It’s a fun story. I’ve also heard it was her bloomers. Or a red horse blanket. Or pink riding tights. Once immensely popular and as American as apple pie, pink lemonade was indelibly linked to circuses and roasted peanuts but the story of its accidental washtub creation is just a little too tidy — and sufficiently risqué — to hold water. It sounds like a story for rubes and marks. For a more satisfying take on early examples, turn to another storied American institution: the saloon.
Early bartender’s manuals include dozens of recipes for lemonade — versions with seltzer, with claret, with port, with sherry, or with the almond-and-orange flower syrup orgeat abounded. If a customer asked for lemonade “with a wink” or “with a stick in it,” he’d be getting a jolt of whiskey. The same customer could get lemonade shaken with an egg. One could even belly up to lemonade with milk or cream — although these were generally strained since lemon juice curdles cream and Cement Mixer shots were as yet not in vogue.
Some of those fancy lemonades — especially with claret and port — could range anywhere from pinkish to purple, but flat-out pink examples could be made with a range of syrups, tinctures, and bitters. Strawberry, raspberry, and grenadine were popular syrups, but cinnamon and cochineal (a red tincture derived from a Oaxacan scale insect) saw some action as well. One might swap out tea for the water (sorry, Arnold Palmer: you weren’t the first) or add a bit of phosphate.
That’s all well and good, each refreshing in its own way, but I prefer the complexity of lemonades spiked with bitters and more than a few cocktail bitters turn lemonade a blushing hue. Recipes for Angostura Lemonade, for instance, appear in early manuals such as Frank Meier’s The Artistry of Mixing Drinks (1936), George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks (1900) and J.A. Grohusko’s 1910 classic Jack’s Manual.
Angostura bitters do indeed lend a hue to the drink that suggests pink, but there’s no denying the roseate blush brought on by a dose of the old New Orleans standard, Peychaud’s. Most bitters I’ll stir right into the lemonade, but the bright red Peychaud’s makes a striking float. Eventually, I stir it in, but there’s something almost seductive in a crimson slick, sending down little tendrils of pink melting ice causes the drink to swirl just a bit in the glass, reminding me that — at the moment — I’ve got nowhere to be.
Kappeler calls for a modest three dashes in his version. Others bump it to a teaspoon per serving. I’d say the final balance of sweet, sour, and bitter is up to your individual taste. Play with the proportions to come up with a formula you like, but here’s what I’ve been doing:
Pink LemonadeOne may also put a stick in it, though I'd ease off the water if that's the path you want to take. Other bitters that won’t pink your drink, but are worthy additions to a bittered lemonade:
3 oz fresh lemon juice
3 oz cold filtered water
1.5 to 2 oz simple syrup
3 dashes to 1 tsp bitters (dealer's choice)
Shake the lemon juice, water, and syrup over ice. Strain into a highball glass over fresh ice and top with a float of bitters. Serve with a spoon.
- The Bitter Truth’s Repeal Bitters — only 600 bottles were made to commemorate the 75th anniversary of end of Prohibition, but its intense cinnamon, cardamom, and citrus make it worth seeking out. Just a few dashes going a long way. If you can’t score or bum some from a cocktail geek, try Stephan Berg and Alexander Hauck’s other offerings such as Jerry Thomas’ Own Decanter Bitters. the-bitter-truth.com
- Urban Moonshine’s organic maple bitters. Maple syrup crops up in lemonade recipes now and then, so I gave these spray-bottle bitters a shot and liked the vaguely sweet and sweetly-spiced notes they lend to the drink. Either spritz the glass before adding the lemonade or give it a misting once you’ve poured over ice. Available in larger sizes. www.urbanmoonshine.com
1. Cerf, Bennett. “Try and Stop Me.” Reading Eagle 10 October 1961.
Photo © 2010, Douglas Dalay.