Classic Cocktails in History: the Whiskey Sour

Photo by Paul Goyette

Photo by Paul Goyette

There is a grand pendulum that swings back and forth in trends. In the beginning, everything is simple. People use what they can find, adding new ingredients or processes as they become available. More and more people begin to work with this new trend, everyone adding their own twist or adaptation. Some of them catch on, some of them are mercifully discarded. The original product begins to get more and more complex as competitors try to outdo each other with the most extreme versions they can find. The product becomes so complex that the people buying the product yearn for something simpler. They get tired of all the whirling gizmos and extreme iterations and just want something simple that works. Food and drink are not immune to this arc.

There has been a movement back to the basic blocks when it comes to cocktails. There is something special about the simple cocktails. They are enjoyable and well known from a customer standpoint, and easy to assemble from behind the bar. Daiquiris, Margaritas, Old Fashioneds, Gin and Tonics, are all starting to find their way back onto the menus of great cocktail establishments.

Another cocktail that is starting to see the light of day is one that has used the simplest of building material, and enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States even before it was written down - the Whiskey Sour. It's as simple as you can get and still be called a cocktail. There is a base spirit, water, sugar, and a citrus element, usually lemon.

There are some historians that believe the sour category is a scaled down version of the basic punch. It has the elements of “one sour, two sweet, three strong, four weak” that a classic punch has, but in an individual serving size. The proportions are a bit off, but you get the idea. The base spirit is always the dominant flavor. The sugar needs the juice and water or soda to help dissolve the sugar. The citrus should be just present enough to balance out the sweetness of the sugar. Gum (simple) syrup was later substituted for the sugar and water in some recipes, which is easier to blend into the cocktail.

photo by Beautiful Mess

photo by Beautiful Mess

The recipe itself was first written down in the 1862 book The Bartender's Guide by Jerry Thomas. However, the basic recipe was known for over a century prior. In those days, travel seemed to take forever, and up to the 20th century, refrigeration was lacking and the concept of germs was largely unknown. Long journeys over land weren’t terrible. You could stop off and resupply as needed or just go hunting and foraging. Sea travel, especially from Europe to North America, was not nearly as simple. Food and water will spoil over a multi-month trip, and water wasn’t exactly considered safe (see the germ note above).

Professional sailors suffered from scurvy and other malnutrition and sea-sicknesses, up until a bartender’s hero named Vice Admiral Edward Vernon of England began mixing a few ingredients together to serve to his crew. Sailors had a ration of various things, like limes and lemons to prevent scurvy, and liquor for something safe to drink. To prevent a ship full of intoxicated shipmates, the liquor, usually rum once it was discovered, was watered down and lemon or lime juice was added to mask the flavor of the rum. Hence, we have a very early version of the Sour.

The sailors then brought this concept to shore and eventually the basics of the sour cocktail were refined to what we know it as. Gin and Brandy were also substituted in by the English, but the Americans were more fond of the native (and generally easier to obtain) whiskey. Jerry Thomas ultimately refined and published this imbibement, codifying the sour into black and white.

And what of that original recipe? Here is it, from the book:

Original Whiskey Sour

  • (Use small bar-glass.)

  • Take 1 large tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar dissolved in a little Seltzer or Apollinaris water

  • The juice of half a small lemon

  • 1 wine-glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey

Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

Soda was originally used, but eventually abandoned over time. Most likely as people realized that the soda lost some effervescence after being shaken. One thing you do not see in the recipe, other than a lack of measurements? An egg. No whites, no yolks, nothing.

The egg was later added as a creamy, frothy element to the cocktail. It went down a little smoother and looked a little better in the glass with the egg in it. Gary Regan’sJoy of Mixology does not include an egg. Dale DeGroff’sThe Essential Cocktail includes egg white as an option. Adding an egg to a cocktail makes some people nervous, as it should; there is a chance you are going to contract salmonella and become ill. As a bartender friend of mine likes to say, “You actually have a better chance of choking on a bar peanut than contracting salmonella from an egg.”

If the bar is keeping the eggs cold before they use them and being careful not to touch the egg white to the shell, the 0.25 oz to 0.5 oz (7 to 15 mL) of egg white you typically would add will not have any adverse effects. The elderly and those with weak immune systems should avoid the egg in the cocktail, since they have the greatest chance of contracting salmonella. The CDC also says that anyone under five has twice the risk of contracting it, but they should not really be drinking cocktails, should they? Some very strict bartenders may insist that adding an egg white makes it a Boston Sour, but that is a different argument for a different day.

The actual recipe with measurements for a Whiskey Sour is:

Whiskey Sour

  • 1.5 to 2 oz. (45 to 60mL) Whiskey

  • 1 oz. (30 mL) Lemon Juice

  • .5 oz. (15 mL) Simple Syrup

  • .25 oz. (7 mL) Egg White (optional)

  • Cherry for garnish

  • Lemon or orange slice for garnish

Pour the ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake well, then pour into a rocks glass over ice. If you are using the egg white you can use as much or as little in the cocktail as you want (I have had just a dash, up to a full egg white. It is all tasty.). Dry shake (no ice) vigorously to get the white foamy element before adding ice and other ingredients. Egg proteins do not break down without a fight, and this will froth them up nicely. Adding the ice and other ingredients at this phase may put too much water into the cocktail. You can adjust the ratio of simple syrup and lemon juice to taste.

Why is such an amazing, simple, fresh cocktail being rediscovered? Like many other cocktails, it succumbed to multiple changes in culture and technology during the 20th century. The first cultural change was Prohibition. Base spirits in their pure form were hard to come by, and even when they were available they were watered down or tainted in some way. Sours and other simple cocktails were not refined to hide bad base spirits. Odd, how a mixture that once was used to mask foul ingredients eventually lost that ability. Prohibition, even after it ended, did not bring liquor production in the U.S. back to life. World War II hit not long after, and distilleries did their part in the war by switching over to producing industrial alcohol for the war front. It was not until the 1950’s and 60’s that American made spirits like whiskey and rum started to come back to pre-Prohibition levels.

That era of good feelings and consumerism brought a technological boom with it that would destroy well-crafted cocktails for over a generation: pre-bottled mixers. To keep up with the times and technology, bartenders wanted to use all of the latest and greatest things hitting the shelf. Instead of squeezing juices an ounce at a time, then adding sugar to them, you could just grab a premade bottle and pour! No fuss and less preparation? Who could resist? Over time, those concoctions were made with less juice and sugar, and with more syrup and flavoring. The delicate balances that the great barman developed were dropped in favor of bigger cocktails. Those classic cocktails in the sour category fell to the bottom rung of cocktail making. They were a pour of the good stuff doused in a cheap chemical wash of sweet, lemony syrup. Serious drinkers stayed away from them, opting for Bloody Mary’s, Long Island Iced Teas, Alabama Slammers, and Cosmopolitans. It was not until the 90’s that bartenders started to pull back, gently dipping their toes into this idea of fresh mixers. And the pendulum slowly started to move in the other direction.

As the mixologists and other crafty bartenders got a hold of this cocktail, they started to explore ways to manipulate it without losing the equilibrium of sweet, sour, and boozy. The sour and the boozy are hard to really manipulate; whiskey and lemon wrap themselves nicely together. The one thing people have played with the most is how to make it sweet. Marmalade, maple syrup, and other specialty favored syrups have been worked in at various bars to give their own twists on the traditional flavor. The one that is most commonly used, though, is honey. Making a simple syrup from honey is what PDT mentions in their book, and how many NYC hot spots, such as Dear Irving serve it. PDT shows a 2:1 ratio of honey to water in the book. Other sources with a similar cocktail use a 1.5:1 ratio. It just depends on how sweet you want it.

The Gold Rush

Gold Rush, by Stew

Gold Rush, by Stew

  • 1.5 oz. to 2 oz. (45 to 60 mL) Whiskey (bourbon works best to pick up the sweetness)

  • 1 oz. (30 mL) Honey Syrup

  • .75 oz. (20 mL) Fresh Lemon Juice

  • Cherry for garnish

  • Lemon or orange slice for garnish

Pour the ingredients into a shaker over ice. Shake well, then pour into a rocks glass over ice. If you want to make the honey syrup by the individual glass, pour 0.25 oz. (7 mL) of warm water to 0.5 oz (15 mL) of honey into the shaker and shake first. Let it cool, then add ice and the rest of the ingredients. The ice melt will add extra water, and the cocktail should come out at about the same proportions.

The basics of a cocktail were wrapped up elegantly in the well balanced Whiskey Sour. So elegantly that it is difficult to improve on it without a deft hand at cocktail construction. Its movement through history is one that mirrors pendulum movement of any good trend. From the low points of being made by necessity and with commercial sour mix to the sublime highs of the recipe Jerry Thomas published and modern bartenders rediscovered, the Whiskey Sour has had an interesting journey. Where it goes next will just be another chapter in the saga.