Frisco Sour

A drink for Emperor Norton

Your cocktail calendar entry for: September
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We’re mixing the Frisco Sour today in honor of Joshua Abraham Norton, who proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States on September 17, 1859.  He lived in San Francisco and had no formal political power, but was somehow treated deferentially in the city.  Some considered him insane, others eccentric, but residents of the city celebrated his imperial presence and proclamations.  He may not be the last individual to proclaim dominion over the U.S. but he was a lot more fun than any that followed.

Becoming Emperor Norton

Joshua Norton was born around 1818 somewhere near London.  His family moved to South Africa but he left in 1845 and arrived in San Francisco in 1849.  What he did in between is largely a mystery.

Norton made a success of himself as a commodities trader and real estate speculator and became one of the city’s wealthiest residents.  In late 1852 China banned the export of rice due to famine.  This led to the San Francisco price of rice spiking from four to thirty-six cents per pound.  Norton saw a business opportunity here and when he learned a ship was coming from Peru with 200,000 pounds of rice he tried to corner the market.emperor norton

He bought the entire shipment for $25,000, but then further shiploads arrived from Peru and the local price plunged to three cents per pound.  He tried to void his purchase contract.  Extended litigation ensued, but eventually his real estate holdings were foreclosed to pay the debt.  In August 1856 he filed for insolvency.

Disenchanted with his perceived failings of the US, he delivered a letter to the offices of the Bulletin declaring himself emperor.  As he wrote,

“At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of these United States, I, Joshua Norton, formerly of Algoa Bay, Cape of Good Hope, and now for the last 9 years and 10 months past of San Francisco, California, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States; and in virtue of the authority thereby in me vested….”
— NORTON I., Emperor of the United States.

The paper printed the letter for humorous effect, and Norton’s 21-year “reign” of the United States began.

Emperor Norton’s Reign

Norton spent most of his days inspecting the streets, spending time in parks and visiting newspaper offices and friends.  He outfitted himself with an elaborate blue uniform with gold epaulettes, a beaver hat, a walking stick and an umbrella.  He issued his own money in the form of a scrip which were accepted from him by some restaurants.  The 1870 census lists his occupation as “Emperor.”

All in all, he was a somewhat beloved nutcase.  Police officers saluted him as he passed in the street.  He wrote Queen Victoria several letters suggesting they marry to strengthen ties between nations.  Newspapers started to print fictitious decrees, so weary of this Norton declared the Pacific Appeal as his “imperial organ.”  They accommodated him and published some 250 decrees between 1870 and 1875.  The most prescient was that a bridge should be built between San Francisco and Oakland.  That, of course, is now the Bay Bridge.

Norton was first immortalized as the model for the King in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  In 1939 a group commissioned a plaque to commemorate Emperor Norton’s call for what was then the new Bay Bridge.  Bridge authorities wouldn’t approve it and for a while the plaque hung at the Cliff House.  It’s now on display at the Transbay Transit Center.  Emperor Norton has not been forgotten.

The Frisco Sour

Everyone should know that residents of San Francisco despise the city being referred to as “Frisco.”  Emperor Norton also felt that way and in one of his edicts proclaimed that,

“Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word “Frisco”, which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.”

Twenty five dollars was a lot of money in 1872 when this edict was issued and Norton meant business.  But we’re going to risk the wrath of the Emperor and a hefty fine to bring you the Frisco Sour.  Like all sours it employs a base spirit, a sweetener (in this case Benedictine) and citrus juice.  It’s in the same family as other drinks like the Whiskey Sour, Pisco Sour or Trinidad Sour.

We’re unclear on the precise origin of the Frisco Sour recipe, but it appears in the David Embury’s 1948 work The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.  Some bartenders like to use Bourbon, but we like prefer the spiciness of rye.  If you do opt for Bourbon we would advise reducing the Benedictine as Bourbon generally carries a greater sense of sweetness than Rye.

frisco sour

Frisco Sour

A classic sour, the Frisco Sour follows the standard formula of a base spirit, sweetener, and citrus juice. Born sometime around the 1930s, bartenders have employed either Bourbon or Rye Whiskey. We prefer Rye for its spiciness, but feel free to employ Bourbon here. If you do, though, we'd cut back on the Benedictine as the drink may otherwise seem too sweet.
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  • Nick and Nora or coupe glass


  • 2 oz Rye whiskey
  • ½ oz Benedictine
  • ½ oz Fresh lemon juice


  • Add all ingredients to your trusty shaking tin.
  • Add ice and shake until frosty cold.
  • Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass. No garnish.
  • Drink.
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