The Whiskey Sour is all about flavor balance. The drink is very simple—just a spirit, some fresh lemon juice, sugar and water. Too much lemon is just plain harsh. Too much sugar is cloying. Somewhere in between is a simple, tasty refresher. Like the Old Fashioned, it provides a welcome break from the flavor complexities of more sophisticated cocktails.

The idea of the drink is to use just enough lemon to make a counterpoint to the whiskey, and just enough sugar to take the edge off the lemon. You don’t want to bury the lemon altogether—the drink is a sour, after all.

David Wondrich’s research for Imbibe! (2007) found that the oldest known sour recipe is from a Toronto hotel’s 1856 drink list. A simplified derivative of punch, it was probably pretty well known by the time it got into print. My reprint of Jerry Thomas’s 1887 Bartenders Guide indicates that Professor Thomas dissolved his sugar in Seltzer water, but that little foray into fizzy sours doesn’t seem to have caught on. Gary Regan notes in The Joy of Mixology (2003) that by 1895 George Kappeler was making sours with sugar syrup instead of soda, and that has been the model ever since.

The Whiskey Sour, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour

  •  2 oz Whiskey (Wild Turkey 101 Rye)
  • 1 oz fresh lemon juice
  • ½–¾ oz simple syrup
  • 1 Tbsp egg white (optional)
Shake all ingredients without ice (“dry shake”) to emulsify and foam up the egg white, then add ice and shake again until well chilled. The whiskey sour is most commonly served in a rocks glass over ice, but can also be served in a chilled cocktail stem with a twist or cherry garnish.

The egg is an intriguing addition to the Whiskey Sour. The practice of adding egg to sours has been around nearly as long as the sour itself, but you will rarely encounter it anymore, unless you make the drink yourself. (For that matter, in most taverns you won’t get real lemon juice in your drink either; don’t get me started on that…) The drink is still quite worthwhile without the egg white, and much simpler to make, of course, but I recommend at least giving it a try. The egg white softens and blends the lemon flavor, and smooths the drink’s texture on the tongue—”silky” is the word you’ll often encounter. And it puts a nice little frothy foam on the top of the drink. (That foam is a defining characteristic of the Pisco Sour, and is used to the extreme in the Ramos Fizz and the Oliveto. Just a little will do for the Whiskey Sour.)

Silky, yes—and there’s the danger. You can put these away pretty fast when the egg white is in play. Just sayin’…

And just as you don’t want to bury the lemon, you don’t want to bury the whiskey, either. American and Canadian whiskies are traditional, but Scotch and Irish work, too. My preference is for a middle of the road Bourbon or rye; a higher-proof rye like Wild Turkey 101 or Rittenhouse 100 stands up to this drink nicely, and can assert its flavor against the lemon. If you prefer lighter-flavored or lower-proof whiskies, you may want to cut the lemon and sugar back a little—maybe to about ¾ oz for the lemon—so the drink can maintain its whiskey identity.

It’s interesting that sours as a class are unbittered. There are a couple of exceptions, like the Pisco Sour mentioned above, but the Whiskey Sour is never bittered.

As I constantly remind myself, cocktail recipes are guidelines, not laws, and the Whiskey Sour is a fine example of why that is. Lemons and people change with the seasons; you may find yourself adjusting the blend every time you make this drink.

(And by the way: if you enjoy the whiskey sour, don’t forget to try the Ward 8.)