The Lemon Drop first squeezed to life in San Francisco sometime during the 1970s. Its inventor, Norman Jay Hobday, an out-of-work Vietnam vet turned saloon owner, is also credited with opening the country’s first fern bar, a concept that mixed house plants and Tiffany lamps with throngs of upwardly mobile urbanites.
Both were an instant hit. And for two-plus decades, the Lemon Drop dominated cocktail menus from North Beach to Bangkok, hooking a generation of bar patrons on its boozy-tart-sweet mélange of vodka, citrus and sugar. In 2006, Oprah famously served one to Rachael Ray on her show, which is like the ultimate nod of widespread acceptance and further solidified the drink’s place in popular culture.
Some mislabel the Lemon Drop as a Martini. But its closest cocktail kin is actually the Crusta, a New Orleans invention that dates to the 1850s and, like the Lemon Drop, is distinguished by its sugared rim. It may be tempting to save time by skipping this important step, but take the extra minute to coat the rim with sugar. It’s worth the effort, and that first saccharine brush against the lips before the onrush of vodka, lemon and orange fills your mouth is the drink’s calling card.
While the Lemon Drop is usually served in a cocktail glass, it can also be poured as a shot—a common occurrence at college bars and night clubs. However you choose to serve it, the best results are produced by using fresh lemon juice and simple syrup. Bottled sweet and sour can get the job done if it’s your only option, and that is often the case at bars. But the fresh lemon with the sugar is what gives the cocktail its signature flavor. Besides, if you’re going to indulge, you might as well enjoy the best version of the drink. Not only will it taste better, but fresh ingredients are also less likely to cause ill-effects the next morning.
Given the drink’s sweet lemony character, it’s ripe for experimentation. Some bars, and home bartenders, modify Lemon Drops with citrus- or berry-flavored vodkas, while others muddle fresh fruit into the cocktail. But before you start riffing, try the classic. It has lasted this long for a reason and deserves to be sipped in its original form.
Watch Now: Classic Lemon Drop Recipe
2 ounces vodka
1/2 ounce triple sec
1 ounce lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1 ounce simple syrup
Garnish: sugar rim
Coat the rim of a cocktail glass with sugar and set aside (do this a few minutes ahead so the sugar can dry and adhere well to the glass).
Add the vodka, triple sec, lemon juice and simple syrup to a shaker with ice and shake until well-chilled.
Strain into the prepared glass.