How to Make a Whiskey Sour Your Guests Will Rave About!

How to make a whiskey sour

The sour is one of the fundamental cocktail families every bartender should master.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of the sour. We’ll examine several variations of this popular cocktail, and I’ll share my favorite twist on the drink recipe.

Origins of the Whiskey Sour

When humans began to sow their own crops, they noticed an abundance of leftovers. A large portion of this unused crop was fruit and grain both of which were left to the elements.

The fruit and grain began to transform over time due to exposure to wild yeast strains. These strains eat the sugar of fruit and grains. Eventually, this yeast turns into alcohol. This happy accident was humanity’s introduction to the science of fermentation.

Wine and beer became a staple, and until the advent of distillation, they reigned supreme.

Alcohol For Safety (Anti-Bacterial)

Distillation creates long-lasting alcoholic beverages. Distilled beverages are safe from contamination due to bacteria. Historically, bacteria were extremely dangerous and often caused dysentery and typhoid.

Adding distilled spirits to water was an early form of water purification while alcohol was also very popular on its own. Most civilizations imbibed some form of fermented or distilled grain and fruit due to the pleasant psychoactive effects.

Alcohol for Curing Disease

Cocktails that follow the formula spirit + citrus + sugar have one thing in common: they all started as a curative concoction. They were believed to cure disease.

Whiskey, gin, and rum were transported in large barrels on ships making long ocean voyages. Every sailor was allotted a daily ration of beer or spirit, in addition to water and food.

In the mid-17th century, “grog” was invented.  It was basically watered-down rum.  The name comes from the British Navy – an admiral nicknamed “Old Grogram”. Grog made stale, bad-tasting water more palatable and reduced crew intoxication.

It was also common to add half a lemon or lime to the grog to ward off scurvy (vitamin C deficiency) and a spoonful of sugar to improve the drink’s flavor.

“Grog” to Sour

The sour cocktail grew in popularity throughout the mid-to-late 19th century, appearing in the seminal bartending guide of the era – Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide. The whiskey varietal was also mentioned as an established cocktail choice in an 1870 Wisconsin newspaper.

From these humble beginnings, the whiskey sour’s popularity grew like wildfire, making it one of the most common cocktail types on any menu, serving as the basis for perennial favorites such as the Daiquiri and the Margarita.

How to Make a Classic Whiskey Sour

To make a whiskey sour, start with the basic foundation of spirit + sugar + citrus. From there, the varieties and options are vast.

Choose Your Whiskey

You should choose a whiskey – usually bourbon or rye – with a proof of 90 – 100 (45 – 50% alcohol by volume) to ensure it retains a good amount of that quintessential whiskey “burn.”

The whiskey sour should be shaken since it contains citrus. You want to achieve a healthy dose of dilution from vigorous interaction with ice.

The Citrus Element

Next, choose the citrus.

Lemon is the classic option, but you can achieve new flavor combinations with other citrus fruits like grapefruit or yuzu, if you’re looking for something more exotic.

The Sweet Element

Then you will want to choose your sweetening agent. I prefer rich simple syrup (2:1 sugar to water ratio) to provide a nice texture and viscosity. The final step is to ensure you have balance amongst the elements.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces of whiskey
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of rich simple syrup

Steps

  1. Combine the ingredients in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Add ice and shake vigorously.
  3. Strain into a coupe or stemmed glass.
  4. Garnish with a lemon wedge.

Now that you have mastered the classic whiskey sour, let’s examine two of the most popular variations: the Boston Sour and the New York Sour.

The Boston Sour

The Boston Sour is marked by the addition of egg white to the Classic formula to add body, texture, and a more delicate flavor. You can substitute egg white for aquafaba (water from a chickpea can), which can provide options for vegans or just those who are squeamish about imbibing a raw egg.

Achieving a fluffy foam on the drink is essential to master.

I prefer to deploy a reverse dry shake (shaking with ice, straining the ice, then shaking again with no ice) but a traditional dry shake can also work (shake with no ice, then shake with ice). To achieve a smoother foam, double strain the cocktail through a fine-mesh strainer.

The traditional garnish for a Boston Sour is Angostura bitters, dotted onto the egg white foam. Decant your Angostura into a bitters bottle with a dasher top or into an eyedropper for greater precision.

Dot the egg white (or aquafaba) foam with one or two parallel lines of three dots, then, using the dropper or a cocktail pick, draw a line down the center of the dots to achieve tiny hearts. This adds an extra bit of artistry, whimsy, and flavor to the cocktail.

Once you have mastered the basic garnish, you can experiment with other shapes and figures, or even cut out your own logo or design from a plastic deli lid and use an atomizer filled with Angostura to spray the stencil.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces of whiskey
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of rich simple syrup
  • 1 egg white (or 1 ounce of aquafaba)

Steps

  1. Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Add ice and shake vigorously.
  3. Strain out ice, shake vigorously again.
  4. Double strain into a coupe or stemmed glass.
  5. Garnish with Angostura dotted on top of the foam.
Boston Sour

The New York Sour

The New York Sour is a bit of an oddball, but a cocktail that has been popping up on cocktail menus more frequently. This breed of sour is widely accepted to date back to the late 19th century with a birthplace that does not logically follow the name: Chicago.

This drink also goes under the name of the “Continental Sour” and it may be that the name was given due to New York having a reputation for high society, luxury hotels, and bustling commerce (though it also played host to the other end of that spectrum with slums, tenements, and poor working conditions).

Regardless of the origin, the New York Sour is considered one of the main types of whiskey-based sour cocktails every bartender should know how to craft.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces of whiskey
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of rich simple syrup
  • 1/2 ounce of red wine (ideally, a more fruit-forward varietal such as Malbec or Zinfandel)

Steps

  1. Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, and rich simple syrup in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Add ice and shake vigorously.
  3. Strain over ice in a short glass.
  4. Float wine across the top by pouring gently on top of the drink.
New York Sour

The LBS Ginger Sour

Nothing elevates a bartender’s acumen like crafting an original cocktail.

Experimenting with flavors, proportions, and presentation encourages flexing the basics and pushing creativity to craft new, delightful quaffs. Once you master the three basic types of sours, begin to add in different spirits, sweeteners, citrus varieties, and flavors.

That’s how the LBS Ginger Sour came about.

“We put our own spin on the classic whiskey sour. We call our version of the cocktail a Ginger Sour.”

Boris Lozinksi, CMO at Local Bartending School

The LBS Ginger Sour can be crafted with whiskey or gin, using either a ginger-infused syrup or by muddling fresh ginger.

The addition of the piquant ginger adds an edge to the otherwise soft-palated drink, while enhancing its refreshing nature. Ginger is also a common ingredient that is easy to find and has wide appeal.

Ingredients

  • 2 ounces of whiskey
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce of rich simple syrup
  • 1 inch of fresh ginger
  • 1 egg white (or 1 ounce of aquafaba)

Steps

  1. Combine the whiskey, lemon juice, and rich simple syrup in a cocktail shaker.
  2. Peel and dice one inch of fresh ginger, muddle.
  3. Add egg or aquafaba and muddled ginger.
  4. Add ice and shake vigorously.
  5. Strain out ice, shake vigorously again.
  6. Double strain into coupe or stemmed glass.
  7. Garnish with a slice of candied ginger.

Wait… There’s More!

If you enjoyed this article, we have more drink recipes for you to try.

A special thank you to the folks at Local Bartending School. They were a valuable resource for this article.

LBS offers bartending lessons, state certification, and job placement throughout all 50 states both online and in person. If you’re interested in becoming a bartender, be sure to check them out!

By Michael

Chief mixologist and cocktail enthusiast at Swizzle Club.