As the saying goes, “myth and legend are the kudzu of history,” and cocktail history is as much overgrown as any.

Today’s case in point: the pre-Prohibition Ward 8 Cocktail, one of the most famous of classic whiskey sour variations.

There are a number of competing origin stories for the Ward 8 (or “Ward Eight,” as it’s sometimes known). The earliest published reference to the drink, according to David Wondrich, is a passing reference in the 1906 A Bachelor’s Cupboard, by Amy Lyman Philips, where the author mentions in a discussion of grenadine that the syrup is used to make the Ward 8 cocktail at Boston’s Winter Palace Hotel, also known as Frank Locke’s, the Ober Restaurant Parisien or, most commonly, the “Locke-Ober.”

Beyond that, things get pretty sketchy.

For one thing, all the stories about who first mixed the Ward 8, or when, show up decades after the fact.

There is one story from 1936, and another from 1940. The tale that gets the most play (probably because it’s the most colorful) is one that Holiday published in 1951. According to their story, the Ward 8 was first made by Tom Hussion, of Locke’s, to celebrate an 1898 election victory by Martin Lomasney, who apparently made quite a name for himself in the 1890s as the boss of Boston’s Eighth Ward. The best part of this story is that the victory party took place before the election. I’d call that a very well-run ward. (It’s not clear where the magazine dug up this version of the story five decades later, but I’ll give them credit for coming up with a colorful character like Lomasney.)

And it turns out Lomasney was a Prohibitionist, but we won’t let that get in the way of a good story…

Formulas for sours are, by their nature, imprecise. Balancing sweet, sour, and spirit from one day to the next depends on the vagaries of the citrus supply and the changing preferences of drinkers. As a result, the Ward 8, with two juices, and with the unpredictable grenadine for a sweetener, is hard to pin down as far as proportions are concerned.

Most respectable recipes start with two ounces of rye whiskey, then add anywhere from one-half to one ounce each of lemon juice and orange juice. The grenadine sweetener is pretty much “to taste,” and could vary anywhere from a teaspoon to a half-ounce, depending on who made it.

The Ward 8 Cocktail, photo © 2015 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Ward 8 cocktail

So, as a starting point, here’s the way it works for me:

The Ward 8 Cocktail

  • 2 oz rye whiskey (Rittenhouse 100)
  • ¾ oz lemon juice
  • 1 oz orange juice
  • ¼–½ oz grenadine (homemade)

Shake all ingredients with ice, and strain into a chilled cocktail stem. No garnish.

Rye whiskey was far and away the whiskey of choice in the late 19th century, and the Ward 8 is definitely part of that tradition. Some recipes substitute bourbon—Trader Vic was one of the early proponents of that style (Bartender’s Guide, 1947)—but this is really a rye drink, and with so many good ryes returning to the market, there’s no reason not to follow the original design.

Some modern recipes omit the orange juice—no less respected a barman than Dale Degroff follows this path (The Essential Cocktail, 2008). His Ward 8 looks like a standard whiskey sour with a splash of grenadine—a very good drink, but it seems to stray from the historic model.

And that model dictates that the Ward 8 contains orange juice, which is a much softer citrus than lemon, with a distinct flavor that can lend a sense of sweetness (perhaps as much on the nose as on the tongue).

Of course, there’s a potential problem there: not everyone likes the combination of whiskey and orange juice.

For my taste, the whiskey/orange juice thing seems to be a matter of proportion. A tiny bit of orange juice in whiskey just tastes like sullied whiskey to me; a little more orange starts to taste pretty good. But then there comes a point where you have whiskey with a lot of orange, and that can be pretty bad again. I can’t explain that, but it certainly suggests that there is a fine personal balance at work.

Grenadine is a bit of a wild card. There are many brands on the market, each presenting a different sweetness and fruit flavor profile. And there are lots of recipes and techniques for making your own. My advice is to find or make one you like, then stick to it, so you can tune your drink recipes to a known, predicatable grenadine.

(And don’t use any “grenadine” that looks or tastes like it came out of a chem lab, because it probably did.)

Some recent, well-respected bar manuals (for example: the PDT Cocktail Book and Death & Co. Modern Classic Cocktails) have taken to making the Ward 8 with simple syrup and a dollop of pomegranate molasses. I revile the taste of cooked pomegranate, so the molasses approach is not for me, but it will keep you right in fashion if you like that sort of thing.

Sours are usually served in rocks glasses, but it seems to be the whimsical, inexplicable tradition to serve the Ward 8 in a stemmed cocktail glass. Eric Felten, in his 2007 How’s Your Drink?, suggests that:

“Serving the Ward 8 in a martini glass helps distinguish it from the more commonplace Whiskey Sour, and I find that the texture of the fresh juices is thick, rich, and satisfying straight up, but quickly gets watery when diluted with ice.”

An interesting observation, though I don’t know if that’s the rationale behind the original use of the stemmed glass for this drink.

Curiously, and despite the nearly unanimous stemmed glass recommendations of cocktail manuals of the day, David Embury (The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, 1958) suggests that the Ward 8 is “more often” served as a tall drink, with crushed ice, and topped up with soda. The “more often” part is intriguing, given that this is the only reference I’ve ever seen about this presentation.

That soda motif shows up from time to time in bar books, usually as a “splash” of soda to brighten the drink. I doubt soda in any amount was part of the original spec, but I can tell you that on days that are as hot and muggy as the day I’m writing this, the idea of a tall, icy, soda-sparkling version of the Ward 8 sounds like a very good idea, and I’m happy to consider it.

So here’s to cocktail kudzu, soda, and the Ward 8 Cocktail!