August 25 is National Whiskey Sour Day so as you might expect we’ll be getting into those today. It’s an old classic, of course. First we have a bit of history, which as you might expect for anything involving booze has some uncertainty. We’ll discuss the Whiskey Sour recipe, along with mention of some variants like the New York Sour.
Origins of the Whiskey Sour
As you’ll recall from the Improved Whiskey Cocktail on World Cocktail Day, the definition of the genre fell into place in the very early 1800s. At that time the term “cocktail” referred to liquor, sugar, water and bitters. Simple as that, nothing more and nothing less.
Long before then, though, the British Royal Navy was for all practical purposes making a cocktail that added citrus juice. Necessity is the mother of invention, and adding prevention of scurvy was good motivation. The rum ration, the Grog that we discussed on Black Tot Day, is a prototype sour. Even if they didn’t apply that name.
They also weren’t called sours early on while the concept of the cocktail was being developed in the U.S. What was known then as a “Fix” consisted of a spirit, lemon juice, sugar – really what we now think of as a sour – with a bit of water added and assorted fruits to garnish.
The term sour started to emerge in the early 1860s. In Jerry Thomas’ work The Bar Tender’s Guide the relevant section is entitled Fixes and Sours. The only difference between them is that the sour eliminates all fruits except for a piece of lemon, “the juice of which must be pressed in the glass.” Then the added water disappeared, moving the drink more firmly from punch to cocktail.
The sours concept took off and has been a staple of the cocktail world since. The Whiskey Sour recipe is simple, easy to make, and friendly to experimentation. The Whiskey Sour itself largely reigned supreme in the sours family until the Margarita came along in the 1960s.
Making a Whiskey Sour
While the concept of a sour is just a template, akin to the Flip and the Caipifruta. While our focus today is just the classic Whiskey Sour there are many options. Bartenders were creating variations from the get go in the 1860s, and the basic trinity of whiskey, sugar and lemon remained but were joined by things like Cointreau, wine and what have you.
There’s leeway if you’re so inclined, but our Editorial Board believes you should limit things to the optional egg white. Adding a red wine floater creates a New York Sour, and that’s a separate call in any respectable bar. Egg white adds a foam to the top of the drink and an very different mouthfeel, and is acceptable – it’s still a Whiskey Sour. Egg white can, at times, give off a bit of a wet dog small, so sours made with egg white will often have a few dashes of bitters on top, just as we covered with the Pisco Sour.
You also get leeway with respect to the ratios of lemon juice and sugar. That’s a matter of personal taste, but be prepared to get some serious side eye if you tell a bartender their Whiskey Sour is too sour or too sweet. The Whiskey Sour recipe we describe is just how we make them. You’re free to go more sour or more sweet.
Finally, this drink can be served up or on the rocks. We’re going to recommend serving it up, as you certainly should if you opt for egg white. And serving a Whiskey Sour up became the convention in the 1880s. Either way, as long as you start with the holy trinity of whiskey, lemon juice and sugar syrup you’re good to go. You do you. We won’t judge.
- 2 oz Bourbon or other whiskey of your choice.
- ¾ oz Fresh lemon juice
- ½ oz Simple syrup Increase to 3/4 oz if you like them a bit sweeter.
- 1 Egg white (optional)
- 1 dash Angostura bitters (if you use the egg white)
- Add all ingredients to your trusty cocktail shaker.
- If using egg white do a dry shake - meaning shake vigorously without ice to fully mix the ingredients and create foam.
- Add ice and shake until frosty cold.
- Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.
- Add bitters on top if using egg white.