Now, no one likes to be a know-it-all, “Cocktail College” listener, but I must admit, I do enjoy whenever someone tells me that vodka is flavorless or boring. It’s true, I relish the opportunity of convincing them that this simply is not the case — there are many vodkas out there that subtly highlight their base ingredients, and can absolutely add character to cocktails. Case in point: Haku Vodka, from the House of Suntory. Made with 100 percent Japanese white rice, this bright, well-rounded vodka evokes whispers of fruit and flowers, and lands with grace on the palate.
Like yourself, I’m not typically drinking vodka neat, and I instead prefer this in a soda highball or — better yet — a two-to-one Martini where I replace dry vermouth with sake. Try it — you’ll never look back. Once again, that name is Haku Vodka, listener, and — fun fact — Haku means both white and brilliant in Japanese, two words that go a long way to describing this clean-tasting and distinctive vodka. Please drink responsibly. Haku Vodka is a registered trademark with 40 percent alcohol by volume. Copyright 2022 – Beam Suntory Import Company, Chicago, Ill.
On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy is joined by Harrison Ginsberg of NYC’s Crown Shy to dive into the Lemon Drop. The two explore the wild world of shots, bars that opt for plants instead of furniture, and the nuances of vodka. Tune in for more.
Harrison Ginsberg’s Lemon Drop Recipe
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- ¼ ounce simple syrup (2:1)
- ¾ ounce Cointreau
- 2 ounces vodka
- Prep a Martini glass with a sugared rim and place in the freezer.
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake until cold.
- Strain into chilled Martini glass.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: Short and sweet: That’s the cocktail, not the episode, though. It’s Harrison Ginsberg. Welcome. Thanks for joining us here on “Cocktail College.”
Harrison Ginsberg: Hey, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to be here.
T: I’m excited to have you here. And looking over my notes here, multiple firsts for us on this show.
H: Multiple firsts. Yeah.
T: First time we’ve been able to mention the concept of fern bars. Can’t wait to get into that.
H: Oh, I’m excited to get into that one.
T: Also, I believe, I mean, she should only have one, but I believe that this is the first time we have covered Oprah Winfrey’s favorite drink on the show, and because all good things come in threes, finally, this, I believe, is the first cocktail too that is equally as iconic as a shot as it is a cocktail.
H: Oh yeah. Probably more iconic as a shot, right?
T: So that’s just a little preview there, a little sprinkling. The drink of course is the Lemon Drop. So first of all, do you want to just tell us what it is for those who don’t know, or maybe folks that have had them, but they’ve got no idea what’s in there? Tell us what it is and then we’re going to jump into the history of the cocktail.
H: Yeah. I think I would assume that more people have had them and have no idea what’s in a Lemon Drop than had one or had a “right one.” Right? So the Lemon Drop, vodka, fresh lemon juice, or lemon juice. I mean, it’s always better with fresh, right?
The History of the Lemon Drop
T: Nice. I mean, there are so many things I want to ask about that already before we get into the history. Let’s do it. Okay. Right? So you mentioned vodka there, and we will get into vodka more. I think, unfairly, this is a cocktail whose reputation might be kind of tied or thought in the same vein of something like an Appletini or other drinks like that, or maybe I’m wrong there. Maybe that’s misrepresenting, but not taken as seriously as it should be because we’re not using any flavored ingredients here, and you’re talking about fresh juice as well.
H: Yeah. I would assume, I always group this into that category, and unfairly so, because when you think about it, it’s actually more similar to some of those delicious classics, a Sidecar, Margarita.
H: Some of those Daisy-style drinks that are some of our favorites.
T: Yeah. I think I’ve seen that described as well as maybe like the New Orleans Sour, perhaps maybe as a category.
H: That was the first time I kind of heard that term, New Orleans Sour. But yeah, I mean, it’s kind of like… This is ultimately more of an old-school classic than people realize.
T: Yeah. And maybe, again, that conversation that I’m talking about there, maybe that comes down to, as well, the period when this was devised. So set the scene for us. We’re talking 1970s?
H: 1970s. Yeah. 1970s San Francisco. This is that fern bar we were talking about, Henry Africa’s. Really, somebody didn’t have enough money to furnish a bar, so they furnished it with ferns and plants, and just really wanted a comfortable space. And it’s like, history repeats itself. And you’re talking about somebody that wanted someplace that was gender-inclusive, because women weren’t necessarily always welcome in bars. And this guy, Norman, wanted to create that environment for people, something lively and fun and bright. And I mean, today’s bar culture is all about that. So it’s kind of funny that this is 1970s San Francisco, and now it’s 2022 everywhere.
T: Yeah. And that was Norman, do you know his surname as well for the record there?
H: Hobday. Hobday.
T: Hobday. Nice. So sets up a bar, doesn’t have the money to furnish it, and—
H: To fern, to fern-ish it.
T: Don’t know how that one got past me.
H: Yeah. Come on now.
T: I’m a big fan of the pun. So what, these plants are just cheaper than furniture?
H: Cheaper than furniture, kind of brought some life to the space, and made it a fun place to hang out and drink.
T: Do we know if it was, like, a big space? I think we were talking about off-air, you start to see some of these now in areas of Brooklyn, maybe like at Bushwick, where the spaces do tend to be quite big. I mean, was that a factor in it as well?
H: I don’t know what the bar looked like. I’ve seen some pictures, and it’s funny because it kind of almost has this tiki-esque feel in there, but maybe that’s just plants and being vibrant and lush and green. From the pictures of the bar — it closed in the early ’80s — it doesn’t look like a huge space, but it just looks like a comfortable space. I mean, very ’70s.
H: When you think of it in your mind, you’re spot on.
T: I love it. I mean, perhaps this is because I wasn’t around during that era or maybe it’s a uniquely American concept or just doesn’t have a name elsewhere. When I think of ferns, normally I just think of “Jurassic Park” first. The fern bar, it’s something… I don’t know. I need to dig into this more. So within that bar, Henry Africa, emerges the Lemon Drop.
H: The Lemon Drop.
T: Do we know if there’s a person behind it or is it one of these ones where it’s just kind of tied to the bar?
H: It’s just kind of tied to the bar. They say that Norman Hobday, who took on the name Henry Africa after some time of having the bar, they say he invented it. And I think it just goes back to that thing, creating an inclusive space. He wanted women to be in the bar as opposed to this dark, grungy bar where men hung out and drank and smoked cigarettes. He wanted people to be drinking cocktails and having fun. So it could have been him. Those are the mysteries of certain cocktails, right?
T: And I mean, we’ve seen this also explored throughout in different ways. I’m not going to judge. I’m just going to lay it out here and say that this is a concept that has proven profitable for other people. Aaron Goldfarb, I mention him quite a lot, writer for VinePair, he did a history on ladies’ night in Manhattan, and it is that idea of, if there’s going to be a lot of women in your bar, then naturally, maybe a lot of men are going to want to drink there too. I’m not saying they were getting their drinks discounted at Henry Africa, but it’s a model. It’s a business model that has been repeated throughout time.
H: Oh yeah. Fill it with good-looking people and other people will come, right?
T: Mmhmm. And hopefully, as you said as well, with maybe just the decor or the vibe, people are feeling comfortable to drink there too as well. Inclusive is what we’re looking for.
H: Inclusive. Letting loose, having fun, drinking delicious drinks. I think that’s the model, right?
T: Yeah. And so, vodka-based cocktails feel very much ’70s, that era. Does this predate the flavored vodka revolution? I imagine it probably does.
H: Definitely predates the flavored vodka revolution. This was definitely something that paved the way for those flavored vodka concoctions. And some of those flavored vodkas in this style can be a delicious drink, and you have the Cosmo born out of this. If you think about what the Cosmopolitan is, it’s kind of a Lemon Drop.
T: Right. Yeah.
H: Very, very similar. Yeah. But it’s like, I think people wanted to shed from what their parents were drinking, which were stiff, boozy whiskey, brandy, Cognac, and have something bright and fresh and mixing vodka, which was the total opposite of what people’s parents were drinking, with some lemon juice and sugar. I mean, it’s like, “Let’s have a party.”
T: Yeah. It really is. The pre-flavored revolution, it’s the clear spirits revolution we’re talking about here, right? Predates a whiskey glut as well here, American whiskey, which some folks probably took advantage of maybe 20 years ago and picked up some great bourbons.
H: Oh yeah.
T: How things have changed, right? I mean, you talk about the fern bar making a comeback. On the other hand right now, I mean, whiskey’s so popular and I feel like… I think, your own bar included, I see certain bars giving vodka more respect than others and using it in very inventive ways, but I think that’s still very much the minority in the cocktail sphere.
H: Definitely a minority. I think what we do is, we like to showcase flavors. So when you have something really interesting that you want to highlight, vodka can create this neutral base for something. There are other times when we want to highlight a spirit and use other flavored stuff, lift those things. But vodka is obviously that neutral, neutral palate.
H: There’s also some incredible vodkas that are coming to market or have been around for a little while that are made from honey or apples or in a very sustainable manner, and those things are really interesting to me.
T: I find that too as well. And you know what? It’s funny, because on the flagship “VinePair Podcast” recently, they were talking about an idea that I’ve had, which is that it’s a very exciting time, if you are a spirits geek, to be a vodka drinker. They maybe didn’t agree with me so much on that one. You can take a listen to that episode on the “VinePair Podcast.” But I think, no, If you give vodka some time and real vodka made in the same way, with the same respect that other spirits are treated, it’s a wonderful spirits category.
H: Yeah. I mean, if you think about a lot of new craft distillers. People are making vodka while their spirits are aging and whatnot, and these are really talented distillers, right? People are making something really well so they could sell it while their product is coming of age. But you have an exciting time for sure.
H: And the accessibility to beautiful ingredients is more abundant than ever.
H: So people are doing things right.
T: And getting back to the Lemon Drop specifically here, we mentioned this isn’t one where it’s like, it’s a drink from that era that contains overly bright schnapps or something that’s flavored. And so, I think what this drink benefits from is, you can tweak the ratios and find the balance, because I would imagine maybe the ’70s version, what do you think? That would’ve been sweeter than people are drinking it now?
H: Yeah. I mean, well, the things people are drinking now. That’s a tough one.
H: But it was probably a sweet version of the drink, the fresh lemon juice. Who knows what it was? Right? It’s very foggy, that history there. But, I mean, tweaking it with fresh lemon juice and a little sugar is delicious. Tweaking it with fresh lemon juice, a little sugar, and a fresh herb? Wow. Different game.
T: Yeah. Taking it to the next level.
H: Oh yeah.
Ingredients Used in the Lemon Drop
T: So if you were having a classic version of this drink, but one that’s also balanced, what are you looking to taste in the cocktail? Should anything be more prominent than any other ingredient?
H: Well, I think what I like to see, and balance is a tough thing, right? Balance is different for everybody. I do like a little more vodka. I like to know that it’s kind of a boozy drink balanced with some sugar and acid. But I do a full ounce of lemon juice. Three-quarters of an ounce… I like Cointreau. That’s my preferred orange liqueur or triple sec. It’s, I think, balanced. It’s vibrant, but it’s not overpowering. And I like to use a little two-to-one, so two- part-sugar-to-one-part-water simple syrup to balance out at a quarter-ounce. So we’re talking about 2 ounces of vodka, three-quarters of an ounce of your Cointreau, a full ounce of lemon, and a quarter-ounce of that two-to-one syrup.
H: I think it’s balanced. It’s kind of boozy. It’s delicious. And that’s the same way I would make a Margarita, a Sidecar. So it’s essentially the same thing.
T: Yeah. It’s super interesting there. And therefore, the flavor profile, I mean, you’ve got the full ounce of lemon there. Is that enough? Because it’s called the Lemon Drop, right?
H: Oh yeah.
T: So does it need to be a lemon explosion from the get-go?
H: Yeah. I mean, it’s called the Lemon Drop. It was named after a candy, a lemon candy.
H: So you could do all sorts of things. I mean, something we do at the bar sometimes is we make these oleo-saccharums, but then we make them into syrups. So you just elongate them a little. If you add a lemon oleo syrup, you’re talking more citrus, more fragrant lemon. And that’s one of the things I wanted to talk about, is all these crazy citrus variations. Yuzu is becoming ever so popular.
H: Yuzu in a Lemon Drop? Crazy.
T: Wow. That’s wild. I’m just thinking about that as soon as you say that. Seems very on brand for, as well, a lot of the drinks that you guys like to make over there at Overstory. That’s got me thinking, “Okay. Is this an underappreciated template?” We’ve spoken about the fact that it’s maybe a New Orleans Sour or whatever you want to call it, but I’m calling it a template where the only thing you would be changing is the citrus component.
H: It’s a template. It’s an underappreciated template. And a lot of people think of this as that shooter category of drinks and that super-cloying, ’70s-era drink. This is not that. This is more akin to one of those classics, pre-Prohibition, that have been enjoyed now for years and years and years than anything else. Like you said, there’s no wonky modifiers. There’s no milk. It’s not like one of those creamy, Mudslide-y type drinks. This is a real, well-respected drink.
T: Yeah. And so, is there anywhere in your background that… Because I know you’ve been at, correct me if I’m wrong here, Dead Rabbit, BlackTail, now Overstory. So basically, if anyone’s drank well at any point during the last five, 10 years downtown, in the Financial District and surrounding, there’s a large chance that you’ve had a hand in that?
H: So I stick to the neighborhood. I have worked in the Financial District for quite a long time at this point.
T: And before that, though, my question here is, have you worked in any places where this is very popular as a shot? Because I’m interested. How does that work out from a service perspective? Shots aren’t usually ordered just as one, but what if it is? What’s the word I’m looking for here? But what’s the logistics on that? What’s it like in service having a shot like this that’s actually a cocktail?
H: Yeah. I mean, people still, all the time, birthday parties, celebrations, they’re like, “We want a shot.” You pour them a shot of straight booze, they’re like, “Oh, this is not what we wanted.” They want a done-up shot. The easiest way to do that is, it’s a cocktail, right? It’s split. One cocktail usually gets you three shots.
H: It’s rare, but it happens that somebody wants a shot like that, and they want it by themselves. But if somebody’s looking to party, no problem. The short answer is, we just take care of the other two. We make it go away, right?
T: Yeah. Right. Because otherwise, who’s figuring out a third of a quarter-ounce?
H: Yeah. Yeah. You just don’t do that. You just make it work or you make that person feel not so alone.
T: That’s fair enough.
H: Yeah. Yeah.
T: That’s cool.
H: That’s bar culture. That’s creating that special moment.
T: And especially, I want to wager that if I’m behind a bar and someone in front of me orders a Lemon Drop shot on their own, I figured they probably want some company with that, right?
H: Oh yeah. They want someone to drink that Lemon Drop with them.
T: I’m going to try it. I’m going to do it.
H: Just see what happens. Yeah. Yeah.
T: I’m going to go out to my local… I feel like my local Irish bar, Maggie May’s, shout-out there, they’re almost certainly not listening. I feel like they can make a good Lemon Drop shot, and I just want to see what happens when I order it.
H: Will that change your status in the bar, ordering one by yourself?
T: Possibly. They’ll be like, “You don’t want your Martini today?”
H: Yeah. Yeah.
T: And I’ll be like, “You’ve served me one too many shaken ones when I’ve asked for a stir, so this is it. I’m just going for the…”
H: Now you gotta shake it.
T: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Imagine they stir that one up. Who knows? Crazy things happen there. They got a menu of three different smoked Old Fashioneds, which…
H: Neighborhood bars these days. That’s crazy.
T: I think there’s a separate conversation to have about the Old Fashioned.
H: It’s one with a cigarette smoking in the glass, or it’s not that type of bar?
T: I think it becomes that kind of bar after hours. I’m not usually there for long enough, but there is an equal number of people outside smoking at that place as there usually is inside. So it’s one of those places. It’s a wonderful establishment. Anyway, we do digress. So you’ve set out the ratios there for us, which are wonderful. You’ve talked about the ingredients, but you’ve also hinted to the fact that there are other aspects of the ingredients that we’re going to get into.
T: Let’s start with vodka first, though. So two people in this room that are taking vodka seriously, so we’re not just going to say, “Whatever you want. It’s all flavorless.” Do you have a preferred brand for this or maybe just a general base of vodka?
H: It’s one of those things, but vodka is so vast. When you’re shaking something up with lemon and triple sec and a little sugar, you’re not going to have too much variation. Right? I’m looking for quality, but you don’t need to go crazy. The person that orders a Lemon Drop, and it has to be Grey Goose, or nothing wrong with Grey Goose at all, but top-shelf. That’s preference, of course. They might believe that that’s something that makes them feel good in the morning.
H: I’m looking for something pretty neutral. I mean, you could go crazy. I think Barr Hill from Vermont, honey-based, that’s going to make the drink a whole ‘nother thing. It’s almost like a Bee’s Knees, right?
H: And that’s super fun, but something clean.
T: Something clean, fairly neutral.
H: I tend to like wheat-based vodka, but that’s just me.
T: What comes to your mind when you think about the specific bases? So I’m just going to fire them at you.
H: A little sweet.
T: Rye, what are you thinking?
H: Savory. Savory. I get this Eastern European food thing with rye-based vodkas, pickles, to be honest with you.
H: Wheat? Neutral, clean, almost like whiskey that’s not aged.
T: Yeah. Corn?
H: Corn is a little more gritty. Think about baked goods, right? Corn muffins versus a different type of muffin, right? Cornbread. You get that kind of like sweet, savory kind of thing.
T: It’s sweet, right? Yeah. It’s almost like that corn brine out the can. There’s something weird about the sweetness of corn-based products.
H: It’s like musty in a way.
H: Potato is fairly clean. I just find that it has some weight to it, some body.
T: Yeah. Next one for you, rice.
H: Rice. Ooh. This is a new one that’s popping up. Floral.
H: If you’ve ever had jasmine rice or basmati rice, it has this florality to it.
H: It could be chalky, but in a pleasant way.
H: Yeah. I like rice vodka.
T: We’re talking, yeah, floral texture. A good thing for citrus, good partners.
H: Yeah. If I see it, I’ll order it for sure.
T: Nice. Final one here, not a common one: whey.
H: Whey. Oh. I’ve heard of one whey-based vodka. I haven’t tasted it. I’m assuming it’s pretty creamy.
T: Yeah. It’s got a decent… So there’s one, Broken Shed, but it does have a pretty decent mouthfeel to it, but very, very clean profile as well. I think that’s another one that Aaron Goldfarb has explored for VinePair as well, so just check on the guy’s byline.
H: Imagine a Lemon Drop with a whey vodka. It’s like lemon yogurt.
H: I bet you it’s delicious.
T: I bet it’s amazing. Yeah. And I think also, as well, there are some other types of vodka, too. You can go into other base ingredients. You start to see some, basically, all kinds of grains. Right? Sometimes, there can be a zestiness to it as well.
H: Oh yeah.
T: And maybe I think it comes down to the individual product. But if you do identify vodka that has maybe a zestiness to it, that’s good.
T: All right. So triple sec, spoken about Cointreau. Is there anything else you want to add?
H: I mean, triple sec is a vast category at this point, and a lot of people think of it as this super-sweet thing. Some of them are really well made. And it is vast, but triple sec really means extra dry, which is funny because it’s a liqueur. Curaçao tends to be a little richer, brandy-based. It has some unctuous depth to it and, in my experience, a little more robust in terms of flavor. And I hate using the word sweetness, but it’s a little bolder.
H: You have that dry Curaçao, those dryer versions of that, and those are great. But again, they have weight to them. I find triple sec to be sharp and expressive, but not too overwhelming. That’s why I personally like Cointreau.
H: But there’s also Combier, a little more orange-forward for me. The category is vast. Stay away from the stuff in the plastic bottle.
T: Yeah. Another reminder, because this is very similar too to the White Lady.
H: Yeah. Right.
T: And one thing we were speaking about there is just, if you’re using Cointreau, this is the proof of a spirit. Right? This is a boozy cocktail.
H: Kind of the same thing.
T: Very similar.
H: Yeah. I mean, they’re 40 percent. They’re boozy.
T: Yeah. This is not just like any liqueur.
H: Nobody realizes. I have a friend that worked for an orange liqueur brand and he used to say, “Best 80-proof shot in the game,” and it’s kind of delicious.
T: It really is the old GrandMa shot as well. That’s a favorite.
H: Oh yeah.
T: So, lemon juice. Fresh is best.
H: Fresh is best.
T: Where else are you going, though? Talk us through a little bit more of that in terms of other citrus that you think would work for this and the oleo-saccharum preparation that you were talking about there.
H: Yeah. I mean, these days, a lot of people are making alternative citrus components and trying to approximate lemon juice without juicing it fresh, and those things are great. And I am the first person to experiment with these crazy techniques. However, there are certain drinks that just need some fresh juice — other juices, other flavors, other citrus that could work really well. Like I said, yuzu. You can get really high-quality yuzu juice and it’s delicious.
H: And it’s bright and it’s citrusy and it has that same acidic quality. I’m on an email chain with one of the chefs at the restaurants, and this guy is always offering us these crazy citrus fruits, like sudachi and kumquats. And the world is basically… It’s endless, and you just kind of play with them. I’m fortunate because I work in a restaurant where the chefs are like, “Yeah. We’ll take some of that.” And they’re just like, “Here, use this.”
T: That’s wild.
T: Yeah. I mean, rare ingredients, probably expensive, probably ups the cost of the drink a lot.
H: Yeah, yeah. I try and hide those invoices. I hope nobody’s listening.
T: The interesting one on yuzu, I’m sure most people will be familiar, but there’s a reason for this question. If you were to describe the flavor profile of yuzu based on a combination of common citrus, where would you put it?
H: I would say it’s like, lemon meets Meyer lemon, which is a little sweeter, which is already a combination of a few things, with clementine and a sour orange, like a green orange. Somewhere in between those things.
T: Yeah. Like some kind of mix of all of them?
H: Yeah. Yuzu is one of those things. Once you have it, you know it forever.
T: Yes. It’s so vivid. I mention that because at a restaurant I used to work at in London, one of the dishes we had on the menu was a salmon tartare with a yuzu dressing, and we would get high-quality, frozen lemon juice, if you will accept that it can be a thing.
H: Yeah, yeah. We’ll accept it in this case. Yeah. Sure.
T: Or we would buy it… Sorry. We would buy it pasteurized, probably, and we would freeze it. I don’t know. These were different days.
H: Different times. Yeah.
T: But it wasn’t always available, and that was one of the most popular dishes on the menu. So we would have to try and recreate the citrus profile using what we had that was available to us and with varying degrees of success.
H: Oh yeah. More orange! More orange!
T: Yeah. I think sometimes, some pink grapefruit might make it in there just a little bit. There’s a bitterness, but it’s an incredible ingredient. Like you said, you have it once, you know it forever.
H: Oh yeah.
T: Anything else on those? So I’m sure we probably touched on it in the show before, but if you’re doing an oleo-saccharum, you’re basically using all the peels, some sugar, you’re macerating. No juice in there? Any pulp or…?
H: I mean, listen, everybody has their method. I think traditionally, it was sugar and peels and you can let it sit. Sugar is that natural preservative, so you can leave it out and all the oils will extract. And eventually, when you mix and mix and mix, you’ll have a syrup. Usually, it’s more like a sludge, but that sludge is packed with citrus flavor. What I like to do is essentially start that process. We also add a bunch of salt and a little bit of citric acid. It brightens it up a little bit.
H: But no juice. And then we add water after, and then we have sugar. We use a refractometer which measures the Brix, which is the amount of sugar content in something. So we get it to the same level of a syrup that we would usually use.
T: So if someone wished to do this, and those are things that we’ve covered as well, people can refer to the acid adjusting episode there. But theoretically speaking, you could make a syrup for this that has both the acidity of lemon and the Brix of simple?
H: Yeah. I mean, we don’t…
T: I’m not saying that that’s…
H: You can do anything. Yeah. Yeah. You could totally do anything, then you’re talking about more like a cordial, right?
H: And you can probably just add that with vodka and some triple sec or Cointreau and shake it up. But I think there are useful methods for some of those things. And at a certain point, it’s like, just use some Limoncello.
T: Yeah. That’s a good point. And I think as well, it brings us right back to something you said in the beginning, where it’s like, “This has to be fresh lemon juice.” Right? It has to pop. I mean, it’s in the name. Okay. There’s the drop, but this is a celebration of lemon.
H: This is a celebration of lemon. Yeah. Yeah. You need that fragrant lemon. You need it. It’s the only way.
How to Make Harrison Ginsburg’s Lemon Drop
T: Let’s get into the preparation now, as if you were making that here for us. Talk us through it. In Particular, you can mention your preferences when it comes to which ice you’re using for shaking, which type of shaker you’re using, and then ultimately, glassware and garnish.
H: Yeah. So the first thing I do when I’m making this drink is something that I usually don’t do that I usually leave for last, but you have to prep the glass, whether it’s a shooter, that shot version, or a full version which, for me, if I have available, would be in one of those V-shaped Martini glasses. You have to sugar the rim of the glass. It’s part of the whole thing. It just makes it a little more festive. I think, at the end of the day, it just makes it more fun, but it gives it this texture. It’s like candy, kind of.
T: Yeah. Are you using lemon juice for that, and are you going all of the rim or half of the rim?
H: Okay. Usually, I go half rim. Sidecar, Margaritas, I go half rim. Lemon Drop, I want the full rim. I want the whole thing.
H: So there’s a million ways to do this. I like to take the lemon wedge, rub it around the rim of the glass. You don’t need to soak the thing, just real quick. And then you just have a bowl of sugar, and dunk it in one time. You don’t need to twirl it around or anything. I like to give it a little tap on the top or the stem, because it would be upside down, and let the excess fall off.
H: And then I go back into the fridge or freezer, if possible, while I make the drink. So that’s step one.
T: Yeah. I mean, that’s a tough one because I imagine, unless you have it on the menu, you’re not keeping these glasses prepared, lined up in your fridge for service.
H: Oh, no. No. Yeah. So it’s one of those things like, “Oh, here we go.”
H: But you know what? You’d do the same thing for a Margarita. And I got to be honest, Margaritas are the most popular drink in the world right now. I mean, they always have been, but tequila is on fire.
H: Yeah. So you get that glass prepped, and then you start. I always use a two-piece metal shaker. There’s a million different types of shakers out there. At the end of the day, it’s like, whatever you feel comfortable with. I like those two-piece because you can get a really nice seal. You can shake the living hell out of it.
H: You know when it’s cold because the metal frosts up. Some people like glass so they can see it. But I like metal-on-metal, tin-on-tin. I always start with citrus always, so I put that lemon juice in. And then we have a very specific build order that we use, like the order in which ingredients go in, and it’s essentially just to save money if you mess up, right? Then I’d put the sugar, that two-to-one simple syrup, followed by, in our case, I would always use Cointreau, and then the 2 ounces of vodka.
T: You remind me there that I skipped over the simple. But you’re going two-to-one, so you can use less but have the pungency of the…
H: Exactly. Use less, still balance out the lemon juice. It’s not going to feel cloying. It’s going to give it some body. The Lemon Drop, it could be really thin. It could be really like… There is some viscosity needed in certain cocktails, right?
H: So that quarter-ounce of two-to-one gives it that body, that mouthfeel, but it’s not cloying.
T: Nice. I think that’s a very important part of this drink as well. Yeah. Maybe somewhere, you can get there too with the kind of mouthfeel of the vodka that we mentioned earlier.
H: Sure. Yeah.
T: Yeah. So back to the preparation, you have all those ingredients in, double tin. You’re going to shake the hell out of it. Ice-wise, what’s your thinking here?
H: Okay. I mean, it’s one of those things, right? You just need to adapt. I’m a nerd. I like good ice. In the bar, we use these perfect one-by-one-by-one cubes. We have a machine that makes it. At home, I think you can use something from an ice tray because it has more solid cubes than out of the icemaker.
H: What I do at home is, I freeze just a Tupperware of water. I don’t really care about it being clear too much at home, but I do want a nice, solid chunk of ice. And this way, you can shake it really hard. You can get the drink really cold. You can get the drink really aerated. The point of shaking is for dilution to bring down the temperature, and to get it really cold and really aerated. Aeration is the biggest thing. That’s why you need that hard shake. So the better ice, the more aeration you’re going to get, the more control, really, that you have over it.
T: And are you cutting into that? So what would roughly be the size of those chunks that you’re shaking with at home?
H: Oh, I just kind of rough hack it up.
H: At home I’m pretty easy, but I know what to do with different sizes of ice.
T: But bigger than the standard one by one by one that you’re talking about at the bar?
H: Yeah, yeah.
H: It’s probably like a few chunks.
T: A few big-
T: Nice. I’m going to start doing that.
H: It’s easy. Like I said, I don’t care about it being clear at home. I just want something that I can work with.
T: Wonderful. And then, so we’re single- or double-straining into our prepared glass now, and how are we garnishing?
H: Okay. So I love a double-strained cocktail. I love no ice chips. However, a drink like a Lemon Drop, there is some give there. I want those ice chips. That’s just me.
T: Why is that?
H: It’s icy. It’s like an icy drink.
H: It’s obviously not like a slushy or a frozen drink, but to have those little ice chips on top makes it all more delicious.
H: So this is one of the very, very few cocktails where I’m like, “No. Ice chips all the way.”
H: So single strain for the Lemon Drop.
T: Perfect. Are you going to any other garnish?
H: No other garnish. For me, that sugared rim is enough.
T: No express and discard?
H: No express and discard. It’s like, there’s already so much going on with the lemon. And I know it doesn’t seem like a lot and it’s just an ounce of lemon, but it’s meant to be clean.
T: It’s a lot.
H: It’s meant to just be zippy, clean, crisp, short, and sweet.
T: Here’s a suggestion that I’ve come up with just right now. Not a suggestion; a proposition. And this is not going to work in a professional bar because this will just be weird, but what if we’re expressing and discarding another citrus, one of those ones we were talking about earlier, just to add another dimension that’s just kind of taking your mind elsewhere and you’re not sure why?
H: Oh yeah, I love it. I love it. In fact, there is one vodka that I really find to be just super delicious in a lemon drop, and it’s a citrus vodka that’s more orange than anything. Have you had the St. George Citrus Vodka?
T: I’m a big fan of the St. George products. Yeah.
H: So it’s more orange than anything, but it just adds a whole ‘nother dimension.
H: It’s a little atypical, because it’s an orange-y vodka.
H: But it is delicious. So a little something else?
H: Yeah. You’re rocking my world right now.
T: Well, there’s definitely another California producer that does a Meyer lemon one. Again, that might be too far. I don’t know. St. George also has a great Green Chile vodka.
H: Oh my God. Yeah. Imagine a Chile Lemon Drop?
T: I’m telling you how popular Spicy Margs are.
T: And I mean, let’s not even get into the spicy rosé trend. I mean, that’s something…
H: I have not even seen that. Is that a thing?
T: It exists on TikTok. Whether or not people are doing it in real life, I don’t know.
H: I gotta get on TikTok.
T: You do. I mean, this is going to make this super timely, but if you’ve seen that other video that’s, well, you might have seen it. It’s gone cross-platforms by this point. And it is relative to this, the Margarita, the Skinny Margarita.
T: You’ve seen the video?
T: Where someone is, what, brewing it in a coffee pot?
H: Yeah. I love it.
T: What is the candy?
H: I don’t know. I don’t know.
T: It’s not Skittles, but it’s-
H: No. It’s like a… Yeah.
T: Those square ones.
H: Yeah. I think it’s like a Starburst.
T: And there’s some jalapeños put in the toaster for the garnish. I don’t know.
H: Yeah. It’s ridiculous.
T: It’s the most ridiculous video.
H: TikTok is on another level.
T: Yeah. I mean, if you’re completely baffled by what we’re talking about here right now, it shouldn’t be hard to Google it because it’s everywhere and, I mean, basically breaking all of the rules that we try and help establish or share on this show.
H: Yeah, yeah. It breaks rules. Rules sometimes can be broken, but…
T: Sometimes, they’re meant to be broken, and other times, I don’t think that a toaster is the most effective way to cook a jalapeño.
H: Yeah. Just not good.
T: And that’s not even the most egregious part of that video. Anyway, go check it out. Another digression there. It’s a template, the Lemon Drop. I think that’s where I’m landing here. Just wondering if you have any final thoughts here when it comes to the Lemon Drop or variations or any amazing iterations you’ve had yourself.
H: Yeah. I can’t really speak to the bar currently because I haven’t lived there in quite some time, but there’s a bar in Chicago called the MatchBox. It’s still open. From what I understand, it’s changed ownership. And I think they probably still stick to what they’ve been doing, but the MatchBox is this tiny bar. I mean, literally, it’s a row of stools and you can kind of fit through, and it gets narrower as you walk down. It’s probably like 12-14 stools at the bar. And they were making cocktails really well before cocktails went crazy. And what they specialized in were these simple sours: Sidecars, Margaritas, Daiquiris, Lemon Drops. And something that they did, which was awesome, is they used powdered sugar. So they had this big… You know those ornate silver bowls you’d sometimes see for garnish with a spoon in it?
H: And they just spoon in the sugar.
T: Instead of using simple?
H: What it did was it gave it this really fluffy… It would be frothy.
H: Oh yeah. And you’d get that sugar on the rim, and it was unbelievable. And we used to hang out there a bunch, me and my friends, and you just go down the list like, “Ooh, I want a Lemon Drop this time or a Daiquiri.” And they were like… They were made really well, and the bartenders were true bartenders. They talked to you. And it’s Chicago, so bar culture is incredible to begin with.
H: What a great place.
T: They were doing that for all of those sours there or was it exclusive to the Lemon Drop that they were doing it?
H: No, they were doing it for all of those kinds.
T: Do you remember roughly what kind of measurement we’re using?
H: No, I wouldn’t know.
H: It’s one of those places. You go, you get sidetracked.
H: You kind of just enjoy the moment.
T: If you were going to ballpark it right now, a tablespoon? Less?
H: Probably less.
H: They’re probably going like a teaspoon and a half.
T: A teaspoon?
H: But it was like this little dessert, demitasse spoon.
H: Maybe depending on the bartender.
T: Yeah. Exactly.
H: And the bartender’s definitely judging the guest.
H: They’re like, “Ooh.”
T: And I imagine they probably have a separate one for their glasses as well because confectioners’ sugar, whatever you want to call it, icing sugar, that thing…
H: Oh yeah. It would clump up.
T: That would clump up real easily.
H: Oh yeah. Yeah. Definitely would clump up. But you got this most amazing version of those drinks, and they were made really well. It was fresh juice. They had this incredible spirit selection. It was awesome.
H: And I mean, it’s still there. I just haven’t been in so long, so I don’t know if they’ve changed their ways post-Covid. A bowl of sugar just sitting out there somewhere. A little gross to some people.
T: Yeah. I think as well, though, one thing I enjoy is that you do have a memory here of a favorite version or a standout version of this cocktail. I’m yet to find mine. But who knows? Maybe it’s Maggie May’s. Who knows? We’ll see. But I want to. I want a favorite spot for a Lemon Drop. That feels very good.
H: Yeah. Yeah. We have to find it in New York. I mean, it’s definitely there. The drink has got to be the foundation for the shooter.
H: Oh yeah.
T: All I’m saying is, the opportunity there is here for you to do the rare citrus, and I’m doing air quotes here, “Lemon Drop.”
T: That one’s not been taken yet.
H: Yeah. You know what I did one time, was a Lulu Lemon Drop?
H: And it was like a drop shot, but it was a drop of wheatgrass dropped into the Lemon Drop.
H: It was great.
T: Brilliant. Well, Harrison, what a great conversation there on the Lemon Drop. And I’m going to tell you now, I bet that almost everyone, if not everyone, listening is sat here now thinking, “I didn’t realize there was so much to this thing that I thought was just a crappy shot.”
H: Oh yeah. Yeah.
T: There’s so much to it.
H: No. I mean, this is one of the real… It’s a real cocktail.
T: It’s the real deal.
Getting to Know Harrison Ginsburg
T: All right. So how about we get to know you more now as a drinker and as a bartender in the final section of this show?
H: Let’s do it.
T: Fantastic. Question No. 1 for you: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your backbar?
H: This is a tough one. But agave is winning. Agave is winning. Tequila is on fire. It’s delicious. Mezcal is becoming ever more popular. But I guess I am a tequila drinker at heart, and I tend to fill the back bar with a bunch of tequila.
T: Can I ask you about a trend that I’m seeing? And I hate… I don’t know if I have brought this up on the show before. I’m sorry if I have. I’m seeing, or I’m hearing, oftentimes folks in the industry being like… when we’re speaking about agave spirits, now starting to say, “Oh, I don’t really drink tequila. I’m more of a mezcal person.” I think that’s purely to be contrarian or to go against the curve. Are you hearing that as well? I love that you say you’re a tequila drinker at heart there. I enjoy that.
H: I mean, yeah, bartenders especially are like, “I am a mezcal drinker.” I think bartenders are experienced drinkers most of the time, right? You have the ability to taste every new product. You have accessibility to all these things. So you become a serious drinker, and you become somebody that really can handle these really challenging flavors.
H: It’s like anything. It’s like being a cook.
H: You get to taste all these things. You become a more serious taster. Mezcal is more of a challenging spirit to understand, to comprehend, to pick out nuances.
H: So I think naturally, a lot of bartenders are like, “Oh, I’m a mezcal drinker.” I like tequila. I don’t know.
T: No. And again, maybe it’s just the reaction to the popularity that you’re talking about there, but you can’t have a Margarita without tequila.
T: Try making that with 100 percent mezcal. It’s not a good cocktail compared to the-
H: I mean, some people like it. And again, I don’t judge, but I am like, “I am a Margarita traditionalist.” I want tequila, not mezcal.
T: Boiled in a coffee pot.
H: Boiled in a coffee pot and jalapeños in a toaster.
T: Yeah. All right then. And no shade there, but I’m just questioning when folks say, “I don’t really like tequila.” I’m like, “How? What’s not to like? It’s amazing.” Question No. 2: Which ingredient or tool do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
H: That’s a tough one. And I don’t want to be cliché or ridiculous, but it’s personality. If that’s one tool, right? Bartenders need to be accessible. Bartenders need to be able to have fun. That’s how you’re going to enjoy your time. If you want to get technical, I am a nerd for speed pourers. I have specific speed pourers I like to buy. I don’t use specific ones. I’m crazy about them, but come on. It’s the bartender.
H: That’s the tool. That’s the key to a good bar.
T: Is that something, for someone who’s in a management position, very much in terms of all the other things you’re doing? Can you coax that out of someone who’s shyer in the beginning? Can you help people develop that, or is it really kind of, you got it or you don’t have it?
H: I think anything can be learned. Right? You certainly look for certain attributes or certain personality traits in people when you hire them. But at the end of the day, I like to think that most people are nice people.
H: If you put them in a good environment. And we haven’t talked about the bar too much, but Overstory is this crazy space.
H: And it’s really important to us that we fill it with really good people, because we have the view and we have this beautiful room, and I want people to leave and be like, “Wow, that bartender was awesome.” Not like, “The view is great.”
T: Yup. And the drinks are amazing as well, by the way, and those are two things that, and I’ve said this before in other places, but those are two things you don’t normally get in bars with an amazing view, especially not in New York, but I think that is the lasting impression that people will leave your bar with, which is, “Oh my God, the drinks and the service matched up to the view. How is that even possible?”
H: Yeah. We’re trying to do that triple whammy.
T: Good things come in threes, as we said in the beginning there.
H: Yeah, there you go. I love it.
T: Speaking of which, question No. 3 here: That was brilliant. What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
H: I’m fortunate that I’ve worked for some really great people. The people that taught me how to make cocktails gave me the most long-lasting advice that I’ve ever received, and they were just like, “Put down roots. Find a good place. Work for a long time. And anything you want to learn, it’s on you.” Right? I’ve had people walk into places I’ve worked and be like, “Teach me.” It’s like, “Well, it doesn’t just work like that.” Right? You have to be curious. You have to take it upon yourself, but you have to spend some time at a place. In a world where things are moving all the time, of course, sometimes you need change. Some work environments are toxic, and I think, as an industry, we’re trying to move from that, but you have to plant some roots. You have to find a group of people that you want to work for, that you believe in, and try to find that place.
T: Yeah. Is that something that you consider when you’re hiring? I know now the situation can be difficult. I mean, a lot of bartenders have been on here and spoken about that. But in an ideal world, is that something you’re considering when you see someone’s resume like, “How long have you spent somewhere? How often are you jumping from job to job?”
H: Yeah. I mean, it’s like, the first thing I look at before I even look at the names of the places is the timeframe. Right? And Covid messed some of that up, and you can’t blame people for that. And even post-Covid, it was really easy to start a job and it’d just be too challenging, like not supported. So it’s tough to navigate that piece, but it’s on us too. It’s about the management or the owners or the other people working. Let’s create an environment where everybody wants to come back in, and it’s hard.
H: It’s really hard.
T: It’s a great point. It’s on both parties there, for sure, to create that environment because, again, you could look at someone’s resume and maybe they just had real bad luck with the places that they ended up in. I don’t know. But it’s an important thing to think about.
H: Yeah. Definitely.
T: Penultimate question for you: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
H: There’s two. But if I were ultimately to choose one, it would be Sportsman’s Club in Chicago.
T: Okay. Tell me about that place.
H: Sportsman’s is this really incredible bar. The menu changes every night. It’s simple variations on classics, or classics. It’s got this old-school bar feel, like an old Chicago bar feel. It has a patio in the back. In the summer, every week, there’s a rotating chef that cooks outside. And I spend some time in Chicago, and when I lived there, I could go to Sportsman’s on a Sunday by myself and leave midday, and leave at 10 11, 12, 1, 2, maybe, and have met incredible people, have seen all my friends. There was a period of time where we had a standing dominoes game, and it was like, nobody had it saved on a calendar. It was just like, when people got there, they were like, “Okay. It’s time to play.” But even still, when I visit, I’ll go with one person or it’s somebody I’m hanging out with, and you end up seeing all these people. So a lot of it is time and place for me.
H: And it’s been a while since I lived in Chicago, but it still has that incredible feel. They’ve cultivated a space and really ingrained themselves in the neighborhood, and that’s key for a bar to be a part of the neighborhood.
T: It’s the classic “Cheers” model right there.
H: Oh yeah.
T: Assuming this is not the answer to the next question for you, what are you ordering there when you belly up to that bar?
H: Okay. That is not my favorite cocktail. This is not my favorite cocktail, but there, I’ll usually start with something that they’re doing, because the cocktails are delicious. In the winter, they do a really good job at these stirred, warming drinks. In the summer, they like bright fruit. But I’ll usually get a shot and a beer.
H: That’s a Chicago thing.
T: What is your boilermaker?
H: It’s a High Life and a shot of whiskey.
T: Nice. And if you’re choosing the whiskey?
H: It’s bourbon. It’s usually bonded. You’ve got some oomph to it.
H: Bonded being a little 100-proof, a little bolder.
T: 100-proof. Little 4-year-old there, minimum.
H: Oh yeah. Yeah.
T: Very nice. All right then. Final question for today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
H: Margarita, salt, rocks. Very easy. Anybody that works with me knows.
T: Your classic?
H: That’s the one for me.
T: You’re going out happy?
H: Oh yeah. It’s like, how do you not like that?
T: It’s phenomenal.
H: It’s so good.
T: I’m a big proponent as well of Margs always on the rocks.
H: Yeah. It’s like, you know the best part about a Margarita on the rocks is the Margarita-flavored ice at the end?
H: You have this secondary thing.
T: Yup, and salt starts to come in from the rim as well. That glass, nah.
H: Don’t even try and clear that empty glass. I’m working on it.
T: No, no. No. Yeah.
H: I’m pouring my water into it.
T: Still working on that one. Amazing. Well, Harrison, what a… I mean, we didn’t even get into Oprah. Sorry, just glanced at my notes here. We didn’t get to Oprah. Are you familiar with this? Apparently, she told Rachael Ray during the summer, maybe 2006, that the Lemon Drop is her favorite cocktail.
H: Oh yeah.
T: Anyway, I teased it at the front and I’m like, “Wait.” If anyone gets to the end here, and they’re like, “What happened to Oprah?”
H: Yeah. Oprah, you need to let me make you a Lemon Drop one day.
H: If you’re ever listening or you hear this, ever, please, just let me do it.
T: Yup. Well, what a wonderful episode. Thank you so much for joining us.
H: Thanks for having me.
T: It’s been a blast. It’s been a real enjoyable one.
H: Good. I wish we had a little Lemon Drop to…
T: A little Lemon Drop shot?
T: And we just need one person to give the third one to.
T: All right. Well, cheers.
Okay, that was a lot of info, but here’s the good news. Every single episode of VinePair’s Cocktail College is also published on VinePair.com as a transcript. So you can check it out there all over again.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.