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The exact history of the Pink Lady is anyone’s guess, there are various stories because there always are, but for all intent and purpose, this is a post prohibition cocktail. There are references from the 1920s and earlier, but the recipes cited vary so much, one simply cannot find that point of origin. It doesn’t matter, however, as the lineage is known, the Pink Lady is a classic sour, and the history of interest to the modern enthusiast begins in the 1940s.
Before we get to that, let’s first understand what the Pink Lady is. It’s an egg white sour, meaning it follows the formula for a classic sour, and is shaken with an egg white. Using egg whites, or whole eggs in cocktails is not new, Jerry Thomas documented the practice in 1862, and there are other known uses as far back as the 17th century. Egg whites in a drink create a silky soft texture, just like they do in a meringue. For a meringue, you foam up the egg with a beater instead of a shaker, but the end result is the same.
In a Pink Lady you will also find grenadine, which is the ingredient that makes it pink. When served, as with all egg white sours, the egg white creates a decadent layer of foam on top of the drink. There are versions with cream, but still just as foamy and just as pink, and, by the 1950s, it had become a problem.
You see, the Pink Lady has the misfortune of being the first of the so called “girly drinks,” likely because of both the color, and its popularity among ladies of society in the years leading up to World War II. By the 1950s it had become associated with Jayne Mansfield, who apparently enjoyed one before her evening meals, and the die was cast. The Pink Lady was a drink for women.
The press of the day was, as one can imagine, supremely chauvinistic about the whole thing, managing, in the process of their journalistic disdain, the creation of a new category of cocktail we know today as the “girly drink.” Define “girly drink” as you wish, we’ll have none of it. In fact, the greatest misfortune of all is that the Pink Lady fell out of favor in mid-century America for no other reason than it was considered feminine.
Fast forward to today. The Pink Lady is once again a recognized cocktail, one of history’s classics. Gone is the nonsense about who it’s for, replaced with an informed respect for what a fine, balanced cocktail it is, and that largely comes from not only quality ingredients, but from the egg white. Managing the end result, however, requires some attention to technique.
Egg whites work because of protein. When egg whites are agitated, the proteins, initially intertwined, unravel. The unraveling of the protein strands traps air, which develops foam. The more you beat an egg white, the stiffer the foam. This change in the proteins results not only in foam, but the foam’s white color. In a cocktail like the Pink Lady, it’s the resulting white layer that sits atop the finished drink.
When selecting eggs for cocktails, find the smallest, freshest ones you can. Small or medium eggs are all you need, but they must be fresh. It helps to have a hen, but, if that’s not an option, a farmer’s market will do, and don’t frown. Pay the extra money for fresh eggs, get them home immediately, and put them in the refrigerator. Less than fresh eggs can sometimes have a faint musky odor, which is not pleasant when first raising your glass. As for the dangers of consuming raw eggs, don’t worry, eggs on their own are far less dangerous than things like fast food, and the alcohol and citrus will mitigate any problems, however, if you’re squeamish, you can use pasteurized eggs, but be prepared to deal with the odor by expressing a bit of oil from a lemon twist over the finished cocktail.
The foam is created in an egg white cocktail by first dry shaking the ingredients. In a Pink Lady, the ingredients are gin, applejack, lemon, grenadine, and syrup. Syrup is something we like to add for balance, and a bit of sweetness. Without it, the cocktail can be a bit dry, and as far as sours go, we like a nice dry White Lady, or Pegu Club, but we want our Pink Lady sweet and more like a Clover Club. The apple brandy will bring some sweetness, but the grenadine will bring both sweet and tart. A bit of sugar balances everything out for what we think is a better drink than the traditional, especially since we favor dry gin. In this case, it’s Portland Dry Gin 33 from New Deal Distillery, a nice, dry, juniper focused gin crafted with an expertly restrained hand. It’s clean, crisp, and matches well with Clear Creak 2 Year Apple Brandy. Apple brandy is also something not always used in this cocktail, but we like a Pink Lady exactly because of the brandy. A quality grenadine is a must, and we recommend RAFT Essentials Grenadine, which may be a little darker than other brands, but it’s natural, made in Portland, and we’re not too worried about the resulting shade of pink. Pink is pink, and we’re happy with our ingredients and how well they work together.
All of this, of course, goes in a shaker without ice. Close the shaker and shake vigorously. This is the dry shake, and this is where the foam is developed, so don’t hold back. Shake like crazy, and, as you will do at first, make a mess. Dry shaking is an important step, but, regardless which style shaker you prefer, there is no ice to chill and seal the metal. Some bartenders will, as we will, toss an ice pebble in the shaker with the dry shake, which helps form a seal, but, in any case, a dry shake requires attention should the vessel leak.
Once you’ve shaken the drink without ice, open the shaker, add some ice, and go at it again. Shake as vigorously as before, and let the ice chill and aerate the cocktail, not so much forming any more foam, but keeping it foamy. We like to shake our egg white cocktails with one big cube of ice, but use what you got. It all works, then strain into a glass, wait a moment, and marvel at the foamy head on top. There is a school of thought that says you can develop even more foam with a reverse dry shake, i.e. shaking with ice first, then dry shaking after you’ve chilled the drink, but we don’t recommend it. In our opinion, a reverse dry shake doesn’t make that much more foam, but it can warm the cocktail as your hands warm the shaker. Call us perfectionists, or traditionalists, we’ll take less foam and more cold than the other way around.
In the end, the Pink Lady, like all egg white cocktails, is well worth the effort, and we caution against prejudice and outdated pop culture associations of who can drink what, for those who reject social insecurities are the real winners. They know the sublime wonder of the Pink Lady.
Add all ingredients to a shaker, and shake vigorously without ice. Add ice to the shaker, and shake again, just as vigorously. Serve up, garnish with a cherry, or two. Or three.