Here’s a cocktail that’s both lemony-refreshing for summer, and satisfyingly rich for colder months.
There are four components in this Lemon Drop: vodka, orange liqueur, lemon juice, and sweetener. The quality of each ingredient affects the finished product, so I’ve recommended what I use as a starting point.
Before you begin, chill your cocktail glasses with a handful of cracked ice each, and water. They’ll be nice and cold by the time you mix up your ingredients.
First, we’ll reach slightly lower on the store shelf for flavored vodka. I use Absolut’s Citron. Readily available, and flavorful yet not cloyingly so, it’s a good all-around choice. A pricier pick is Hangar One’s Buddha’s Hand Citron. Other brands produce a lemon product, so pick your favorite.
Whichever product you choose, its lemon flavor shouldn’t stop you from enjoying a shot glass-full neat. It’s a good test of palatability.
No-one’s expecting this vodka to stand up on its own, but in keeping with the theme that good ingredients make for good drinks it shouldn’t leave you feeling under-served, either.
Keep in mind that there are three more ingredients in this drink, one very pungent, so an expensive pick isn’t going to stand out in proportion to its price. Save your money here, just don’t go cheap.
One measure of lemon vodka goes into the mixing glass.
The second ingredient in our Lemon Drop is crucial wherever it’s called for, but often overlooked by casual drinkers: Cointreau. This aperitif bears a pungent orange flavor similar to other Triple Secs and Curacaos. Its original name was “Curaçao Blanco Triple Sec,” even. Made from bitter orange peels steeped in pure, sugar beet alcohol, the critical difference between it and other Triple Secs isn’t so much the method of production, but rather its flavor on your palate.
Try a head-to-head taste-off to divine the better product. You probably have a bottle of Triple Sec in your bar. Pick up a small bottle of Cointreau and pour a half-ounce into a shot glass, and another half-ounce of your usual Triple Sec into a second. Try the Cointreau first.
Use the money you save on top-priced vodka and spend it on Cointreau. It’s easily quadruple the price of garden-variety Triple Secs, but you can use it anywhere Triple Sec or Curacao is called for. It’s even tasty over ice on a hot day.
One measure of Cointreau, into the mixing glass.
Our third ingredient lends the drink its name: lemon juice, freshly squeezed from fresh lemons.
I’ve used week-old lemons for this drink with mixed results. Those who favor a more tart version won’t mind; they might actually prefer it. Everyone else will make the face.
You know the face. It’s the eyes-averted, this-drink-is-harsh look. You’ll know you’ve goofed. Squeeze the lemons while your friends watch, and you’ll never see that look.
A sharp paring knife and a two-handled lemon press make quick work of it.
One measure of freshly squeezed lemon juice goes into the mixing glass.
Among vodka, Cointreau, and lemon juice, a sweetener is called for. It’s our last ingredient.
Avoid granular sugar. It won’t dissolve enough unless you stir it into hot water - and that’s choice number one: simple syrup. Equal parts very hot water and sugar allowed to cool, it’s a staple behind the bar. I recommend making a few Lemon Drops with simple syrup to get the recipe down pat.
Using simple syrup, one measure goes into the mixing glass.
Or try something that will set your cocktail apart: pure agave nectar. Available from most grocery stores in light and dark versions, I go for the dark. They’re equally sweet, but the dark bears a richer, earthy flavor. Avoid anything containing corn syrup or other ingredients.
Agave is both a secret to keep in your bag of tricks and a pain to work with. A secret, because most home barkeeps don’t know of it. Agave will set your cocktail apart from others with its rich flavor.
It’s also a pain in the neck to work with, because there’s a very fine line between just right and too much. Shy on the mild side with agave syrup.
No special effort (see: dry shaking) is required to dissolve or emulsify agave nectar; it blends in like any other syrup. If you go too far in your measured addition, add a wee bit more lemon juice to adjust your drink before shaking.
Using dark agave nectar, one-third (just one-third) measure goes into the mixing glass.
Pile the mixing glass high with cracked ice, add the shaker tin with a tap and shake with an easy, Martini-like rhythm until your hand feels frost-bitten on the tin. Shaking introduces melt water into the drink, toning down any sharp flavors.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve with a twisted lemon peel garnish, or hold the fruit and sip away.
(The examples at right show how dark agave nectar makes a normally pale yellow cocktail into a more inviting, darker version.)
I’ve heard of an alternative to agave nectar that you might try. Look for demerara or turbinado sugar, and incorporate one into your Lemon Drop as a syrup. Mix 2:1 sugar to hot water, and let cool. Go easy on it in the mixing glass, working your way up from ½ measure until you find balance. Successful experimentation here leads to your own signature cocktail.
You can further experiment with how long you shake the mixture, or try stirring over a handful of cracked ice for thirty seconds, instead. Stirring introduces less melt water and therefore, a stronger cocktail. Find the balance between too-hot, alcohol-forward and nicely mellowed.
Lemon Drops can be bulk-assembled ahead of a party in the right proportion, 1-1-1-1 with simple syrup or 1-1-1-⅓ with agave nectar, and chilled down in a pitcher. Stir the pitcher before lightly shaking a couple of servings at a time and the result will put drinks in your friends’ hands quickly, without much effort.
You’ll empty a vodka bottle getting this one just the way you like it, but repetition is the pleasure of mixing well-made cocktails, right?