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The Lemon Drop is a peculiar drink. It is trapped, in a way, in a purgatory of its own making, because they’re two seemingly contradictory facts about the Lemon Drop, and they’re true at the same time.

The first is that it gets absolutely no respect at all. The Lemon Drop is seen as axiomatically unserious by the sort of people who, say, write articles about cocktails in major magazines, and usually as well by the type of people who read them. The cocktail is a joke in and of itself: “What do they drink over there,” asks the cool bartender of an uncool bar, “Lemon Drops?” It is completely absent from every significant cocktail book written in the last 15 years, and to entertain the drink at all is seen, among some, as almost terminally gauche. 

The other fact about the Lemon Drop is that people love it. It is a phenomenon, one of the most globally popular drinks for the last five straight decades among those who don’t read the important cocktail books (i.e. most people) and who just know what they like to drink. In terms of name recognition, it’s one of the superstars, keeping company with cocktails like the Manhattan and the Margarita. What’s more, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with it. Irredeemable drinks do exist, to be clear, it’s just that the Lemon Drop isn’t even close to being one.

How can these two ideas coexist? Personally, I blame the 1970s, the decade that the craft of mixology began to curdle. The last generation to remember pre-Prohibition cocktail culture was dying off, and sweet, chemical, incandescent cocktail-shaped substitutes began to take its place, the Slow Comfortable Screw and the Blue Hawaiian and so on and so on. Into this milieu comes a man named Norman Jay Hobday, who opened a bar he called Henry Africa’s in San Francisco in 1969. He couldn’t afford much decor, but plants were cheap, so he created an alluring and verdant space full of ferns, antique lamps, and comfortable furniture, helping to create a whole movement of so-called “Fern Bars.” Henry Africa’s was a pleasant relief to the cave-like saloons popular at the time, and Hobday found his bar unusually popular among women, who felt more comfortable in the bright and welcoming space.

In an effort to match the bright and clean vibe and serve his burgeoning clientele, Hobday (who would change his name to Henry Africa) invented the Lemon Drop, named for the sour candies which the flavor evoked—vodka, orange liqueur, and lemon, served in a pretty glass with some sugar on the rim. This being the 1970s, the original Lemon Drop was almost certainly made with a sweet-and-sour mix that came out of a bottle—standard for the time but, I think you’d agree, not ideal. If this wasn’t already too sweet, certainly the addition of a cheap liqueur and a sugar rim would push it over the edge into over-sweet and artificial, and for decades, nearly every Lemon Drop served was precisely that. 

This is the Lemon Drop’s purgatory. It’s practically the poster child for the boring sweet-and-sour drink, so it’s too basic and chemical for craft bartenders to take it seriously, to elevate it to the canon of “respectable” drinks. But the push and pull of sweet and sour is a deeply satisfying one—so much so that for much of the drinking public, the cocktail has overcome the sweetness problem. So the Lemon Drop hasn’t been able to enjoy a revival because it’s never gone away. People like it too much. 

To bridge this gap, it’s worth considering the template we’re working with here: Spirit, orange liqueur, and lemon juice. If you used Cognac, you’d call that a Sidecar, among the most celebrated cocktails ever made. I prefer to point out that gin, orange liqueur, and lemon juice is called a White Lady, a precise and delicious classic cocktail from the 1930s, so technically, the Lemon Drop is a White Lady with vodka. Isn’t that something everyone can agree on?

Lemon Drop

  • 1.5 oz. vodka
  • 0.75 oz. lemon juice
  • 0.5 oz. triple sec
  • 0.5 oz. simple syrup

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice and give a good shake for 10 to 12 seconds, and strain up into a coupe, cocktail or martini glass with a half-sugared rim, and garnish with a lemon peel.

NOTES ON INGREDIENTS

Cointreau

Cointreau

Vodka: Lots of recipes call for lemon-infused vodka, and that does make a good version, but it varies (predictably) brand by brand. I’ll say you don’t need the added boost of lemon flavors—a near full ounce of lemon juice and a lemon peel garnish really does that job pretty well—but it certainly doesn’t hurt if you have a brand you like. I’m partial to the ones that are unsweetened, full-strength, and inexpensive like Absolut Citron, but admittedly I’ve only tried a few. Use what you like.

Lemon Juice: While I always recommend fresh lemon juice, I’ve never meant it more than I do here. Vodka, sugar, and ice all taste like nothing at all, so the lemon juice and orange liqueur are the only actual flavors in the whole glass. There’s nowhere to hide. I don’t need you to go source organic Amalfi Lemons or anything, but finding an actual lemon and juicing it is really the only way to make this drink excellent.

Triple Sec: “Triple Sec” is the generic term for an orange liqueur (like Cointreau) that’s essentially vodka based, so it’s got a clean, clear orange flavor. This is to differentiate it from a “curacao” (like Grand Marnier) which is an orange liqueur that’s brandy based and so has orange flavors in addition to the flavors you get from brandy, like oak, spice, and vanilla.

Lemon Drops made with curacao are plenty delicious, but I feel like the spirit of the drink calls for a triple sec which is a lot more subtle, and which will provide a fleshy orange flavor that makes the mid-palate juicy and then gets out of the way. Of these, I feel strongly that Cointreau is the best, if expensive, choice. A workable rule of thumb for triple sec is that the higher the proof, the higher the quality, so if you can’t get Cointreau try to make sure you grab one that’s at least 30 percent alcohol. 

Simple Syrup: Simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water and stir until the sugar dissolves. We use it in this case because you need sweetness to balance the tartness of the lemon juice, and if you used enough triple sec to balance it the drink would have too much orange flavor, and probably too much booze (Cointreau is 80 proof). 

Sugar Rim: For a lot of people, the sugar rim is what makes a Lemon Drop a Lemon Drop. When making these drinks, I always ask the recipient if they’d like one. If you don’t have that luxury, what we do in bars is to sugar half the rim and leave the other half unadorned, and the guest can decide with each sip if they want to engage with it. 

Flavors: A Lemon Drop is a cocktail, but you can also think of it as a canvas on which you can paint other flavors. Almost any flavored vodka will taste great in a Lemon Drop. You can take actual fruit, like raspberries or peaches, smash them up in the cocktail shaker, and use the above recipe to make a Raspberry or Peach Lemon Drop. Herbs, fruits, berries, hot chiles, whatever. The lemon juice and simple syrup are powerful enough that you can more or less ignore the inherent sweetness/acidity in the produce and just follow the above recipe and you’ll be set.

A final word on sweetness: Some people prefer sweet drinks, and like the Lemon Drop precisely because it has that kiss of sweetness that they crave. If you’re one of those people, drop the measure of lemon juice a quarter ounce, from 0.75 oz. to 0.5 oz.



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