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Whiskey Sour

Whiskey 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.

For much of human history, water was hazardous to drink. Since the dawn of the Neolithic age, when humans began to sow their own crops and domesticate animals, they began to notice that when an abundance of fruit or grain were left to the elements, they would begin to transform. This transformation was due to exposure to wild yeast strains – which eat the sugar of fruit and grains, turning it into alcohol. This happy accident was humanity’s introduction to the science of fermentation. Wine and beer became a staple of every subsequent civilization, and until the advent of distillation a few centuries into the first millennium, they reigned supreme. With distillation, humans could now create alcoholic beverages that lasted more than a few days (remember, this was the era pre-preservatives) and was safe from contamination from the bacteria that caused common ailments such as dysentery or typhoid. Adding distilled spirit to water was the first form of water purification. More than this, alcohol was just popular – every civilization imbibed some form of either fermented or distilled grain and fruit, and it became even more popular with increasing urbanization.

So what does all of this have to do with the Whiskey Sour? Cocktails that follow the formula of spirit + citrus + sugar all have one thing in common: they started as a curative concoction. Most commonly, whiskey (or gin or rum) were carried in large barrels on ships traversing large swaths of ocean. Every sailor was allotted a daily ration of beer or spirit, along with their rations of water and food. The British Navy, in particular, is credited with having a fondness for beer that turned to a fondness for rum in the mid 17th century. The advent of “grog” – watered down rum – is attributed to Admiral Edwarn Vernon of the British Navy (nicknamed “Old Grogram”), as a way to make water that had gone off in flavor during long voyages at sea taste more palatable and to reduce the levels of crew intoxication. But beyond these daily applications of distilled spirit, it was common to add a half squeeze of lemon or lime into a tot of spirit to stave off scurvy (a deficiency of Vitamin C) and avoid the unpleasant flavor of water sitting in a barrel for up to two months.

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. 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, and you want to achieve a good dose of dilution from more vigorous interaction with ice. Next, let’s choose our citrus. Lemon is the classic but you can achieve new flavor combinations with other citrus, whether more common like grapefruit or more exotic, like yuzu. 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

Ingredients:

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). Whichever method you prefer, I always suggest giving the last bit of foam left in the shaker a back and forth shake before topping the drink to ensure the fluffiest part of the eggwhite is reserved for the top. 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 dasher top or into a eyedropper for greater precision. Dot the eggwhite (or aquafaba) foam with 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 Whiskey Sour

Ingredients:

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 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 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 Whiskey Sour

Ingredients:

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 wine in 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 egg white in 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.

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