What's Really In A Whiskey Sour?

The whiskey sour may have gotten a bad reputation from decades of half-hearted cocktails served with chemical-tasting sour mix. However, in its proper form, the whiskey sour is a simple well-balanced delight and a historical gem. The whiskey sour is a part of the sour drink family, along with the daiquiri, margarita, and a host of other classic cocktails. Sour drinks date back to at least the 1600s and are the ancestors of the modern-day cocktail. In fact, the Difford's Guide argues that sour cocktails like the whiskey sour and the daiquiri are the true test of a good bartender.

Sour cocktails are thought to have originated from naval ships crossing the Atlantic. Fresh water was difficult to maintain, so sailors resorted to spirits to help keep them hydrated, says Eight Oaks Distillery. Sailors often suffered from scurvy, sparked by low vitamin C, as well. Ships carried large amounts of citrus fruits — limes, lemons, and oranges — to combat these issues. Somewhere in the Atlantic waters, sailors began to combine the two life-preserving ingredients into a delightful drink. Around the 1600s, these sea-faring concoctions hopped ashore and settled in London's Punch Houses. These early versions of cocktail bars served a brew of spirits, sugar, and citrus in large punch bowls, per Everlong Print Co. To this day, the triple-threat of alcohol, sugar, and citrus, makes up the basic sour cocktail.

The whiskey sour emerges

The exact origin of the whiskey sour cocktail is unknown. The first recipe for a sour drink in print dates back to 1862, writes Liquor.com. For reference, the Civil War was in full swing in the U.S. that year, and the federal government printed its first one-dollar note. The Westminster Bridge opened in England, and Lewis Caroll got the idea for "Alice in Wonderland," according to On This Day.

The sour cocktail recipe appears on a page in the "Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide." The first mention of a whiskey sour appears a few years later in the Wisconsin newspaper, Waukesha Plain Dealer (via Difford's Guide): "'Amen,' says the Methodist, as he ordered another whiskey sour." Since then, sweeteners and mixes have corrupted whiskey sour. Kenneth McCoy of Ward III told Liquor.com, "In the '80s, there were super sweet sours drenched in grenadine. I can see how people have had some bad ones."

Thrillist's Anna Archibald dissuades whiskey sour drinkers from ordering them at a bar since the results may be questionable. Instead, she suggests making the drink at home the traditional way with high-quality ingredients. Luckily, a whiskey sour has three basic ingredients and plenty of room for experimentation with additions. All you need is lemon, bourbon, and simple syrup (also known as sugar water).

How to make the best whiskey sour

There are two differences between a fantastic whiskey sour and a merely passable beverage: high-quality bourbon and fresh-squeezed lemon juice (rather than bottled), suggests Bon Apétit. Lime is an acceptable substitute for lemon in a pinch. Liquor.com argues that the key to an excellent whiskey sour is keeping the tart and sweet at a 1:1 ratio for a balanced flavor. Bourbon is the best whiskey since it's sweeter and less spicy than rye. Optional garnishes include a cocktail cherry and an orange wheel. Sources differ regarding whether a whiskey sour should be served on the rocks or straight up.

Egg whites are excellent additions to whiskey sours since they give the drink a silkier and smoother texture, says BBC's Good Food. While some say that egg whites are the original fourth ingredient, Standard Spoon argues that adding egg white makes the drink a Boston Sour. The version of the whiskey sour with an egg white first appeared in William Schmidt's 1892 The Flowing Bowl. Cocktail drinkers likely added the egg to smooth the unpleasant taste of poorly-made hooch.

If you'd like to experiment with adding egg whites, Liquor.com suggests including a "dry shake" as you mix the drink. A dry shake means shaking all the ingredients without ice first. Next, add ice and shake again. That process will give the egg whites an ideal frothy and smooth texture.

Getting creative with whiskey sours

Though some would accuse the whiskey sour of being an "old man" drink, it's a fun and playful cocktail at its heart. The whiskey sour provides plenty of opportunities for experimentation and creativity. A favorite variation is the New York sour, in which the whiskey sour is topped off with red wine to give it a sunset-like glow, writes Liquor.com. However, the wine does even more than provide aesthetic delights. The red wine evens out the citrus's acidic taste, per Liquor.com. A New York sour is best with a fruity wine like Shiraz, Merlot, or even Port, says BBC's Good Food. To get the wine to properly "float," pour it slowly over the back of a spoon, instructs Food & Wine.

Other additions include adding bitters to give the drink a little spice. From a decorative standpoint, drops of bitters can make excellent designs in egg white foam. Another source of spice is the addition of ginger liquor for a whiskey and ginger sour, suggests BBC's Good Food. A splash of amaretto is an excellent option for those looking to sweeten the drink, as is adding a dollop of orange marmalade, writes Thrillist.

Perhaps the best part of the whiskey sour is that, though it can test a bartender's mettle, its questionable past helps it resist cocktail snobbery. The drink is available to a range of palates and draws strength from its variety.