The Whiskey Sour (Four Ways)

Whiskey Sours are, more often than not, my go-to cocktail if I’m out on the town.  It’s a hard drink to screw up, even for a corporate bartender who uses his drinks “gun” more than his jigger.  Just about any whiskey will do — Bourbon, rye, blended, single malt, Irish — as well as brandy and genever (Dutch gin).  Among our bottles, the Rittenhouse Rye is a mighty fine choice here, but the Redbreast is superlative.  The smoothness and boldness and honey-like notes of the Redbreast really shine through in all the drinks listed below.  Having said that, be sure to make a batch with the Rittenhouse as well.

Many of the other drinks we’ve added to our list — such as the Fitzgerald, the Crusta, the Sidecar, and the Gimlet – are variations on the sour.  Margaritas are as well.  The family is a direct descendant of the Daisy family, which today is little more than a complicated, fizzy sour (or the sour is a less-inspired Daisy, if you so prefer).  The basic role call is to the point:  spirt, citrus juice, and sweetener.   If you break the sweetener (simple syrup here) down into its components of sugar and water, what you really have is a single serving punch (strong, weak, sour, sweet).

Below, we’ll examine the basic recipe as well as three variations.  A mastery of these, along all the possible variances in ingredients, and you’ve got yourself a lengthy list of go-to cocktails.

The Whiskey Sour
The Whiskey Sour

The Basic Sour
1.5 oz Spirit
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.50 oz Simple Syrup

Shake all ingredients together and strain.
Garnish with lemon twist and/or a Maraschino cherry.

While this may seem like a deceptively simple drink, it’s a key building block in bartender know-how and drink construction.  Brown syrup, which is less sweet and more caramel-like, works wonders here, as does rosemary syrup, which is my go-to at home.


The Fancy Whiskey Sour
The Fancy Whiskey Sour

The Fancy Sour
1.5 oz Spirit
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.50 oz Simple Syrup
Splash of Orange Liqueur

Shake all ingredients together and strain.

“Fancy” is an olde-timey cocktail term that referred to anything from additional ingredients to a nicer glass to more garnish or, really, to nothing at all.  In reality, it was probably just a way to get people to spend more money.  Here, I am adopting Wondrich’s definition of the term as it refers to the Cocktail, which implies the addition of Orange Liqueur.  Today, most whiskey sours are garnished with an orange wheel and a Maraschino cherry.  The orange wheel makes sense in the Fancy Sour, given the inclusion of the orange liqueur — otherwise go with lemon.

If I was pressed to make just one sour, this would be the one.

The New York Sour
The New York Sour

The New York Sour
1.5 oz Spirit
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.50 oz Simple Syrup

Shake all ingredients together and strain.
Top with a 0.50 oz float of Red Wine.

This is one of my favorite sours, both in presentation and in taste.  The red “claret snap” atop the drink is a float of red wine — the British (not accepting of complicated French names for wines) having coined the term “claret” for all red wine.  Apparently, it was a big deal in Chicago at the end of the 19th Century — so much so that “men who drink… sours expect a claret at every bar, and when it is not put in they ask for it” (1883). As luck would have it, however, over the years, the final name settled upon was the New York Sour.

While the float intrigues most people when they are looking at the drink, it scares them off when it comes time to drink.  Encourage them, but encourage them not to just sip from the top, which is the cocktail equivalent of dipping a toe in the pool.  If you sip off the top, all you’ll get is wine.  A proper drink is required to get the full experience. If your wine is fresh and jammy (Syrah/Shiraz work well here), the overall flavor has been describe to me as being close to that of a Skittle.

To float the red wine, I place a bar spoon in the glass, resting the bowl of the spoon against the inside edge of the glass and rising from the surface at a slight angle.  Then, I pour the red wine into the bowl of the spoon, letting it trickle down the side of the glass and spread out over the surface of the drink.  If you need a little more detail, the web is full of how-to examples.

According to Wondrich, this is a Rye drink.  I like Redbreast in it.

Variations: Instead of red wine, try sparkling wine or a smokier whiskey from the same family of the original whiskey (go with a smokey, peated whisk(e)y if you’re using Redbreast, or a heavy Bourbon like Booker’s, if you’re using Rittenhouse).

The Egg Sour
The Egg Sour

The Egg Sour
1.5 oz Spirit
0.75 oz Lemon Juice
0.50 oz Simple Syrup
Splash of Orange Liqueur
White of one Egg

Shake all ingredients together without ice.
Shake again with ice and strain.

Egg sours really came into vogue post-Prohibition, and if you’ve never tried one, I must insist.  The egg softens and smooths the drink in ways that are just velvety — there really is no other term for it.  The double shake is a point of debate.  Some say it helps the emulsification of the egg white to shake it briefly before adding the ice (cold breaks apart emulsifications — look at the oil and vinegar salad dressing in your fridge).  Other say it doesn’t make a difference.  I’ve always used the double shake, but go with what works for you.

Notes: Some people are severely allergic to eggs.  Ask your guests before springing an Egg Sour on them.  Also, make sure to only use fresh eggs — it makes a big difference in the foaming and the taste.  Because of our son, we have started buying organic, cage-free, hormone-free eggs, and they’re absolutely horrible in the drink, providing little-to-no foam (I had to be creative in the picture you see), so shop accordingly.

The smaller-mouthed glass here, a traditional shape for sours, helps keep the foamy head together.

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31 Responses to “The Whiskey Sour (Four Ways)”

  1. Lars
    May 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm #

    Made several sours (all four kinds) this weekend. Used Gentleman Jack, regular Jack Daniels, Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, and Glenfiddich. All very different experiences obviously, but all quite good.

    Tullamore Dew was best, I think.

  2. Steve
    June 13, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    OH! I wish I had read the comments more closely; I passed up the Tullamore Dew for some Jamison’s. Oh well, next time when that bottle is empty ;)

  3. Lars
    June 26, 2010 at 7:57 pm #

    Jameson’s is not bad either Steve… Amy brought some home from Trader Joe’s the other day when she knew we were having company and that I wanted to make sours for them. Here’s something else I’ve discovered that might get me a slap on the wrist from Dave… if Jack Daniels is all you have, it’s not a bad option. It’s a MUCH sweeter drink than a sour made with Irish Whiskey but I gotta tell you, it’s kind of delicious.

    • June 26, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

      Not only do I not disapprove — I heartily approve! Redbreast, Jameson, JD — they will all make different drinks, but they will all make exceptional drinks. The Jameson will be lighter, the Jack sweeter, and the Redbreast more complex. I see a reason for all three.

      The great thing about sours is that they can be made with anything. Rum (daiquiri), tequila (margarita), gin (gimlet), and others work fantastically.

    • June 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm #

      Also, if the JD is too sweet a drink, just cut back on the syrup. Remember, it’s called a sour. The sweetness should be just enough to cut the tartness without stepping on it.

  4. Lars
    June 26, 2010 at 9:12 pm #

    Right, I should have said “sweeter”… it’s still plenty sour. Though next time I make one I might lay off the Cointreau to keep it honest. :)

  5. Adam
    September 28, 2010 at 8:44 pm #

    You’ve got the great Whiskey Sour (my main drink for many years), so you can’t go on without mentioning the Old Fashioned (my new main drink), especially as they are so closely related. An Old Fashioned is, at its core, a Whiskey Sour with bitters mix instead of sour mix. Also, you should put a cube of sugar in the bottom of the glass before pouring. Yum! Think I’ll go mix one up now…

    • September 28, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

      Adam, check out our Cocktail, which is what an Old Fashioned refers to. Our recipe is the Jerry Thomas one from the 1860′s, so it’s a little different than a modern recipe. I think I’ll go make one right now too.

      • Adam
        September 28, 2010 at 8:53 pm #

        Oops! Just noticed that as I was reading the rest of the site. I’m with you on using the old recipe; the new one is just too fruity.

  6. Michael Jinks
    September 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm #

    “we have started buying organic, cage-free, hormone-free eggs, and they’re absolutely horrible in the drink, providing little-to-no foam”

    Hm.  My eggs come from the chickens in my back yard, and I wonder if this would explain why my Frozen Gin Fizz experiment didn’t turn out so well.

    • twelvebottles
      September 16, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

      I can’t say I have any scientific proof to back up my claim, but I did notice a difference with that particular brand.

    • J O
      November 14, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

      Older eggs are better for some things…like drinks and hard boiling.

  7. December 2, 2011 at 9:50 am #

    good stuff

  8. IceCreamMan
    July 18, 2012 at 7:40 pm #

    Out of curiosity, what are your thoughts on pisco? I have a huge fondness of pisco sours (like your egg sour) because I lived in Peru for about 4 months, and it is pretty much the Peruvian national drink. I don’t hear much about pisco in the States, but I think people should start drinking it more. It mixes with a surprising variety.

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