The Lemon Drop Cocktail: A definitive guide

In the course of being a bartender you encounter a lot of prejudices against certain drinks and spirits.  Some people will regale me with reasons why gin is an abomination. Some will tell me about how there is only one vodka worth buying. Other times I get to hear about how Long Island Ice Teas are for college kids or Jäger is for idiots.  I’ll admit, I too have plenty of prejudices… for example I firmly believe that Smirnoff Ice should be illegal to sell on the grounds that nobody over 21 consumes it, therefore their entire customer base is underage.  Few spirits or cocktails have quite as many vocal ‘haters’ as the Lemon Drop Cocktail.

pictured: not class
Remember kids, just say no to shitty alcohol. Have some class.

I happen to personally believe that the Lemon Drops’ reputation is unfairly earned.  I know, I know… it’s so basic.  It’s so… “white girls first time drinking”.  Ordering one just screams “I don’t know what to order but I’ve heard of this thing!” While this may all be true, it doesn’t mean it’s not a great drink that deserves a little bit more appreciation.

No affiliation, just a great picture.

The Basic Recipe:

At it’s core, a lemon drop cocktail is a vodka sour.  It consists of Vodka, Lemon Juice, and sugar (simple syrup, superfine sugar, etc.)  This is one of those very very basic recipes where a little goes a long way.  At Lucidi Distilling, the bar where I work, we use the following recipe, the one that I stand by here and forever:

2 oz Vodka (we use Ventilate Vodka, the stuff we make, but any good clean vodka will do)
.75 oz lemon juice (fresher is better every time)
.75 oz Simple Syrup 

If you substitute Whiskey in to this recipe, then it is the exact same way that I make a Whiskey sour, which is generally considered to be a nice, masculine drink.  Swap out Rum and Lime, then it is a Classic Daiquiri, which admittedly might have a bit of a girlish reputation but not nearly so much as the Lemon Drop.  If we do Tequila and Lime then we have a true Margarita… not a girly drink at all… so then why is it that so many people refuse to even consider ordering a lemon drop?

I cannot reiterate enough that a lemon drop stands on its own as a classic cocktail.  It is perfect for summertime refreshment (or if you are like me and live where it’s always hot, wintertime refreshment too).  That said, one of the best things about a delicious clean-slate drink like this is the opportunity to build on it further and to showcase other flavors more intensely.  In every element of the drink you have the opportunity to create something that is perfect for either your drinker or your occasion (or both!)

What Vodka should go in my Lemon Drop?

It’s a sad truth that with the modern cocktail revolution, a great deal of people are suddenly finding their pallets much too refined for vodka.  “It’s neutral”, “it’s boring”, “it’s overdone”. This cannot be farther from the truth, and the fact that vodka is still one of the best selling spirits in the world testifies to that.  Besides, a high quality neutral spirit are some of the best carriers for other flavors, it’s that clean slate like I mentioned earlier.  Though I will say, in this drink the vodka is not, and should not be, front and center in a Lemon Drop Cocktail.  The Lemon is. That’s what makes this drink so great.

Try Some Infusions

For those that think we can do better or who have grown weary of plain lemon-y flavor (how??), I strongly recommend switching it up by trying infused flavored vodkas.  Like most simple things, the lemon drop makes one of the best building blocks from which to begin exploring new flavors and combinations.  Flavored vodkas are a really great way to bring more depth and character to this drink while still keeping it simple and to the point.

herbs and citrus

For a more modern cocktail-bar approach, I would recommend trying some herbal flavors, lemongrass in particular.  A lemon peel & lemongrass vodka is remarkably easy to infuse at home and is exactly the kind of upscale twist that you would find at your favorite (over priced) hang out.  Depending on your taste buds and what you might be serving for your occasion, rosemary or basil would also make fabulous additions to the classic lemon drop cocktail.  A Citrus infused vodka is either the mandatory vodka for a lemon drop or simply the preferred one depending on who you talk to.  In this context “citrus” usually means lemon, but lime and orange are often included in these infusions.  It’s a great opportunity to find your preferred citrus balance.

Really, start with small batches before you do a whole bottle.  I’m talking from experience.
Fruits and Vegetables

For those who might be more fruit- inclined there is also good news.  You would be hard pressed to find a fruit that doesn’t lend itself beautifully to this cocktail.  Blackberries, Strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are all fabulous infusers and easy to acquire.

In my opinion you should avoid watermelon infusions simply because there is so much liquid in a watermelon that the flavor doesn’t ever really come through the way you want it to.  Also, at least in my county, the health department doesn’t allow infusions made with melon (for reasons that I didn’t quite hear and can’t seem to find any more information on).  I know they threw away about 6 gallons of Watermelon infused Tequila at another restaurant, so better safe than sorry.  Some vegetables also make fabulous infusions, cucumber in particular makes for a fantastic addition to the lemon drop, especially on a hot summer day.

Lets say you like the idea of changing it up and elevating your lemon drop but you don’t want to do infusions or flavored vodkas… don’t worry! There are options for you too!

The Lemon

No, you can’t change this.  Move along.

Just kidding, you can’t change the lemon to something else, but you do have a little bit of decision making.  With lemons the only really big choice you can make is Fresh vs. 4-6 hours.  Once you squeeze the lemon it will alter over the course of a few hours becoming a little more mellow.  In the United States bartenders tend to use juice that is 4-6 hours old while in Europe the trend is more towards fresh juice right into the cocktail.  Taste tests have been pretty varied but it generally seems that people prefer the juice that they are more used to so it’s up to you what you want to choose.  If you want to know more about how they are chemically different, I strongly recommend Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold. For the record, I always squeeze my juice right into the shaker since I like a little more bite from my lemons.

As for really mixing it up, I will say that I have seen a recipe for smoked lemonade before where they put the lemons in a smoker with apple wood chips and infused them with that fine apple smoke flavor.  This seems like an awful lot of work for not a huge yield per lemon but if you happen to be smoking something anyways, don’t be afraid to give it a try.  This could create a real depth and character that a lot of people think is lacking in the classic lemon drop.

What Syrup should I use in my Lemon Drop?

Mason jars are cuter, but squeeze bottles are cheaper and a hell of a lot easier to use

Make It with Fruit

Simple Syrups are varied beyond belief and a lot easier to make than most people realize.  As with the flavored vodkas, substituting a fruit infused syrup can really elevate your cocktail.  For making at home, I have found that blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, watermelon, cherry and generally any ‘wet’ fruit are easiest to make.  These will change your lemon drop in a very noticeable way.

Try a different sugar

If you’re looking for a little bit more subtlety, try using a different sugar when you make your simple syrup, like a raw turbinado or brown sugar.  These will give you a richer texture with more flavor while sticking to the classic lemon drop style.  Side note, they will affect the color pretty drastically so keep it in mind if you don’t want a light brown-ish lemon drop.

Get Freaky with it

I can also wholeheartedly recommend adding a very slight amount of the following flavors to give a subtle but fabulous spin on your lemon drop: Vanilla, lavender, caramel, or violet or elderflower.  If you choose to make these at home I recommend making very small batches as they will likely go bad before you can use it all for lemon drops, or find something that you want to use it in like coffee or some sort of dessert.

Wait, No, not that freaky

I will caution against vegetable syrups for the most part… if you want to include vegetables or most herbs, you are much much better off doing so in your vodka.  There is a reason alcohol has been used for thousands of years to capture the essence of flavors… it does it much better than sugar ever could.

Though Vodka isn’t nearly as fun to lick off the rim of a glass…

Recommended Syrup Brands

When it comes to syrups, I will always endorse making them at home… but also sometimes I’m lazy too and it’s okay.  If you can find them, the Reál syrups are as close to home made as you will find on the market.  Monin is a close second and a lot easier to find, particularly at AJ’s or Whole Foods in their specialty coffee section.  I cannot truly recommend Finest Call but if that’s all that is available then it’s better than nothing.  This is, of course, referring to flavored syrups only.

With a regular simple syrup you should always, always, always make it at home.  If you have sugar and water then you already have what you need.  If you don’t have sugar or water and you’re reading this blog you should seriously re-prioritize, though I am flattered.

Let’s Put it all Together

So now you know how to change up your lemon drop, lets talk about the different combinations you can try.  Between the vodka and the simple syrup you have an awful lot of different ways to go so I’ll give you a few of my personal favorites

Vodka + Flavored Syrup + Lemon

Black Cherry Vodka + Simple + touch of vanilla
Vanilla Vodka + Blackberry Syrup
Cucumber Vodka + Turbinado syrup
Blackberry Vodka + Simple + Touch of elder flower syrup
Lavender Vodka + Honey syrup
Rosemary Vodka + Apple syrup

Blackberry Elderflower Lemon Drop… Sounds fancy, huh?

Make It Your Own

As you can see, there are endless opportunities for diversification.  Look at what is in season, look at what you are serving for dinner that day, or maybe just walk through your produce isle and see what jumps out at you (Figuratively).  It’s been my experience that people who are not behind the bar give a little more credit than is due for creativity when it comes to flavor combos.  If you have a good, solid base from which  to build your drink then you are most of the way towards a great cocktail.  Trust in your taste buds and your instinct.  If things seem like they should go together then give it a try! What’s the worst that could happen, you don’t like it and you don’t make it again? A classic lemon drop recipe is probably one of the best foundations you can have to start learning about flavor combinations and how to experiment with a cocktail and anyone can do it, yourself included.

“She’s laughing like she’s eating salad but all I see is a cocktail…?”

Thanks for reading everybody, Live well, Drink better and I hope you have a fantastic new year!

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Published by Spirit Sirens

Head Mixologist and Class Coordinator at Lucidi Distilling Co. in Old Town Peoria, Arizona. In my free time I eat good foods, drink good drinks and make mead with my brother. Soon to be on YouTube with Lucidi Distilling Co. making drinks and talking history and under Spirit Sirens, where myself and my partner Mariah talk about women in the alcohol industry and our experiences!

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