The Beautiful Simplicity of the Whiskey Sour

August 25 is National Whisky Sour Day. (Really – who comes up with this stuff?) In honor of the day I thought I should share my thoughts on this classic cocktail.

The Beautiful Whiskey Sour

The Beautiful Whiskey Sour

The Whiskey Sour is a cocktail that is need of our love and understanding. When executed correctly it delights with its delicious simplicity. When done wrong it’s flat and lifeless and probably a waste of Whiskey.

To further muddy the waters there are many in the contemporary bartending world who reflexively rally against simple. I love simple when simple is good and delivers a flavor that is complex. Simple is executable and repeatable, which is always my mantra when training bar staff.

So the burning question is what makes a great Whiskey Sour as opposed to a bad version? Clearly the answer begins with the use of quality ingredients but I will assume that this is simply understood.

Whiskey Sour – Choice of Whiskey Essential

The first and primary factor is of course the choice of Whiskey. This is the foundation of the cocktail and choosing poorly even when the Whiskey is stellar will lead to an inferior Whiskey Sour. Bourbon is the go-to Whiskey with Rye not far behind. If you are choosing Rye it’s hard to go wrong as Rye gives us the heft, spice, and depth of flavor required for this drink. If you are choosing Bourbon be sure to go with a rye-heavy recipe for the same reasons that we like to use Rye Whiskey. Great wheat-forward Bourbons tend to get lost in this drink creating a flat, one-dimensional drink that fails to inspire.

I have seen Irish Whiskey used in Sours and it can work but it often fails for the same reasons that soft, wheat-heavy Bourbons fail in the Sour. Canadian Whisky is often a good choice if you steer clear of the lighter, simpler staples and veer toward some of the new wave styles that deliver a full-bodied Whisky experience.

Whiskey Sour Deconstructed

Whiskey Sour Deconstructed

Whiskey Sour – The Sugar question

I am often a big fan of using simple syrup in a recipe that calls for fine sugar. As the name would suggest it is simple and you can be sure of a complete dilution of sugar and the easy mixing of your sweet element.

However, in a Whiskey Sour I really like the use of fine sugar. I find it marries beautifully with the lemon when you shake as if your life depended upon it. If you want to use simple syrup go ahead as this will not kill the drink.

(There is no lemon question – lemons are a citrus fruit that grows on trees. When cut in half and squeezed lemons release a beautiful fresh juice that invigorates many drinks and culinary dishes. Was that too sarcastic?)

Whiskey Sour – The Egg Question

The answer to the egg question is — no. We have already addressed the issue of a lack of appreciation for simple things. Nothing illustrates this more than the era when bartenders became mixologists. The three-legged stool construction of the classic Whiskey Sour is far too simple to be understood by all. Besides, the egg addition to the cocktail might raise an eyebrow from a guest or two, which is an peculiar satisfaction for some.

The Whiskey Sour was born sans egg white in the days before Prohibition. In post-Prohibition days the fine skills of bartending had become more rare and US bartenders, particularly in the east, took their lead from European barmen. In the UK and Europe the sour had been augmented by a small portion of egg white that added a dramatic froth to the drink.

Today I have frequently observed the use of an entire egg white from a large egg added to the sour. At this point it ceases to be a Whiskey Sour and becomes an unbaked meringue with a Whiskey accent.

If you are convinced that the egg white brings needed foam and viscosity there is another way. If you don’t mind using simple syrup instead of sugar do what I do and use my “simple +” recipe. It’s dead easy: 1 cup each of sugar and water with one teaspoon of fruit pectin powder (the same stuff you use for making jams at home). Bring all to a boil and then allow it to cool. Strain and use as you would simple syrup. It does bring more foam and more body to the party.

Whiskey Sour – The Service Question

Is it up or on the rocks? Well I’m fine with either. In my rocks version I do add an orange slice in addition to the brandied cherry. This does alter the drink but in a good way. Sometimes it just makes sense to serve drinks on ice as the additional dilution can be beneficial in the battle to stay hydrated.

Now get out there and make some Whiskey Sours. It’s a great aperitif and equally good after dinner.

Get the Whiskey Sour recipe.


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