Friday, April 20, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour

If I were magically transported to California while I slept, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out where I was. The state has some tells. The light, to begin with. Golden, abundant, all too aware of how attractive it is. The air doesn’t smell the same there. And sooner rather than later, I’d encounter a Meyer lemon.

Every Californian I know has a Meyer lemon tree in their yard. They overturn bowls of them as they reach to shut off their alarm clocks in the morning, knock dozens of the little jewels off the branches as they walk to their cars. The place is lousy with them. A cross between a lemon and a sweet orange, the fruit was imported to the United States from China roughly a century ago. Their skins are thin and almost garishly colored, like many Californians. Zing! (I kid because I love. And am deeply jealous. And from New York.) They also possess a delicate floral fragrance and a taste sweeter than that of normal lemons, making them astonishingly versatile. To quote my friend David Corbett, Meyer lemons are God’s way of saying, “I’m sorry.”

Naturally now that they’re more readily available nationwide, I wanted to use them in a cocktail.

My choice was the humble whiskey sour. And by humble, I overstate the case. When you’re in the mood for a classic whiskey cocktail, you’re going to ask for a Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, with this one-time staple being the choice of last resort. I only order them in places where the drink list is suspect, the simplicity of the recipe rendering it foolproof. David A. Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, rightly notes that “the overwhelming majority of our cocktails are of the Sour type,” consisting of a base spirit, some combination of lemon and/or lime juice, and sugar or a sweetening agent. But he also views the entire Whiskey Sour clan askance because “whisky ... is a grouchy old bachelor that stubbornly insists on maintaining its own independence and is seldom to be found in marrying mood.”

Drinks historian David Wondrich is even more dismissive. The Whiskey Sour, he wrote, is “the cocktail in its undershirt.”

Enter the Meyer lemon. The natural buoyancy of its flavor blends perfectly with a good bourbon, and the fruit’s inherent sweetness means you can scale back the amount of simple syrup involved while still enjoying its tang. It revitalizes the drink, now no longer staid but refreshing, the stand-by transformed into a swinger. Turns out Old Man Whiskey just needs the right comely stranger to blow in his ear. Or, to put it another way, it’s a reminder that you need only change one element of a cocktail – not even the main one – to generate a pleasing variation.

The Meyer Lemon Whiskey Sour 

2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Meyer lemon juice
¼ to ½ oz. simple syrup, depending on taste

Shake. Strain into a sour or cocktail glass, but know that everything looks better in the latter. Garnish with a cherry.