“What’s your favorite drink to make?”
We bartenders get this question all the time, and I used to only give sarcastic answers. The concept made no sense to me. Favorite drink to make? Does an accountant have a favorite number to add? Most bartenders I know still give non-answers to this, from the sanctimonious “the cocktail that makes each guest the happiest” to the lazy “I absolutely love to pour shots” and everything between. But personally, my mind was changed on this point when I was lucky enough to come across Hidetsugu Ueno, because if you were to go to Tokyo, step down into Bar High Five and ask Ueno-san about his favorite drink to make, he’d happily respond, “the White Lady.”
Ueno is a bartending legend. Immaculate technique, effusive service, suspenders that perfectly match his necktie, the whole package. He’s also, with a solid command of English and a showman’s flair, the Neil deGrasse-Tyson of Japanese bartending, both a skilled practitioner of the art and its enthusiastic translator to the masses, and his answer to the above question is clear. “For Japanese bartenders,” he says, “it’s very important to have one of the very popular classic cocktails as a signature.” It is perhaps a stereotype of Japanese culture that their definition of mastery more narrowly focuses on small details more than ours, but that certainly seems true of their bar world. “We have bartenders who are called Mr. Martini, Mr. Gimlet, Mr. Sidecar… I was lucky to get the White Lady as my signature cocktail.”
The White Lady is Gin, Cointreau, and Lemon Juice. Its origin story involves a fairly dull dispute and I’ll spare you the details, but the cocktail took its current form in the foundational Savoy Cocktail Book, published in 1930. Within the decade bartenders would start using egg white as well, which is still what most people do today. Ueno is unusual in that he goes without—“people here,” he says of Japan, “don’t prefer [it].” Both ways are correct—the egg white is a safety net, more on that below—but either way, watching him prepare a White Lady is a powerful argument for his method of execution, as well as Japanese bartending in general, and, for that matter, eyeglasses, pompadours and Winchester shirts.
But as much as anything, it’s an argument for having a signature cocktail, something to master, on which to obsess and stake your reputation, which is why when I’m asked my favorite drink to make, I no longer respond with something like “people say I’m amazing at opening cans of beer.”
- 1.5 oz. gin
- 0.75 oz. lemon juice
- “Fat” 1 oz. (1 oz. + barspoon) Cointreau
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice, and give it a long, hard shake, about eight to 10 seconds. Strain off the ice into a chilled coupe or Martini glass, and garnish with an orange peel.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Egg white vs. No Egg White: Egg white here is, as mentioned, a safety net. This cocktail is essentially a Sidecar, but with Cognac’s broad oaky shoulders replaced with the crystalline and piercing gin, and so it is extremely difficult to get the balance just right. An egg white cushions these flavors, allowing more room for error. Most modern recipes use one, and I’d never say that’s wrong.
My problem with the egg white is that while it makes it less dangerous, it also makes it less compelling and just reminds me of cocktails I’d rather drink. I like the knife-edge balance of Ueno’s version and I like how it evolves as it warms.
Gin: This recipe is surprisingly forgiving, and pretty good across styles of gin. The softer touch of Plymouth is great, the tea in brands like Drumshanbo and Beefeater 24 is great, but my favorite across my tests was the classic Tanqueray, which Ueno also uses, and which has a full mid-palate and a lovely spice teased out by the orange peel.
Cointreau: Cointreau is called out by name in pretty much every recipe you can find, and there’s no good reason to not insist on it. There’s also the obligatory mention of Combier, which is similar to Cointreau in all important respects, though I admit I didn’t test it this week for White Ladys.
Lemon Juice: You can find whole paragraphs about the care Ueno takes in juicing his lemons, so as to invite from them more sweetness and not make them “too sour.” You can imitate this if you want to. I accepted a long time ago that I am not and will never be a Japanese bartender, but suffice to say, your lemon juice needs to be fresh. When there’s only three ingredients, each one needs to be great. If all you have is pasteurized lemon juice you bought from the store, you can make plenty of good gin drinks, but you shouldn’t make this one.
Garnish: Most recipes present the White Lady without a garnish, but I feel strongly that an orange peel really helps. The orange oils expressed over the glass serve to coax some lovely spice out of the gin, reinforce the liqueur, and offer a small but valuable buffer for the otherwise precarious balance.