Dangerous Drinks: The Whiskey Sour

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.)


32 thoughts on “Dangerous Drinks: The Whiskey Sour

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  1. “It’s intriguing that sours as a class are unbittered. There are a couple of exceptions…”
    I’ve noticed that too, Doug…wonder why? Tradition seems to find them in stirred, aromatic drinks rather than sours, so it’s certainly an old trend. Regardless of the reason, they keep finding their way into my sours as of late!

    Ever tried a Fitzgerald? Just add a couple dashes of Angostura to a Gin Sour, and there you have it. (Dale DeGroff strikes again!)

    1. Funny you should mention the Fitzgerald, it’s on my short list of Cocktails to Try.

      Adding Angostura to the Whiskey Sour does result in a very pleasant drink. It must have a name, but so far I haven’t found it. CocktailDB shows something called the “Palmer” which goes down that path, sort of (no sweetener, oof.) And there’s the Buster Brown, which adds orange bitters instead of Angostura. Surely there’s something with a better name than “Whiskey Sour, and Put Some Bitters In It.”

  2. Definitely an easy drink to like, these. I’m not generally a huge whisky fan, but the lemon in a sour balances it beautifully. I find that if you use gomme syrup rather than plain syrup in sours, you can skip egg white. Probably not quite the same (I haven’t experimented) but it seems to work somewhat.

  3. Doug,

    I really enjoyed this post, as I’m experimenting with this tonight as snow falls in Philadelphia. The addition of the egg white is a big improvement. Also, we’re looking at scaling back the lemon too.

    Cheers!

  4. Hi Doug,

    A barman in the Italian alps once served me a sour made with bourbon and lime juice garnished with mint leaves. Let me just say that I’ve drunk it many time since. It’s worth a try.

    Carl

  5. i love these, been making them at work without the egg, and at home i always put the egg it makes it so much better, a good bourbon or rye nothing cheap, fresh lemon juice, i make the simple syrup fresh with raw sugar, and the egg to take it over the top.

  6. Real men drink whiskey, but even real men enjoy something refreshing, cool and delicious on a hot summer’s day; enter the whiskey sour. This is what I always see on board. Well, it makes good sense to all men out there to drink moderately each time.

  7. It’s interesting that it’s intended to be unbittered. I have taken to making mine with 2 dashes of Bokers bitters in the tin, and then 3 drops of Angostura on top of the foam for both color and aroma. It’s in my opinion a superb whiskey sour. And since I’m making it for myself the egg white is always included.

  8. whiskey sour (or my own personal version of it) is my go-to drink these days. I typically make mine with rye without egg white. I add a dash of bitters (except when I forget) and I finish mine with a splash of fermented sour cherry juice that I make. It makes for a beautiful presentation in a rocks glass.

    On a really hot day, I will serve it in a tall glass with a splash of soda, as per your ward 8 entry.

    As a side note, fermented cherry juice floats on top and unfermented sinks to the bottom.

      1. yes, I do. It was actually an accident the first time. I liked it enough to recreate it.

        Great blog by the way.

  9. Hello Doug, have just found your article while I was searching the web for an answer on “why do some people put bitters into whiskey sour”. I used to work as a bartender in a nightclub and whiskey sour was my all time favorite drink to enjoy after (or sometimes during ;)) the shift. We didn’t have a large selection of whiskeys, maybe 5 or 6 brands, and somehow Jack Daniels Old No7 was the one I preferred the most for making whisky sours. Probably because it’s not too mild in its taste and has some distinct notes to it. We didn’t use eggs or egg-whites for the preparation of drinks in the club, so I am talking about the simple version of this cocktail. Everyone I knew from our bartenders-team did the whisky sour without Angostura or any other kind of bitters until one new guy joined our team and was insisting on making whisky sour with Angostura because “it’s the right way” (in truth, it’s just how he learned it at his bartender courses). To be honest, I’ve never been to a bar yet, where they would serve me a whisky sour with bitters in it and I find it correct, because adding bitters changes the perception of this drink. To my mind the bitters disturb the individual fine notes in the taste of the whiskeys. However, it could theoretically be a nice touch in the case when you’re using a less fragrant or lower quality whisky…

    Anyway, another thing I wanted to share is: why almost no recipes or videos on making whisky sour talk about adding the lemon peel into the shaker apart from the main ingredients? I found this to be quite crucial, ’cause it’s like baking anything with lemons: you can add lemon juice into the dow, but it will never be anywhere near as fragrant and lemony as when you add lemon peel to it ’cause it contains all the fragrant essential oils. My trick has always been to add one well-squeezed lemon wedge (1/12-1/8 of a lemon) into the shaker (thus we let the essential oils out) before shaking the ingredients with ice. IMO it adds quite something to the taste and makes it more “fresh”. Try it!

    1. First, I apologize for missing your comment when it first arrived.

      Bitters in sours: I agree, hardly anyone makes a sour with bitters, particularly if the sours are in the usual whiskey sour / Daiquiri / Margarita type category. I certainly don’t, and the reason, as I see it, is that the sour is about a completely different flavor profile, with emphasis on the careful balance of citrus and sweetener, rather than on spices, as with the Old Fashioned. It’s not that adding bitters doesn’t make an interesting drink, I just don’t think of it as a sour, and there isn’t a lot of history that would change my mind.

      That said, there is the glaring contradiction of the Pisco Sour, although I’ve always suspected that the main thing about bitters in that drink has as much to do with decorating the egg foam as with managing the drink’s flavor profile. There’s also the Trinidad Sour, and at the extreme end of the spectrum, the idiosyncratic Angostura Sour, waiting to call BS on any anti-bitters theory we can come up with…

      Lemon peel in sours: I’m with you there. I like to add to lemon peel into the shake, too, and for the same reason—it seems to add a richness and brightness to the drink. I don’t know why it isn’t a regular part of making the drink, nor apparently has it ever been. From a bar management point of view, I would guess it could be a hassle if you squeeze up a lot of juice at the beginning of a shift, then have to take care of a lot of half-mashed lemon peels for the rest of the day. I’m glad you asked, I can’t believe I’ve never asked a bartender about that before. Thanks!

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