Cock-Tails: The Essential Whiskey Sour

Today the Whiskey Sour is still one of the classic drinks of all time. Essentially, the whiskey sour is simply lemon or lime juice and simple syrup. The tartness of the citrus is a wonderful match to some of the sweet notes in whiskey. This is a perfectly easy drink that works with a great variety of whiskies.

With the move back to the basics when it comes to cocktails, the Whiskey Sour is once again enjoying celebrity status on the menus of many of the best bars. Before its ingredients were ever written down, this simple drink enjoyed once widespread popularity in the United States.

We find the first recipe written down in the 1862 book The Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, although we know the basic recipe was popular throughout the 1700s. It was an easy drink to take while traveling across oceans on vintage ships without refrigeration or overland while traveling on a stagecoach.

Professional sailors suffered from scurvy and other malnutrition and sea-sicknesses, up until a bartender’s hero named Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of England began mixing a few ingredients together to serve to his crew. Sailors had a ration of various things, like limes and lemons to prevent scurvy and liquor for something safe to drink. To prevent a ship full of intoxicated shipmates, the liquor, usually rum, was watered down and lemon or lime juice was added to mask the flavor of the rum. Hence, we have a very early version of the Sour.

The sailors then brought this concept to shore, and eventually the basics of the sour cocktail were refined to what we know it as today. Gin and Brandy were also substituted in by the English, but the Americans were fonder of the native whiskey, which was easier to purchase. Jerry Thomas ultimately refined and published this imbibement, codifying the sour into black and white.

And what of that original recipe? Here is it, from the book:

Whiskey Sour
  • (Use small bar-glass.)
  • Take 1 large tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar dissolved in a little Seltzer or Apollinaris water
  • The juice of half a small lemon
  • 1 wine-glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey

Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

Soda was originally used but eventually abandoned over time, probably because the soda losses some effervescence after being shaken. One thing you do not see in the recipe, other than a lack of measurements? An egg. No whites. No yolks. Nothing.

The egg was later added as a creamy, frothy element to the cocktail. It went down a little smoother and looked a little better in the glass with the egg in it. Gary Regan’s Joy of Mixology does not include an egg. Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail includes egg white as an option. Today, adding an egg to a cocktail makes some people nervous, as there is a chance of contracting salmonella and become ill.

If the bar is keeping the eggs cold before they use them and being careful not to touch the egg white to the shell, the 0.25 oz to 0.5 oz (7 to 15 mL) of egg white you typically would add will not have any adverse effects. The elderly and those with weak immune systems should avoid the egg in the cocktail, since they have the greatest chance of contracting salmonella. The Center for Disease Control also says that anyone under five has twice the risk of contracting it, but they should not really be drinking cocktails, should they? Some very strict bartenders may insist that adding an egg white makes it a Boston Sour, but that’s another blog post for another day.

The actual recipe with measurements for a Whiskey Sour is:
  • 1.5 to 2 oz. (45 to 60mL) Whiskey
  • 1 oz. (30 mL) Lemon Juice
  • .5 oz. (15 mL) Simple Syrup
  • .25 oz. (7 mL) Egg White (optional)
  • Cherry for garnish
  • Lemon or orange slice for garnish

Pour the ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake well, then pour into a rocks glass over ice. If you are using the egg white you can use as much or as little in the cocktail as you want (I have had just a dash, up to a full egg white. It is all tasty.). Dry shake (no ice) vigorously to get the white foamy element before adding ice and other ingredients. Egg proteins do not break down without a fight, and this will froth them up nicely. Adding the ice and other ingredients at this phase may put too much water into the cocktail. You can adjust the ratio of simple syrup and lemon juice to taste.

As mixologists, we love to surprise our customers with new twists on the old classic drink. The sour and the boozy are hard to really manipulate–whiskey and lemon wrap themselves nicely together. We may play with how to make it sweet. We might switch out Marmalade, maple syrup, and other specialty favored syrups. We may try honey. You’ll have to come in and taste for yourself.

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