Sweet and Sour Mix is a shortcut. Unfortunately it is often taught as THE way to make a cocktail. It is very rare if ever that a bartender or an up-and-coming mixologist first learns about Simple Syrup mixed with fresh lemon or lime juice as the correct way to mix cocktails. That is a shame.
Sometimes sweet and sour mix is packaged under a drink name like Collins Mix, Margarita Mix or Sour Mix, but they are all just a mix of sour and sweet ingredients. The problem with using these mixes is that you as a mixologist can not control this very important ratio. Different drinks call for different ratios of the mixture and using a pre-mix does not give you that option.
Now… in high volume liquor and mixer type establishments I would pretty much expect to be served a Whiskey Sour with a mix (that means I won’t order it there). It is understandable that these places are using the mix. That is because they are doing such large volumes of drinks to people who most likely won’t discern the difference in the first place.
However… in higher end establishments I would expect the bar keep to be mixing up a mix of lemon juice, simple syrup, and whiskey in my Whiskey Sour. Unfortunately, from my experience this is not the case.
A lot of times when I ask how come they don’t use simple syrup I get the, “because that is the way management wants it” answer or a blank stare. The blank stare tells me they just don’t know any better. However the information in this post will change managements mind for those others.
If you work in an establishment that has a chef who prepares epicurean delights and takes pride in the menu and ensuring the correct flavors go well together… this will be easy. The cocktail is the first course of the night for any dinning experience. Tell your chef this and you will have a strong ally instantly.
Would chefs use gravy from a jar? (You might be smacked down at the suggestion) Hell no! They will make their own so that they can control the consistence of the gravy. So why is it that Ragu is not used in the kitchen but sweet and sour mix is used at the bar? Bartenders are cocktail chefs, pitch yourself as this. (I would even suggest printing business cards with the title of Bar Chef. Perception is 90% of reality.)
Cost: Cost is one reason that management will hit you with concerning fresh juices and simple syrup. The price of the mix can run you around $5 for a 32 oz container. Let’s compare that to the cost of the same amount of simple syrup and lemon and lime juice. Of the 32 oz, 18 oz is simple syrup and 14 oz is lemon or lime juice.
18 oz simple syrup:
9 oz water – Free
9 oz sugar – 6 cents per oz = $0.54
14 oz lemon or lime juice:
14 lemons - $3.50
Total homemade mix = $4.04
Time: The time it takes to mix up a batch of mix or time spent squeezing fruit would be another excuse. Simple Syrup can be made using 1 part water and one part superfine sugar. With these ingredients you actually do not need to heat the mixture and can have a bottle of syrup made up in seconds. This can be done on a Monday afternoon before the busy time and the syrup can last for weeks.
It is true that squeezing fruit on the spot can slow down the bartender as they are preparing a drink. However the time spent, cutting a lemon in half, and putting it in a hand juicer can be done in 5 seconds or less. Plus this will really impress the guests. If you feel you can't spare the 5 seconds you can pre-squeeze the juices for the night. Fresh juice can last 2 to 3 days if it is refrigerated.
Probably the best way to change the mind of management is to have them do a taste test. Make them a Whiskey Sour made with sour mix and then another made with lemon juice and simple syrup. Then ask the manager which drink a guest of this fine establishment would expect to be served.
Go ahead, join the crusade. I have a bumper sticker I can sell you… it reads Nix Sour Mix.