Drinks iconic to the ’80s—that neon electric-organ era of Woo Woos and Slippery Nipples—have long endured an eye-roll rep in the cocktail world, some less deserved than others. Most of us probably experienced the Lemon Drop first, and perhaps only, as a shooter, cold and accompanied by a sugar-dipped lemon wedge to suck on instead of as a proper couped sipped concoction. But should it be?
Vodka, fresh lemon juice, orange liqueur, simple syrup and a sweet-sour sugar rim. What’s not to love? When made well, the Lemon Drop is bright, crisp, puckery and with just a touch of sweet to balance the tart. “The original Lemon Drop cocktail was the precursor to Fuzzy Navels and Wine Spritzers so readily enjoyed in the ’80s,” says Luke Barr, a brand ambassador for NEFT vodka. “The simplicity and balance of the original cocktail makes it a timeless classic that even today’s discerning consumer can enjoy, either in its original form or as a variation.” These are six things you should know about the Lemon Drop.
You’ll often see the Lemon Drop deemed referred to as a Martini, but the choice of glassware is really the only thing Martini-like about it. “At its base, the cocktail is simply a Vodka Crusta,” says Nathan Elliott, the lead bartender at Portland, Ore.’s Il Solito. “Crustas were originally brandy-based sours incorporating a sugared rim. In the ’70s, vodka was in vogue, which made it the obvious spirit of choice for the Lemon Drop. With its refreshing balance of sweet and tart, it’s a cocktail that has effortlessly spanned the decades since its inception.”
2. Its Inspiration Came from the Candy Shop
If a Lemon Drop reminds you of the iconic hard candy of the same name, that’s because it’s exactly the place from which it drew its name. But while the life of the 18th-century confection—likely a creation for sore throats that lived in medicine chests—runs parallel to many of the cocktail canon’s elder imbibe-able statesmen, the Lemon Drop cocktail was instead a nod to that hard-candy treat created in the 20th century.
(image: Darren K. Fisher)
3. It Was Born in the City by the Bay
Or so we think. The booze world is full of larger-than-life characters, and one of them was Norman Jay Hobday, aka Henry Africa, the name of one of his bars and a persona this San Francisco bar owner adapted to add a colorful flourish to what would become known as, debatably, the world’s first fern bar (named so for its abundance of hanging plants, faux Tiffany lamps, welcoming atmosphere for ladies and gents alike, and drinks that went down easy). The Henry Africa bar stood its ground for nearly 20 years, and one of the happy results of that time was the Lemon Drop.
4. It’s Basically a Deconstructed Sour Mix
Water, fresh citrus and sugar—these key components of a Lemon Drop are also the key components of a proper sour mix. Barr’s recipe goes heavy on the citrus and light on the sweetener—3/4 ounce to 1/4 ounce, respectively—due to the addition of orange liqueur and requisite sugared rim. Barr also adds a drop of Angostura bitters to his version that tightens the flavors. Bartender Jeremy Le Blanche of New York City’s Queensyard suggests adding a pinch of salt to further belt in the balance of the sweet and sour components.
Quality ingredients are always vital in making a great cocktail. But in drinks like the Lemon Drop with a blank-slate spirit and so few modifiers, bad decisions are impossible to mask. “I would caution against using premade mixes or low-quality spirits in this drink,” says Miranda Breedlove, the bar director at Chicago’s newly opened Good Fortune. “The fewer ingredients you have in a cocktail, the more important the quality of each of those ingredients is; cheap vodka and sour mix are your worst enemies here.”
6. If You’re Looking for a Shortcut, Limoncello Makes the Cut
Evolution is inevitable. If you don’t love shortcuts, this might not be your bag, but limoncello—essentially a fruit liqueur made by infusing a neutral spirit with lemon peels and combining it with simple syrup—does work well. “One of the biggest mistakes to avoid when mixing one is not making it too tart,” says Tim May, the senior food and beverage director at Mission Point on Mackinac Island, Mich.The best way to make a Lemon Drop is to use house-made limoncello—no bottled limoncello, as it’s too syrupy. The limoncello adds just the right balance of sweet and sour to make a perfectly balanced Lemon Drop. For those more daring, squeezing a fresh lemon into the drink and not adding anything to sweeten it makes for that extra pucker.”