The Whiskey Sour is in many ways the quintessential Sour. The father of the Sour family. Historically the most famous and well known Sour. In fact, it is almost certainly in the all-time top 20 of most popular cocktails. As such it makes for an excellent starting point into the world of Sours.
Why it has been so popular for so long is often a mystery to modern cocktail enthusiasts. After all, it’s pretty simple and straightforward, lacking the layers of complexity modern bartenders often strive for. I’d argue that its stature comes down to two factors.
First, it follows the principle of elegance in simplicity. It doesn’t need to be complex and multifaceted. The singular taste it presents to the palate is good enough on its own. In general, trying to add layers to it only results in a less interesting drink.
Second, it used to have much less competition. Many people, myself included, like their drinks somewhat on the sour side. But for most of the past century or so the Whiskey Sour occupied the Sours area on the Axes of Taste model almost alone. Drinks like the Sidecar or Brandy Crusta weren’t quite as sour, and classics like the Amaretto Sour or Pisco Sour were not yet widespread. Since whiskey worked better in a pure Sour than say rum or gin, it was pre-eminent for a long time. This is no longer the case.
If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend reading the Sours Taste Profile post before proceeding. I go into a lot more depth about the essential nature of Sours in that post. But like all Sours, the Whiskey Sour is definitely on the sour side of the Sweet vs Sour axis, and pretty well balanced on the other axes. I suppose you could argue that the use of Bourbon tilts it towards the rich side of the Light vs Rich axis, but only marginally.
I also go into detail regarding the ingredients of a classic Sour in that post, so won’t repeat myself here.
However, there is one important matter that does need to be considered. What is the spirit base of the Whiskey Sour? That might sound stupid – it’s surely whiskey, right? Yes, it’s whiskey. But “whiskey” seems to be a catch-all term which includes: Bourbon, Rye, Tennessee, Irish, Sour Mash and generic blended whiskeys. You could even include modern Japanese whiskeys and Scotch – though this usually drops the “e” to go by whisky.
So which is the right one to use? As usual, it depends on your point of view. Some bartenders claim it should be Bourbon on account of superior taste and authenticity. After all, cocktails are an American invention, and to Americans the word whiskey is a locally produced grain based spirit. In Britain, whiskey usually refers to Scotch. But if Americans mean Scotch, they’ll call it Scotch.
At the same time you have other bartenders accepting that whatever it might have been originally made from it tastes better with Scotch. Personally I completely disagree with this. To my palate the taste aspects which make Scotch so interesting and appealing make it very tough to work with. I believe that there are almost no cocktails you can make with Scotch that don’t taste better made with Bourbon.
But all this just underlines a key principle of cocktails. Personal taste is more important for the individual than expert opinion.
Recipe and Method
The recipe and method for a Whiskey Sour is nothing special. However it is a cocktail that probably needs to be shaken to achieve its full potential. This is especially the case if you choose to use egg white as you’ll need to dry shake it before the main shake.
So, into your Boston glass goes two shots of whiskey. I’d always make mine with Bourbon as I believe it makes the best Whiskey Sours. But feel free to disagree and to experiment on your own with other whiskey types. Then add the juice of a whole lemon, freshly squeezed as always. A little sugar syrup – maybe 10ml. Remember that for Sours you want the Balance of Sour to be way over on the sour side. A dash of Angostura Bitters, and optionally the white of one egg.
If using the egg white, dry shake first. That is, shake the cocktail without ice first to properly emulsify the egg white. Then wet shake (with ice) as you would ordinarily do.
All Sours are typically served over ice in short glasses. The use of egg white in a Sour results in a lovely froth at the top of the drink. This does not affect the taste of the drink, but sipping it through the froth does affect the texture of the drink. How it feels in your mouth. Most people consider this frothy filter to result in a superior drink, hence I support the use of egg white. So when serving a Whiskey Sour I will deliberately not put a straw in it to encourage sipping it through the froth.
The garnish you might use is quite variable. I tend to use a slice of lemon zest, but using slices of lemon or orange or a maraschino cherry are not uncommon.
History and Variants
Strangely for such a classic cocktail, there is almost no information out there about where it came from or who invented it. It seems clear that it is American in origin and probably emerged during the middle of the 19th century. And that’s all anyone seems to know.
However, it does seem to have undergone changes over time. Some early accounts call for simply Bourbon, lemon juice and sugar syrup. Which makes me wonder when the bitters and egg white entered the mix, as these ingredients were both in use in those days. Sometimes with the addition of egg white it is renamed a Boston Sour.
Beyond that there’s not much. True, in some cocktail books you’ll find a standard list of “variants” no-one has ever heard of that might have been popular at some time in the past. But in general it’s the original or bust.
I have made my own addition to this group. The World’s End. A complex Sour based on whiskey but also adding various liqueurs to give it an autumnal taste.
“Best Whiskey Sour since 1996!”
My most notable personal moment regarding the Whiskey Sour came in April 2014 when a certain Brian Johnson of AC/DC fame rocked into my bar. The Whiskey Sour happens to be this legendary rocker’s favourite cocktail. He said that the one I made for him was the best he had tasted since 1996 – and that one had taken 20 minutes to arrive.
Naturally I was quite chuffed by this, but I hadn’t made him a specially-crafted-to-his-tastes one. It was just a Whiskey Sour, made with freshly squeezed lemon juice, white from a real egg not a carton, and proper care and attention.
I made it from Maker’s Mark. For a while now Makers Mark has been my go-to Bourbon for Whiskey Sours as it makes extremely good ones. However, it should be noted that the range of Bourbons available in bars here in the UK is far smaller than in the US where it is produced. I’m certain that other Bourbons would do just as good a job.