How to Make a Whisky Sour

Whisky Sour

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

In this article, we will review the history of the sour, variations on the sour, and how to make the best. We will also touch upon how to take this classic formulation and make it your own with flavor and spirits twists. 
How the Whisky Sour Started

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

The fruit and grain began to transform with time due to exposure to wild yeast strains.  These strains eat the sugar of fruit and grains.  Eventually, this yeast turns it 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.  These distilled beverages are safe from contamination from bacteria.  Bacteria was a threat in these days and caused dysentery and typhoid.

Adding distilled spirit to water was the first form of water purification. Alcohol was also just popular: every civilization 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 started as a curative concoction.  They were believed to cure disease.

Most commonly, whiskey (or gin or rum) was carried 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 is watered down rum.  The name comes from British Navy (nicknamed after Admiral “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 into the “grog” spirit to ward off scurvy (Vitamin C deficiency) and a spoon of sugar to improve flavor. 

“Grog” to Sour

The sour cocktail grew in popularity throughout the mid- to late-19th century, appearing in the seminal bartending guide of it’s era – Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guideand the whiskey varietal is mentioned as an established cocktail choice in an 1870 Wisconsin newspaper. From there, it grew like wildfire to become one of the most common cocktail types on any menu, serving as the basis for perennial favorites such as the Daiquiri and the Margarita.  

So how do you even make a sour?

You must start with the basic foundation of spirit + sugar + citrus; from there, the varieties and options are vast.

Let’s start with the most common version, which is the classic Whiskey Sour.

The Whisky Sour

Let’s start with 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 still retains a good amount of that quintessential whiskey “burn.” 

The Whiskey Sour should be shaken since it contains citrus.  You want to achieve a good dose of dilution from more vigorous interaction with ice.

The Citrus Element

Next, let’s choose our citrus. Lemon is classic but you can achieve new flavor combinations with another citrus, whether more common like grapefruit or more exotic, like yuzu.

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. 

Here is my go-to recipe: 

Classic Whiskey Sour
  • 2 oz whiskey
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • ¾ oz rich simple syrup
  • Instructions: combine ingredients in shaker. Add ice, shake vigorously. Strain into coupe or stemmed glass. Garnish with lemon wedge. Now that you have mastered the basic version, 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 the potential of 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 eggwhite 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. 

    Boston Sour
  • 2 oz whiskey
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • ¾ oz rich simple syrup
  • 1 egg white (or 1 oz egg whites or aquafaba)
  • Instructions: combine ingredients in a shaker. Add ice, shake vigorously. Strain out ice, shake vigorously again. Double strain into coupe or stemmed glass. Garnish with Angostura dotted on top of the foam.
    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. 


    New York Sour
  • 2 oz whiskey
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • ¾ oz rich simple syrup
  • ½ oz red wine (suggest a more fruit-forward varietal such as Malbec or Zinfandel)
  • Instructions: combine ingredients except for wine in a shaker. Add ice, shake vigorously. Strain over ice in a short glass. Float wine across the top by pouring gently on top of the drink.
    Making Your Own Signature Sour

    Nothing elevates a bartender’s acumen like crafting your own cocktails. 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. 

    My personal favorite creation is the Ginger Sour, which I craft with whiskey or gin, deploying either a ginger-infused syrup or muddling fresh ginger. The addition of the piquant ginger adds an edge to the otherwise soft-palated drink, while also enhancing its refreshing nature. Ginger is also a common ingredient that is easy to find and has wide appeal. So, what will your signature sour be? 

    Erin’s Ginger Whiskey Sour Ingredients:
  • 2 oz whiskey
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • ¾ oz rich simple syrup
  • 1 inch fresh ginger
  • 1 egg white (or 1 oz egg whites or aquafaba)
  • Instructions: combine ingredients except for egg white in a shaker. Peel and dice one inch of fresh ginger, muddle. Add egg or aquafaba. Add ice, shake vigorously. Strain out ice, shake vigorously again. Double strain into coupe or stemmed glass. Garnish with a slice of candied ginger.
    Erin Petrey
    Erin Petrey

    Erin is a bourbon loyalist, gin fanatic, and all around curious drinker. She is the Cocktail Editor for Bourbon & Banter and The Produce Moms, Head Mixologist for CourseHorse, owner of The Cocktail Coach LLC, and an Executive Bourbon Steward. She loves teaching folks how to become masters of their home bars and find their next favorite drink. She lives in Washington, DC and can be found drinking bourbon and mixing up cocktails on Instagram @livelongandcocktail.

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