In the 1600s, British naval officers created what was perhaps the first spirit-based cocktail when they used exotic liquors, fruit and spices to mimic the taste of wine and beer after their rations had spoiled during the long voyage to the tropics. They called this intoxicating potion "punch," and it was served warm by the bowlful.
This was before refrigeration, and large quantities of warm fruit and citrus juice would not have been palatable, let alone sanitary, so they fortified the mixtures with booze. "The earliest punches were higher in alcohol content than what we're accustomed to today," explains Joseph DeLuca, founder of the U.S. Bartenders Guild Cleveland Chapter. "Imagine a punch that is as strong at the end of the night as it was at the beginning."
The widespread availability of ice in the mid- to late-1800s gave way to tamer, more citrus-forward "short punches"—called sours—along with a host of other drinks, thus ushering in the golden age of cocktails.
During Prohibition, the sour thrived. The Sidecar and the Daquiri, sours starring brandy and rum, respectively, emerged due to the sudden unavailability of American whiskey. The tequila-based Margarita followed shortly thereafter. "Say you're living in Southern California and you have no access to clean distillate. What do you do?" posits DeLuca. "You jump over to Tijuana and pick up some tequila."
"In the 1950s, sour mix came into play thanks to the rise of post-war families that had everything except time, and the Space Race, which saw the need to do everything quickly and more efficiently," he adds. Indeed, Americans became less inclined to make homemade syrups and fresh-squeezed citrus juices and instead turned to something they could buy in a store. "For 40 years, we forgot what the sour tasted like."
Enthusiasm for sours began to subside in the 1970s thanks to a certain stigma. "The sour was my grandfather's drink," DeLuca said. "It was what you shook up when you were sitting around on a Friday night playing pinochle." And there was certainly no room for them in the martini-dominated culture of the '80s and '90s.
A shift back towards authenticity in the late 1990s saw the return of fresh ingredients and along with them the sour, the most versatile punch in history. "The Food Network changed everything," DeLuca said. "America had its own food culture for the first time, and we know that beverage follows food wherever it goes."
The [Insert Spirit Here] Sour
•2 oz. spirit of your choice
•1 oz. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
•¾ oz. simple syrup (adjust to your palate)
Add the above ingredients to a Boston shaker along with a few handfuls of ice and shake to combine and chill. Serve on the rocks.
Top with soda water to make a fizz.
Add an egg white and shake vigorously for three minutes to make a Boston Sour.
Use rye whiskey, equal parts lemon juice and orange juice, and grenadine to make a Ward 8. (To make grenadine, dissolve 1 part sugar into 1 part real pomegranate juice over moderate heat.)
Use rye whiskey and float an ounce of red wine (we prefer Malbec) on top to make a New York Sour.
Use cognac and orange liqueur (like Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao) in place of the simple syrup to make a Sidecar. Use tequila in place of the cognac and you’ve got a Margarita.
Use rum and lime juice to make a Daquiri. Just leave the Slushie machine at the 7-Eleven.