Whiskey Advocate calls the Whiskey Sour the “essential whiskey cocktail.” Its universal simplicity and elegance are making a comeback.
Versatile and delicious, it has a long history and dates back to the very inception of mixology! Even better? It’s so easy to make you can quite easily try it at home. And you’ll definitely be able to order it at any bar you visit. What goes best? We’ve looked at five classic whiskeys that will change the flavor profile of your cocktail from bourbon to rye, to even smoky scotch!
Whether you’re thinking of ordering it at your next happy hour or want to add it to your home cocktail bar, we’ll give you a run-down of everything you need to know about Whiskey Sours.
What is a Whiskey Sour?
One of the most delicious cocktails on the planet, obviously! But I’m guessing you’re looking for a little more than that. A whiskey sour is a variation on a key type of drink in general: The Sour.
What is Sour?
The Sour just means a family of mixed drinks or cocktails involving a sour component, usually citrus. They are one of the oldest cocktails and feature in the 1862 book How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas.
Essentially the original cocktails created the rules for mixing drinks even today. And the sour is one! A basic sour involves a base liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener, usually sugar or simple syrup.
Common sours you’ve probably already heard of: Daiquiris, Margaritas, Sidecars, Tom Collins, Cosmopolitans, and Gin Daisies.
History of the Whiskey Sour
Citrus has long been added to drinks, a practice that probably began as 18th-century sailors crossed long sea voyages for months at a time.
On ships in the 1700s, there was no safe way to store food or water for months at sea. To avoid scurvy (an illness involving weakness, fatigue, and bleeding caused by lack of vitamin c), boats often carried limes and lemons. Ships also carried rum. You can see where I’m going here…
Mixing rum, citrus, and water was a great way to stay healthy, hydrated, and scurvy free! (Not to mention dilute the rum, so your sailors didn’t fall over every time you hit a wave.)
When the sailors disembarked, they carried this recipe with them and expanded it to more readily available liquors like whiskey, brandy, and eventually bourbon. With the advent of the railroad, suddenly fresh citrus fruit could be widely available quickly. Areas all across America had access to all the best and freshest ingredients.
Thus, the elegant Whiskey Sour rose to popularity as bourbon was hitting full swing.
Unfortunately, Prohibition knocked Whiskey Sour off its horse. With good alcohol at a premium, most bars only had illicit drams made with low-quality ingredients. They just weren’t equipped for subtle, simple cocktails. (You can imagine, lemon and sugar wouldn’t really be enough to hide the flavor of moonshine or Everclear for example.)
It’s taken several decades for the Whiskey Sour to recover. World War II followed Prohibition. In the 1960s it achieved a brief peak.
And then we were hit with the horror that is bottled cocktail mixes. Sickly sweet and seriously sour, no serious drinker in their right mind would dare risk one of those on their nice whiskey!
Now that many craft bartenders and mixologists have gotten back into creating elegant cocktails with fresh ingredients, simple drinks like the Whiskey Sour is on the rise once again!
How to Make a Whiskey Sour
A typical whiskey sour you’ll get in most bars these days involves three core ingredients: whiskey, citrus, and sugar.
Whiskey Sours (in fact, all sours) follow the golden ratio of cocktails – 2:1:1*. This means two-parts liquor to one-part sour to one-part sweet. Variations of this ratio make most of the drinks you order at a bar: Gimlets, Mojitos, and even French 75s!
*Some bartenders (like the ones who taught me) subscribe to the 2: ¾: ¾ rule instead. It’s really a matter of your personal preference. But just keep that in mind if you’re watching a bartender mix your sour. Don’t bite her head off if she uses ¾ instead of 1!
The golden ratio is easy to remember, adjust, and implement! You can use it in your own kitchen next time you decide you want to go way over your head and throw a cocktail party in your studio apartment. (I’m definitely not speaking from experience here.)
Back to the subject at hand. Whiskey sours are almost always a shaken cocktail. It’s necessary to mix all the flavors and dissolve any sugar! (And froth the eggs, but we’ll get to that later.)
- 2 oz. whiskey of your choice (usually bourbon or rye)
- 1 oz. lemon juice
- One teaspoon sugar
- Lemon peel, maraschino cherry for garnish
- Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, sugar and ice in a cocktail shaker.
- Shake vigorously for half a minute.
- Strain into a cocktail glass over ice.
*If you garnish with citrus peel, lightly squeeze the peel over your cocktail to release of the peel’s flavor into your drink. You can also rub the peel on the rim for an extra touch.
To Egg or not to Egg
Egg whites in your whiskey sour.
Yes, you read that correctly. If you want to elevate your whiskey sour, an egg white is a way to do it! “Oh no,” you say, “is this a repeat of eggnog?!”
No, I promise it’s not. First of all, the egg isn’t one of the main ingredients. There is usually less egg white included than anything else. Really all it does is add a touch of binding and frothing power to the drink.
You end up with a creamier, frothier cocktail! (And who doesn’t want that.)
While the original whiskey sours created didn’t use eggs, bartenders somewhere in the 1800s decided they wanted to make the drinks just a little fancier. Whiskey Sours can be harsh, and they wanted something to temper the flavors. Not only do eggs add that quality, but they also make for a creamy cocktail and a head of foam that looks prettier in the glass.
To add in egg whites, simply add 1/4 oz (or more if you wish, totally up to you) to the rest of your ingredients in the shaker before mixing.
And you might want to skip pouring over ice if you are adding eggs, many drinkers feel ice cubes, and egg froth doesn’t mix. Ice can also cause the egg proteins to break apart too quickly. Instead, try shaking with ice and pouring straight.
You will want the egg whites to be shaken with all the other ingredients*. Otherwise, you miss the point. Shaking blends the eggs and froths them up!
*There is some argument about this method. There are those who say you should dry shake the eggs first to froth them up, wet shake the other ingredients separately, and then combine. I say no. Blending them together is half the fun! But it is up to you.
Personally, this is my favorite version of a Whiskey Sour. I first experienced it in a little speakeasy in Rochester, NY. It’s hidden behind a padded door. It’s dimly lit. The bartenders wear bowties. And they prepare drinks the old-fashioned way.
I ordered a whiskey sour and was presented with this frothy white mixture that I stared at in horror for a moment or two. Until I tried it and realized I’d been doing Whiskey Sours wrong my whole life.
So definitely give it a shot. It’s worth it.
Other Whiskey Sour Variations
Of course, the egg is not the only optional part of a whiskey sour. Let’s take a look at how all the ingredients can shift.
Changing the liquor too many changes the nature of the cocktail itself. But if you want to play around with different whiskey varieties, you’ll probably find the perfect whiskey sour for you.
- Bourbon – creates a sweeter sour
- Rye – usually considered the ideal dram because it doesn’t get overwhelmed
- Peated Scotch – adds a smoky element
- Brandy – Brandy sours are generally sweeter, like bourbon, making them perfect for a lemon cocktail
- Lemon – the classic
- Lime – generally not a hit as a full lemon-substitute, but if you add a little bit or combine it with flavors like pineapple, it might work better
- Orange – a little too sweet to be used entirely alone, but as an addition to lemon, it really rounds out the flavors
- Grapefruit – really perfect if you combine it with a savory like rosemary syrup
- Cranberry – needs an additional sour component, but an excellent option for winter
- Simple Syrup – syrup is usually added in because it dissolves more easily than sugar. Sugar does have better flavor and texture, so it depends on how much effort you feel like putting into your after-work cocktail
- Flavored Syrup – plum (see below), grapefruit, pear, ginger, rosemary
- Maple Syrup – deserves its own category! It’s such a specific flavor it can change the whole character of the drink.
- Eggs – make for a creamier and frothier drink, this version is called a “Boston Sour”
- Soda – now you’ve made a John Collins, but hold on the soda until after you’ve shaken…
- Fruit or fruit juices – you have to be careful with proportions, but if you add a little and taste as you go, you can definitely adjust according to the season!
Top Whiskey Sour Recipes
Below are some additional whiskey sour recipes for those who want to try something a little different than the standard recipe above.
- Classic – with egg white
- Cinnamon Maple – perfect for fall!
- Plum and ginger – a winter version
- Penicillin – Scotch and ginger
- New York Sour – Red Wine
- The Original – this is the recipe included in that early 1862 book!
Best Whiskey for Whiskey Sours
Below are my top five whiskeys I like to include in my sours. They vary based on the flavor profile you prefer.
The real kicker – this isn’t a cocktail for your bottom shelf liquor. While you don’t need a top-shelf brand either, you should at least stick with something you like to drink neat. You want that flavor to come through in your cocktail since it is so simple!
1. If You Want a Strong Sour: Old Forester 100 Proof
Bourbon is probably the top choice for classic whiskey sours. Old Forester is a powerful bourbon; you’re sure not to lose its flavor in a cocktail. Heavy on corn notes like cornmeal and cornbread, it is the cocoa, hot chocolate, and cinnamon that make this shine.
Soft notes of leather and mint will combine perfectly with lemon to cut through all that corn and sugar. Perfect for a bourbon-heavy sour.
2. If You Want a Spicy Sour: Wild Turkey Rye 101
Rye is another classic whiskey sour liquor. Wild Turkey is an excellent bourbon for cocktails. (You could probably use the 101 Proof for #1 too.) Adding rye to a sour definitely brings out spice and Wild Turkey Rye is a perfect choice.
Fully of warmth and smoke, tempered by vanilla and caramel. Cinnamon and baking spices definitely stand out within a sour cocktail.
3. If You Want a Classic Mild Sour: Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
One of the oldest bourbons in America, Basil Hayden’s is the classic way to go. If you want to taste what some of the original whiskey sours were probably like, you can’t go wrong here!
While most corn mash, there is some rye added which makes for a nice rush of spice and helps keep the bourbon base strong. Peppermint, honey, pepper, and even a bit of citrus make for a smooth blend with lemon and sugar.
4. If You Want Spice but Hate Rye: Four Roses
Four Roses is a classic cocktail-mixing bourbon. (There’s even a romantic story attached to the name!) It’s smooth and sweet, yes. But it also has a nice bundle of spices and a bit of a bite, so it won’t be overwhelmed by the other flavors.
A good smooth, warm, corn-heavy bourbon. Notes of cherries, apple with honey and orange with lemon, followed by oaky cinnamon. The perfect pair for a sour. If you’re looking for spice and kick without rye, this is an excellent option!
5. If You Love a Smokey Sour: Glenfiddich Fire & Cane
Scotch is one of the rarer options to try in a sour, but definitely worth it! I wouldn’t recommend putting top-tier12-year-aged scotch into a cocktail, even one that relies on a good whiskey. Instead, if you love a smoky flavor, try Glenfiddich Fire & Cane.
The price point is more reasonable, and it’s part of their experimental series, which is always fun! Fire & Cane is a mixture of peated and unpeated barley, both aged in bourbon casks.
After that initial aging, both are combined and aged in South American rum casks too, producing a delicious smoky-sweet flavor. Campfire and toasted wood are melting into caramel and marshmallows. If you’re looking for a smoky scotch to replace bourbon in a sour, you couldn’t choose a better option!
Other Whiskey Cocktails
Yes. Bourbon is a type of whiskey and is actually one of the most common liquors in a whiskey sour! A whiskey sour with bourbon will be sweeter and lighter than one made from rye or scotch.
Not always! While many whiskey sours are served on the rocks, some, especially ones with egg whites are served straight up. Others are shaken with ice but served straight. And even others are made with no ice at all. It’s totally up to your preference. If you are including an egg, though, it’s wise to shake the cocktail with ice (to keep it cold) and then strain the drink over a glass to serve straight up.
Most foods that pair well with whiskey also pair well with a whiskey sour. I wouldn’t eat anything too sweet or too lemony since those notes are already in your drink.
• Try bacon, ham, grilled burgers/cuts, barbecue or other fatty meats.
• For dessert, go with a solid southern staple (especially if you used bourbon) and grab a slice of pecan pie!
Not likely. Obviously eating raw eggs always carries a bit of risk. However, whiskey sours with eggs whites contain so little egg. (And mix it with such comparatively large quantities of alcohol.) It is very unlikely you will get sick from the tiny bit of egg in a whiskey sour alone. But it is always good to exercise caution when eating raw eggs. If you feel you are at high risk or you notice the bar is not using chilled eggs, best to avoid.
Ice. It all comes down to the ice.
• Dry shaking involves shaking with no ice at all. These cocktails are then poured into a glass either straight up (no ice) or over the rocks.
• Wet shaking includes ice in the cocktail shaker. These cocktails can also be served straight up or over additional ice in the glass. For Whiskey Sours, in particular, I recommend dry shaking and then pouring over ice. Unless you are using egg whites, then wet shake and serve straight up!
Whiskey sours are one of the most classic whiskey cocktails out there. You’re pretty much guaranteed to be able to order one at any bar you visit.
The recipe is easy to follow, and really only requires fresh fruit and your favorite whiskey. Bourbon is the usual poison of choice. But rye and scotch also add their own unique twists. And egg can elevate it to a whole new level if you’re feeling brave.
Since it is so simple, a little bit of adjustment can go a long way in adapting the flavor profile to your palate. Don’t be sure to experiment with different syrups and alcohol pairings.