Homemade Cocktails — Experiments, Critiques & Travels
When I think Spring, I think gin cocktails. Gin sours, to be exact, though I never seem to drink a plain ol’ gin sour — it’s always a variation, like the Aviation, the Fitzgerald, or the Tom Collins…or that praise-worthy classic, the Southside.
- 2 ounces Gin [Plymouth]
- 3/4 ounce Lemon Juice
- 1/2 ounce Simple Syrup [1.3 to 1]
- 8-10 mint leaves [Spearmint]
- 1/2 ounce soda water, reserved
Lightly muddle the mint leaves with the syrup, then add the gin and lemon juice. Shake with ice, add the soda water to the shaker, then fine strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Adapted from The PDT Cocktail Book and EO’s Speakeasy, among others.
Cool, concentrated, and herbaceous, the South Side is perfect on a Spring day, particularly when the weather has a hard time deciding whether it wants to be warm and sunny or rainy and chilly. The Plymouth makes for a velvety drink, meshing perfectly with the coolness of the spearmint, while the soda and lemon add acidity and liveliness that keep the syrup in check. The drink reminds me of a sweetened pinot grigio, at least in terms of body and acidity.
Like any simple Sour, a lot of modifications are possible with the Southside. You could switch the brand of gin for a more subtle variation (a junipery London Dry or crisp Death’s Door? the funky Catoctin Creek? Peppery Junipero? Floral Aviation?), use flavored syrups, or maybe swap the lemon for lime (very common in this drink). The proportions are easily adjustable, as well. You can even get some champagne involved and make a Southside Royale.
Speaking of bubbles, you’ll often see the Southside referred to as the Southside Fizz. If that’s the case, the drink has simply been “lengthened” after shaking by pouring it into a tall glass filled with ice — or a Fizz glass with no ice — and topping it with a couple ounces of club soda. If you use champagne instead of soda, it’s an Imperial Southside Fizz.* While I like the Southside Fizz on hot summer days, I’ll take the more concentrated cocktail/up version in Spring. I borrowed the soda trick in the above recipe, by the way, from Employees Only in NYC: it evenly incorporates the soda into the drink without the violence of shaking and prevents the lackluster separation inherent in topping off.
Then, of course, there’s the mint: there are lots of varieties out there, but I stick with spearmint. I think peppermint is too vegetal, more savory and grass-like, whereas spearmint is smooth and cool, blending well with sugar, citrus, and alcohol, and there’s enough herbal sharpness in the gin already. Plus, the mint is growing like crazy in our herb garden right now, so why not use it?
Employees Only suggests using a julep strainer after shaking, so as not to “reduce the body and the ornamental presence of the shaken mint.” I disagree — I don’t feel like drinking shredded herbs, so I double-strain my Southside, which still leaves you with some ornamental flecks, but nothing that impairs sipping. Should you extend the drink into a Fizz, however, I would suggest garnishing with whole mint leaves, since some of the mint flavor will be lost when more soda is added.
As for the Southside’s history, it looks to be a mess, though there are three commonly-given origins: 1) during Prohibition at Jack & Charlie’s (now the 21 Club), a speakeasy in New York City; 2) the Southside Sportsmen’s Club on Long Island, some time near the turn of the 20th Century; 3) a long-forgotten speakeasy somewhere on the South Side of Chicago, where it was created to mask the foul flavors of bathtub gin supplied by gun-toting gangsters. The gangster story is colorful, yet vague and untraceable, and the addition of mint to a gin sour seems too delicate a touch for the rough-and-tumble world of Prohibition-era Chicago. According to EO’s Speakeasy, the 21 Club has made the Southside its signature drink and has mixed them up for decades, so it may as well be theirs.
When checking the library, we can see that the first mention of a South Side Cocktail comes from McElhone’s 1927 Barflies and Cocktails, quickly followed by Craddock’s Savoy Cocktail Book in 1930. Both books’ instructions suggest that the drink has origins as a Fizz, however, since both say to serve the drink in a tumbler and top it with soda. Checking the “Fizzes” section of the Savoy, we find the South Side Fizz. On a hunch, I checked Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks, and sure enough, there’s the South Side Fizz, so both Craddock and McElhone borrowed the drink from Ensslin, as they did with many others.
The key fact, however, is that Ensslin’s book was first published in 1916, predating both the 21 Club and the Chicago gangsters — so neither one of them is responsible for the South Side Fizz. Plus, the Fizz, as a class of drink, had its heyday in the Classic Age of the Cocktail (1885-1920), when the Southside Sportsmen’s Club was at its height. The leisurely Long Island crowd seems more likely to sip on a light, minty concoction after a trying tennis match or fishing trip, anyway, so I’m willing to credit the Southside Club with the Southside Fizz’s invention. When Fizzes declined in popularity and Prohibition set in, folks probably left out the soda and started calling it a Southside Cocktail, which I’m sure you could easily find at the 21 Club or any snazzy speakeasy in Chicago.
Regardless of all this, it’s a wonderful, refreshing drink, and relatively easy to make when you have a good supply of mint on hand. Cheers!
Photos by IJL.
*Note: Most folks use “Imperial” to describe a Fizz made with champagne and “Royale” for a drink served “up” and topped with champagne. Why the difference? Well, when you add a whole egg to a Fizz, it becomes a “Royal” Fizz — you can see how confusion would result. Did you order a Royal Fizz or a Fizz Royale? Are you looking for an egg or champagne? Heck if the bartender knows.
Also, keep in mind that the Imperial Fizz is a drink in its own right, containing whiskey, rum, and lemon. A lot of bars — like PDT — use Moët & Chandon Imperial champagne and simply adopt the “Imperial” moniker to up the ante when naming their fizzes. And finally, if you make a Gin Fizz with Champagne, it’s a Diamond Fizz — or would it be a French 75?