On this episode of the “Cocktail College” podcast, host Tim McKirdy is joined by Mike Lay, two-time James Beard Finalist and beverage director for the MINA group to explore the wide world of sour cocktails. Tune in for more.

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Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy, and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” A weekly deep dive into classic cocktails that goes beyond the recipe with America’s best bartenders. Based upon some very light half-arsed internet research, it seems there are no proverbs involving cocktails, which frankly seems like an opportunity missed. The topic of today’s techniques episode does invoke the old adage about catching someone a fish versus schooling them in the fine art of angling. The sour family of cocktails not only boasts some of the world’s most beloved mixed drinks, but it also offers a template that can be tweaked and adapted to your heart’s content thus turning a small collection of booze and a handful of supporting ingredients, most notably fresh citrus into a world of infinite drinking opportunities. We like that here at “Cocktail College,” listener. That’s pretty much all I’m going to say on today’s topic for now. Instead, we’ll turn our attention briefly to today’s guest, Mike Lay. Based in Las Vegas, and a two-times James Beard semi-finalist, Mike is the beverage director for the MINA Group, and he arrives in the virtual studio with years of experience in the drinks and hospitality industry. He is, therefore, the ideal candidate to talk us through the iconic trinity of spirit, sweetener, and citrus, with an optional egg white. You know where we’re at, listener, and you know full well by now the fine folks bringing it to you, so let’s do this, shall we? It’s another edition of the “Cocktail College” podcast. Today we’re bringing back a techniques episode for you listeners. We know you love them, and joining us in the hot seat over there, all the way over there in Las Vegas, we got Mike Lay. Mike, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mike Lay: Thanks for having me.

T: Excited to get into this one. Techniques episodes in the past, we’ve looked at things like etiquette, service, acid adjusting, we’ve gone technical, but today we’re going to examine a category of cocktails, sours. Just off the bat, how do you feel about this category of drinks, this style of cocktails?

M: I think it’s great. I think that this is the foundation that you can build a lot of — plenty of room for creativity. You have classic cocktails that started with old fashions, and then we started to get into syrups when refrigeration started to become more commonplace, you see a lot more citrus popping up. I think this is really the foundation that a lot of stuff is built on.

T: I’m not a pro when it comes to working behind the bar, whatever, I’m an enthusiast. This is something I’m involved in professionally, but maybe from a little distance here. Occasionally I will help people with their cocktails, people ask for advice or whatnot. The thing that strikes me about sours is that if you learn the template, you’re actually learning hundreds of different recipes in one, which is so cool. You teach someone how to make one of the cocktails we’ll discuss today, say the Daiquiri. You teach them how to make that, and you say, “Hey, you can sub in this, you can swap that out.” Basically, you got a completely different drink that you’re pretty much certain is going to work. I think that’s pretty cool.

M: Yes, absolutely.

T: Tell us about this, Mike. For those listening who might not be familiar with sours, how would you specifically describe this cocktail template? Do you view it as having a set-in-stone ratio for different ingredients, or does it change depending on what you’re including in your sour?

M: I think in the basic sense, we distill it down to just the bare bones. Sours made up of spirits, juice for sourness, sugar for sweetness to balance it, a traditional sour being made with egg white, and a non-traditional bean, no egg white. I tend to stick to a set of rules that were passed on to me. With that, you can break the rules. You can be as creative as you want, but I think that balance is the key. If we’re talking just the basic structure of a sour, you’re looking at one and a half to two ounces of your base spirit or a combination or complementary spirit. Then if we’re using lemon, I tend to do three-quarters lemon and balance it out with the same amount of sweetener, three-quarter sweetener. If it was a lime, I would do one lime and three-quarter sweetener to adjust for the acid. That’s more of like a Sasha Petraske, Milk & Honey sort of look at a sour. With that, if there’s pineapple juice in there, you might want to cut down the citrus. If you’re using something that’s overly sweet like maple syrup, you might have to adjust for it there. I think that that’s basically where I start from and then see where it goes.

T: Interesting. I mentioned the Daiquiri before, but I think there’s some other examples too, very famous sours that actually include the word in their name. We’ve covered a couple of them on this show before including the Whiskey Sour and the Pisco Sour. A couple of things, they’re not served in exactly the same way, but one thing those two drinks do share is the inclusion of egg white. Would you say that’s traditional or untraditional for this template?

M: Absolutely traditional.

T: If we’re talking about a bonafide sour textbook definition, you are always going to include an egg white in that drink or in that conversation, shall we say?

M: Definitely in the conversation.

T: Nice. Nice. I know we’ll get into our ingredients a little bit later. Keen to hear your thoughts on maybe some of the substitutes or what you’re thinking when it comes to eggs. Given that I’ve mentioned the Daiquiri there, why do you think there are some instances that don’t, therefore, include egg white, but do fall into this family? Or is it a case of these drinks aren’t trying to be a, quote-unquote, “traditional sour,” but we still think of them in that way because they follow that kind of roughly 2-1-1 slightly tweaked formula that you spoke about?

M: I think that the sour with the inclusion of the egg white versus how a Daiquiri would be made, I would classify that to myself as a non-traditional type of sour. I think that it comes down to a matter of the chicken and the egg, what came first. If somebody had a non-traditional sour and somehow they were able to add egg white into their mix and get the viscosity or old school bartenders actually putting egg white into their sour mix to get a different type of viscosity, I’m not sure. I know that you can break down that recipe and it appears in everything. You leave the egg white out and you put it in a Collins glass and you add soda and suddenly you have a Collins. You leave it out or you fix it with fruit at the bottom of a glass and you have a fix. That Daiquiri style does pop up in a lot of different places around the Caribbean Planter’s Punch would be a good example. A Ti’ Punch in Martinique, which is sort of an Old Fashioned build with the citrus would be one of those examples. I think that with the egg white being the ingredient that isn’t common in all those other ones, I’m not really sure what came first. I think that in its traditional sense, it would be that sour recipe with that egg white in there. I’m not sure if I answered your question.

T: No, I think it’s fascinating too. When we’re talking about this chicken-and-egg situation, I wonder whether — look, the clue’s in the name, it’s called the sour. It’s not called, I don’t know, the fluffy or whatever. I don’t know what you would call that, but you know what I mean as a template, so maybe that speaks more to it’s a Whiskey Sour, it’s whiskey and citrus. I don’t know. Have you ever had a Daiquiri with an egg white? I’ve never had one and now I’m like, “I would be interested to try that,” though not necessarily convinced it might be good.

M: That’s a good question. I don’t think so.

T: What would we call it? The Daiquiri Sour. Why is it called a Daiquiri Sour? Because it’s got an egg white, of course.

M: Yes. That would be fun to try it. It’s right there. I don’t think I’ve ever done it before.

T: What about some other examples you can give us? We’ve mentioned Daiquiri, Whiskey Sour, Pisco Sour. Are there any ones out there, classic drinks, drinks that if people are looking at this style for the first time, you’re like, “Oh, well, you got to try this,” whether they’re classics or maybe even modern classics too?

M: I think if we’re talking classics and you go back in time when this category was super popular, around the turn of the century, you see it pop up in all sorts of places, a Champagne Sour. You have your French 75 style of build or when brandy or Calvados was a super-popular ingredient, especially around the Caribbean when rum was considered a byproduct of industrial sugar manufacture. You have your St. Croix Rum Sour, Applejack Sour, Brandy Sour, your Gin Sours, which would probably be very fun to try like your Daiquiri Sour. I think classically it seems like bartenders would take things and then add egg whites to them and they probably were fascinated by the viscosity and the texture and the easy-to-drink the egg white will add.

T: Yes, that texture really is so appealing and really transforms the drink. Like you said, it adds weight to it in a way but still remains refreshing. What about from a modern point of view? I think, I don’t know, one cocktail that I always recommend to folks who are just getting into it for the first time and they like bourbon. I’m a big fan of the Gold Rush. That’s a wonderful drink right there.

M: Oh, the Gold Rush is fantastic. This reminds me of years ago, probably around 2008, 2009, 2010 in San Francisco, and that city had so much life in the bar community and the restaurant community, and it still does, but I think it was a special time in that city. There was a cocktail that this place called Beretta in the Mission District used to make. It was a play on a Rattlesnake, which I believe — someone’s going to disagree with me somewhere, but I believe that it’s a Whiskey Sour that had Peychaud’s Bitters in it. They reimagined it and put maple syrup in it. It had the egg white. It had the bitters and it was incredible.

T: Exactly, making one of those tweaks and perhaps adding another little ingredient that doesn’t dramatically change things, like you said, there bitters, and it just unlocks this whole new world of possibilities.

M: I think that they had won a bunch of rewards for that cocktail and it was so simple, but that’s another example of being creative with replacing your sugar, swapping it out for something else.

T: You look back to that gold rush and the creator there, T.J. Siegel. It’s interesting because you’re talking about whiskey, lemon juice, and all you’re doing is adding this honey simple syrup. I think it’s a two-to-one. I’m not exactly sure. I believe it is a rich honey syrup, but that one ingredient creates this, what I would say beloved modern classic. I don’t know. I would imagine there’s probably plenty of other opportunities for those out there looking to come up with their own drinks within the sour category.

M: Absolutely.

T: On that front, you mentioned the rattlesnake there before. We’ve spoken about iconic sours, but are there maybe one or two other lesser-known ones, but the recipes are out there that you’ve come across in your time or maybe you yourself have come up with?

M: Well, something that I’ve seen recently and I’ve made them at home and they’re super delicious, but this Campari Sour, this Feb that’s been popping up lately. I’ve seen it in a couple of different publications, but that’s essentially just sweetened Campari with the addition of the citrus and the sweetness. I think I saw a Negroni Sour, which is crazy and sounds crazy delicious.

T: That sounds wild.

M: Those are two classic cocktails that shouldn’t have those things added to them and they do and they’re outstanding.

The Ingredients Used in Sour Cocktails

T: I get it. It sounds like someone heard about my Daiquiri Sour idea and they’re like, “All right, what else? What other cocktails can we come up with here?” I love that, the Negroni Sour, the Campari Sour. Wonderful. I got to try these drinks. We’ve covered iconic ones. We’ve covered lesser-known ones. Now, let’s dig into these ingredients. I want us to start with citrus because as I said there, the clue’s in the name. We’ve seen that some folks these days tend to order a three-quarter, three-quarter rather than one, one. General rules of thumb when it comes to lemon versus lime, when it comes to matching that with the sweetening agent? Or is this too much of a general topic for us to bring it all under one umbrella there?

M: No. Let’s do it. We should do it because I have a lot of drinks that are out of balance quite often unfortunately when I’m traveling around. That’s a whole different topic entirely, but I think sometimes it’s good to have rules. Sometimes it’s good to break the rules. I think that having a good foundation is when you know what the classics are, when you have that foundation, then and only then can you diverge from that with the knowledge and the wisdom that what you’re going to do is probably going to turn out right because you already have that knowledge established. Citrus, we were talking about the way that I think about that. Where I start from — not always, there’s plenty of instances where this is not to be followed — but starting with a base of three-quarters of lemon and then if it’s lime, an ounce of lime. The lime doesn’t have as nearly as tart as that lemon, so you can back it off a little bit. As far as adding sugar goes, I think that people’s palates are starting to prefer things that are drier and drier. I worked at a high-end Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles for a number of years and it was amazing how many people came and they go, “Hey. Can I have a Margarita? We followed the Tommy’s recipe of tequila, lime juice, agave nectar, and they said, “I don’t want any sugar in it. I just want tequila and lime juice.” We’re all like, “That sounds gross.” Then how many times have we been at a bar and overheard somebody say, “Hey, listen, can I have this, but not too sweet?” It might be their first time there, but they’re probably used to getting things that are very sugary. The beauty of these styles of cocktails is they’re meant to be balanced and so being able to back off on those sweetening agents and whatever sugar they’re using to have a drier cocktail, to have a rounder more balanced cocktail I think is super important. I think it’s definitely worth discussing. Always.

T: When it comes down to that maybe traditionally overly sweet drinks, I do tend to wonder whether that’s because people were using sour mix back in the day and then you’re trying to probably cover up the terrible or less than stellar flavor of those mixes. How do you do that? Well, you just up the sugar and probably add a bit too much booze, and then suddenly no one cares, right?

M: Yes, that’s right. Years ago I worked at those places where we’d make a sour mix and even if it was homemade and you’re just dumping them in — these cocktails aren’t also shaken and prepared properly, but that’s where it comes from. It comes from the dark ages when everything would be in a bottle and everything would be purchased and nothing would be fresh.

T: 100 percent. I feel like that fresh citrus revolution really has — it’s been covered tons of times before, but it seems like something so simple and it really has brought on the advent of this modern cocktail renaissance that we’re enjoying the fruits of today. Beyond lime and lemon, I was wondering about this when you were speaking, are there any other common or readily available citrus fruits that do work in terms of balance in the one-to-one ratio when it comes to alongside the sweetening agent or are we basically talking about we need to get into the realm of acid adjusting?

M: I think we’re near the realm of acid adjusting. I think with the one-to-one sort of thing, grapefruit comes to mind, but it’s going to be too sweet if we do one-to-one on there. Orange juice sucks. I’m not a fan of orange juice. I think it oxidizes very quickly. That’s an acid-adjusting thing. Unless you’re doing what we do at Sorelle in Charleston, throwing the orange straight into a Garibaldi

T: Oh, yes.

M: -that’s super delicious, but that’s another one. Even pineapple. There’s some classic cocktails that don’t call for anything else besides sugar and pineapple juice. We could make those and they’re incredibly out of balance. Nothing that I think comes to mind. I think lime and lemon is where it’s at. Then we can get creative and start throwing acids and stuff and having a good time.

T: I guess if we’re rebuilding here or re-examining this classic definition of the sour, we’re saying traditionally with egg white, but then also, generally speaking, lemon or lime are going to be your citrus of choice unless you want to start getting into those higher-level techniques, we can say.

M: I would agree with that.

T: Traditionally speaking on the sweetening agent front, we’re talking about simple syrup or-

M: Sure. Powdered sugar was another ingredient that was used back in the turn of the century.

T: Interesting. Then, roughly speaking, do you know what that would have been like when it comes to quantities versus — for every one part of citrus, what are you looking at quantity-wise of powdered sugar?

M: Probably very same. If we’re looking at Brandy Sours or Applejack Sours, Champagne Sours, a lot of these didn’t call for simple syrup at all in certain books. They would call for teaspoons of white sugar and that’s how they would balance that out.

T: Therefore, the simple syrup just obviously it’s easy to prepare, clue’s in the name, but also just ease of use at the bar. And in cleanliness, I would imagine too, rather than getting the old teaspoon measure out and maybe spilling some sugar on the bar top, simple just makes things a lot more efficient.

M: I think so. I think it does make it more efficient. There’s a friend of mine that owns a number of restaurants and, very, very good bar programs in Los Angeles. He stays to this teaspoon of sugar. His bartenders on a busy night, they’ve got tickets to the floor and they’re taking little teaspoons, and very daintily spooning their sugar into their cocktails. While not efficient, you’re not adding water. You’re water’s going to come from the dilution. If you’re adding simple syrup to something, technically you’re watering it down, you’re adding a little bit of water to it, even if it’s just a tad. I believe that it does make a difference by having the simple syrup or if you’re teaspoon your sugar in. Whether it’s the correct difference, I think, is subjective. I don’t think there’s necessarily a right or wrong way. I think there’s two roads that lead to the same destination.

T: We cover rich versus standard, simple on this a lot, or Demerara, agave. Are there any other maybe slightly less common sweetening agents that you think work for this drink or you like to utilize behind the bar yourself?

M: I think when we’re talking about different sweetening agents, I think of a Sidecar, which would fall into that non-traditional sour category. They wouldn’t have an egg white in it, but instead of simple syrup, they’re adding curaçao to it. That’s a creative way to sweeten a cocktail up and still allow it to be a little bit dry. Then there’s plenty of syrups that can also add a little complexity to your fruit, to your citrus. A raspberry syrup is a good example of that, which is a classic. Your fruit syrups, your passion fruit, your pineapple syrups. You could stay true to traditional style recipes and then add a whole bunch of flavor by adding some sort of creative syrup to it.

T: Would you fall into the camp yourself of someone who possibly wants to measure the Brix of something or would you rather make a syrup like that or an ingredient and then tweak the specs on the final drink to fit?

M: Yes, that’s the question, isn’t it? This is the one that I’m supposed to — if my friends are listening, I’m supposed to say yes, that I measure the Brix to every syrup that I use. I find myself in a place where that’s low priority for me. Balance and consistency and being able to knock this out quickly with the bar teams that we have. I think it’s no secret that a restaurant’s labor is through the roof, so things like measuring Brix and this and that. There definitely is an application for it. I definitely want to tell you that I do it, but I don’t do it, and I don’t do it enough. At least I think a good application for it is finding a ballpark and then writing a recipe around what you found and then at least you have a benchmark. At least you have the standard where you can start from and then build your recipe on that. It took us long enough to get into measuring out everything to grams and getting bartenders to use a gram scale when they’re making their syrups. I think that taste, flavor, which is a subjective thing, I think balance, all those things are top priority. If all else fails, absolutely, that’s a wonderful tool to have is measuring your Brix. I apologize to all the pastry chefs that are listening to me too.

T: Well, I think that’s a great point there, like a really nice middle ground when it comes to recipe development, which is that when you’re off there on your own R&D-ing cocktails, creating a new syrup for this, you can get that syrup to the Brix that you want and you feel is right. As long as your recipe is accurate and concise, and also maybe takes into account variations and sweetness of ingredients, talk about raspberries. As long as you have that recipe pretty much down, therefore you’re comfortable with a cocktail going forward and you’re not having whoever’s working on the prep shift trying to hit that exact same number every time on the Brix scale. Because like you said, it’s time, effort, and that’s money at the end of the day.

M: Yes, exactly.

T: When it comes to actually building some of these drinks, I mentioned the Gold Rush there earlier, and I’m assuming whether it is two-to-one honey to water or one-to-one, as I’ve mentioned, I forget the exact spec on that, but we’re getting honey to a place where we can actually work with it. Because good honey in a room temperature setting might be semi-solid as it is. However, I feel like when I’m using one of those syrups or maybe in agave, I feel like I worry about some getting left behind in the jigger. When it comes to building these drinks, how do you get around that problem?

M: Well, I think that the way that we train our bartenders is to pour basically a recipe backwards. We would start with this sweetener and the citrus and go from the less expensive ingredient to the most expensive ingredient. Usually being the driver’s spirit at the end. If you make a mistake, you can throw it out and start over and most likely you didn’t waste — you’re not pouring down the drain something that’s very expensive, you caught it before it got that far. If you are using something like that, that has a lot of viscosity and is hard to get out of the jigger, then I would start with that. Then when you add your sweetener or when you add your citrus to it and then you add your spirits to it, it’s kind of washing it out as it goes.

T: Yes, definitely, by the time you get to the end of all the ingredients have gone through the jigger there, you’re pretty sure you got most of it out of the jigger.

M: Again, this is why we hopefully taste things before we serve them. We should taste them before we shake them. We should taste them after we shake them. If it’s something like that, we should be able to catch it by then.

T: All right. Now we can move on to egg white. We’ve said that this is traditionally included in this style of drinks, but doesn’t feature in all of them. For you personally as a drinker’s preference, are you a yes or a no on the egg white front?

M: Your timing’s good, asking this question. I just had a long conversation with some other beverage professionals about this. I’ll give a little history. Back in the day, years ago when people started drinking sours and we started putting egg whites back into cocktails, people were apprehensive. You’re putting a raw egg into my cocktail. We had to explain to them, I had my bow tie and suspenders on and was super excited to explain to him how it was safe and how it was Prohibition to do this and that it was going to make it taste good. Fast forward to now, we have so many other options out there that we can use to substitute this egg white because inevitably, the drink sets and it starts smelling bad. Even if you have really good fresh organic Kipster eggs, it’s still going to smell bad. I’m completely not on the egg white thing anymore. I think that if you’re going to make a drink with egg white, you should drink it very fast, which is usually how I drink most of my drinks — quickly. We use an egg white substitute that we get from Ms. Better’s Bitters in Canada, and I don’t know what it’s in it, but I have a feeling that I have an idea of what’s in it, but it’s amazing. The texture is great, the final product, it doesn’t separate quickly. It’s exactly what you want. I know everybody, we were into aquafaba, the byproduct of garbanzo beans, and that worked out fairly well. There’s a couple of other things and one of my friends Mike, who owns a bar called Thunderbolt in Los Angeles uses hydrocolloids and different additives that you would use for jellying in baking to create syrups that gives you the same texture as you would with an egg white. You’re shaking a cocktail with simple syrup, there’s nothing else in there, and all of a sudden this magic texture comes out. That’s amazing, we have options today. We don’t need to necessarily reach into the dairy department, grab our eggs to make a cocktail.

T: Yes, definitely. If in doubt, yes, just look at what the pastry chefs are doing. You know what I mean? They’re pretty good people to follow when it comes to finding new ingredients and alternatives and whatnot. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’ve had some success with some of those. I forget exactly how they’re sometimes categorized, maybe like foaming agents or whatever. I’ve seen some of those around and been tempted to try them myself, because I’m like I just — even if it’s the freshest egg in the world or whatever, I always seem to get that metallic taste that comes when using this ingredient. I’m like, “Is this worth it? Is the texture really worth putting up with this?” Oftentimes it’s not for me. That’s where we are with that one. Or that’s where I am with that one, I should say, at least. Now, let’s talk about glassware and serve because — actually, tell us, what do you think would be, again, the traditional option here.

M: I think traditionally, there’s probably a lot of people that are smarter than me on this, but I would assume that before coupes and cocktail glasses became commonplace, bartenders were reaching for whatever they had. Whether it was a wine glass, it was a small wine glass, or the Champagne coupe, which started as a Champagne vessel before we decided to put cocktails into it. Those were probably what you would more commonly find. Then I think that as time went on, the glasses started getting more designed around what the drink should have been and smaller to be the perfect volume to look great with the wash line in there. Yes, I think that’s probably where it started from.

T: Then we see, in other instances like the whiskey sour, we’re talking, we move on to this like rocks glass and served on the rocks. I don’t know, to me that kind of feels counterintuitive. Especially if you are including the egg white in the drink, like, aren’t these rocks breaking that up when you’re drinking it?

M: Yes, I think that an Amaretto Sour would probably be something that would come to mind too that you would serve over ice. It does, but it also reminds me of that time when bartenders were adding egg whites to their sour mix, so you could get a Margarita served on the rocks with salt on the rim and it might have egg white in it. It might give it a little bit, so it gives you a little bit of that frothiness. I think the texture is probably the most important element. It’s probably not going to be ideal, but it’s going to definitely be a different experience drinking that texture over ice.

T: Yes. Once again, I’m going to ask your personal preference on this one, or is it a case of horses for courses, depends on the drink, which glassware you’re going for your sours?

M: Oh, I think it’s up to what the drink needs, I think. I think this is why we use egg whites because of the texture. We’re not getting any flavor from it. Or hopefully, anyway, we probably are getting flavor from it. The idea that it would be neutral and be adding a certain level of texture to the drink, which I think is the most important part. I’ve seen guys — and there’s nothing wrong with this — I’ve seen guys use almost like a milkshake frother to froth at their drink. This would be something that they would shake and serve in a coupe and you have an inch of that texture on there, but the actual cocktail has no viscosity in it. It’s just a normal cocktail. It’s just the ingredients sitting there with an inch and a half of foam over the top of the egg white. When you drink it, it doesn’t incorporate itself into the drinks. I think that egg white when you create a drink, when you create sour with this element in it, you should have that texture every single sip from start to finish.

T: That’s a great reminder right there. Yes. Because I think maybe I’ve completely just fell into that trap too, of thinking about texture as a nice head on this drink. No, it’s like the Ramos Gin Fizz situation here where it’s like, “Do you want the head and then a really thin drink between it, or do you want every sip to be consistent?” You’re right, in terms of texture, it’s the ladder that we’re looking for there, right?

M: Sure. Absolutely. Then the Ramos breaks that rule I think because it has the addition of the whipping cream inside of it. That’s giving you a little bit of the texture. Funny, we just bought this old-timey Ramos Gin Fizz machine that you crank the handle and it shakes up like 10 of them. It’s in one of our restaurants.

T: Oh wow.

M: Looks pretty cool. I don’t know how I felt about it, but I think it’s pretty dope.

T: That sounds awesome. Maybe you might want to get it over there at Sorelle in Charleston that you mentioned earlier because I got to admit to you, I was visiting there recently and enjoying some fine drinks, incredible service. One of my companions, former producer of this show, Keith Beavers, ordered his first-ever Ramos Gin Fizz. Some of the other people in our party were like, “No, don’t do it. Don’t be that guy.” Your team was very open to the idea and did a wonderful job of that, too. I don’t think they loved us for it, but they did not make it known in any way that they didn’t appreciate making that drink. You know what? At the end of the day, Keith got to have his first Ramos Gin Fizz. Everyone was happy.

M: That’s amazing. I like that story. I’ve been in service wells where somebody in front of me orders a cocktail that can be time-consuming like that one. I think nine times out of 10, instead of being irritated that I have to make an intense cocktail, which is my job, by the way, I’m actually more just jazzed that they’re excited about something that is not normal. It’s not Casamigos and soda.

T: Exactly.

M: I find that fun. I try to get younger bartenders to think in those terms. There’s a guest that’s coming in that wants this. It might be a pain in the ass, but they’re also excited that you’re going to make it for them. We don’t get that often enough.

T: I got to say, too, it was a real team effort as well. That shaker was getting handed off to people. It was like watching the Olympic relay final there. It was wonderful.

M: That’s amazing.

T: It’s a good one. I’ll be honest, I might have a video of it, so I’ll try and put that online at some point so folks get to see that and how the drink came out. It was wonderful. That is not a sour, as you say. Let’s bring it back to sours now. Mike, I’m going to ask you any final thoughts on the sour category of cocktails today before we move into our quick hit questions?

M: I would just say be careful. Just be careful. Make it taste good. That’s the number one rule, I think, for anybody that is making their cocktails in our restaurants. Don’t use esoteric ingredients for the sake of esoteric ingredients to sound cool on the menu. There’s a reason why the classics don’t go out of style. Make it tasty, make it balanced, taste it a few times, and use fresh ingredients. I think that’s all I have to say about that.

Getting to Know Mike Lay

T: Very nice. Nice stuff there. All right, let’s do it. Let’s move into the five questions. Beginning with number one, Mike, what style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar?

M: Being an Angelino at heart, I would say agave spirits usually happen to take up the majority of the real estate behind my back bars. It’s what I’m passionate about and it’s what I usually end up buying too much of when we’re opening a restaurant.

T: Very nice. It’s a real popular one these days. I feel like the rest of the country is finally catching up with L.A. on that one and their love of agave spirits over there. Question number two, which ingredient or tool do you think is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?

M: Yes, I was thinking about this one. This is a hard one. I think that maybe having access to recipes, classic recipes is an underutilized tool. I think that there’s nothing wrong with pulling out your phone and googling a recipe to make sure that you get it right. I think that could be undervalued. I had a second thought, too. Not in the traditional sense of a bartending tool, but providing a place where you can charge people’s phones, I think, is an undervalued asset behind the bar. We serve people alcoholic drinks, their phone dies, they need to call an Uber, they need to get home. In the spirit of hospitality, it’s something that we should have.

T: Hey, gets that phone out of their hands for a couple of minutes, too, which is always a plus side. No, I jest. I think that’s a really good point. It’s important that when we are serving people alcohol, like you say, they have that available there to them. Number three now for you, what’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?

M: Don’t send an emotionally charged email out in the middle of the night.

T: Tell us about that. Tell us as much as you would like to about that. I think we all maybe get some of the gist of it.

M: Well, I was a new bar manager, and this is back in the day when maybe chefs still do this, but chefs used to yell a lot, and I thought that maybe that’s how I needed to run my bar is by yelling a lot and being an asshole. Somebody did something that pissed 26-year-old Mike off and management. It probably had nothing to do with anything. I remember sending an email out to the GM of the restaurant saying this and that. He took me aside the next day and he goes, “Listen.” He’s like, “I’m just going to tell you this because your career’s going to get cut short if you don’t learn this lesson now. Never send an email like that out in the middle of the night. What you do, draft the email, look at it, read it, go to bed, and then when you wake up in the morning, read it again, and then you’ll know if you need to send it out or not. Most likely you won’t.”

T: Fresh eyes. I like it. All right. Question number four for you. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?

M: This is a hard one. I think that there’s a number of bars out there that I like. I was going to say something to the effect of like, it doesn’t matter as long as I get to hang out with my friends there, but there is one. There is one bar that I would like to go to one last time, and that would be El Carmen in Los Angeles.

T: Nice. Tell us about that.

M: Old-school bar, outstanding agave collection, the staff’s great. I used to go there almost every single night, five nights a week after work. I could walk there from my house. The door guys never remembered me. I got ID’ed every single time. “I’ve been coming here for years. You see me every night.”

T: At what point are they just f*cking with you?

M: “I can’t recognize you.” That would be the place. It’s fantastic.

T: Nice. All right, Mike, final question for you here today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?

M: I got to double down on the El Carmen reference. I’d go in there and they get one of their Pineapple Spicy Margaritas that they have. They have this vat of pineapples that sit in tequila, and I’m not sure what they do with it. I don’t know how long it sits there, if they keep adding to it, or whatnot. Really damn good Spicy Margaritas with this thing. That would be the last drink that I would have.

T: Oh, nice. You talk about there, the much under-appreciated classic pineapple tequila solera system they got going on there.

M: It’s exactly what it is.

T: Sounds great. Well, Mike, thanks so much for joining us today and telling us, exploring all things sours in this special techniques episode of “Cocktail College.”

M: Thanks for having me.

T: Cheers.

OK, 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.