The first bar I worked at while I was in architecture school didn’t serve hard liquor. And so, I mainly poured beer from taps, bottles and cans. In fact, I didn’t actually make anything during my first four years behind the bar. But I was still interested in learning how to construct a great cocktail. My education consisted mostly of San Francisco bartender Paul Harrington’s excellent writing on the (now defunct) Cocktail Time section of the Hotwired website. It was there that I discovered the first cocktail I would eventually fall deeply in love with—the Sidecar.
Harrington’s words about the drink’s structure stay with me to this day. “Two parts strong, one part sweet and one part sour,” he wrote. “These are the golden proportions of the classic cocktail, the Pythagorean formula of bibulous bliss. And if you can make a brilliant Sidecar, you can make many a classic cocktail.” Something about this genteel drink’s geometry spoke to me—I was an architecture student after all; as such, I soon set out to master it.
Now, while the blueprint of “two strong, one sweet and one sour” made for a formula that was easy to remember, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something I wasn’t getting about the Sidecar. For years I chalked it up to not yet having developed a sophisticated enough palate to fully appreciate the drink. But after more and more time went by, I realized something that many bartenders are usually too ashamed to admit in public—the Sidecar, when made in such a manner, isn’t sweet enough for me. (Even with its signature sugar-covered rim I didn’t experience the full mouthfeel and rich mid-palate that I experienced in other drinks I enjoyed.)
So I subjected Harrington’s design to a little remodel, adding a teaspoon of rich simple syrup—the secret weapon of any good bartender. Here’s how you make it: Combine one-half pound of sugar with one-quarter pound of water—given the different densities of sugar and water, we always do this by weight and not volume—and heat slowly while stirring from time to time until the sugar is dissolved. And yes, you can even bypass the stovetop for the microwave. It’s that easy.
Oddly enough, these days, Harrington is an architect, and I’m the guy who writes about cocktails online. Fortunately, he still keeps his hand in the restaurant/bar business with a little spot in Spokane, Washington, called Clover. After all these years I still have yet to meet him in person, but when I do, I hope to sit down, over a Sidecar, of course, and talk architecture—the architecture of drinks anyway.
Combine ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake until well chilled. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange or lemon twist.
Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.