While there’s no agreed upon birthday for the Whiskey Sour, we can all acknowledge that its first printed recipe appeared in that famed tome of 19th-century cocktail wisdom, “How to Mix Drinks,” circa 1862. We can also agree that it’s much easier to get a well-made version of the Whiskey Sour these days. “It’s one of those drinks that has a simple recipe, and therefore it’s easily fucked up,” says Kenneth McCoy of Ward III, which carries more than 400 whiskeys and makes quite a few Whiskey Sours on any given night. “In the ’80s, there were super sweet sours drenched in grenadine. I can see how people have had some bad ones.”
Want to know how to make a good one? These six Whiskey Sour tidbits will keep you on the straight, shaken and narrow.
Kenneth McCoy’s recipe at Ward III
1. Go Even-Steven on the Sour and Sweet
Everyone’s taste is different, but as an easy-to-remember rule of thumb, equal parts citrus and simple syrup will get you to a perfectly solid version of the Whiskey Sour every time. “It’s about trying to find that balance when playing with lime and lemon or simple and demerara,” says McCoy. “You want to hit this middle point of it not tasting like overpowering lemon, lime or grapefruit and not tasting like a lot of sugar either. It just tastes perfect. It’s about that for me.”
2. You Can Put Red Wine in It
A barspoon of red wine not only adds a glorious glow to your Whiskey Sour, it also provides it with a slightly altered moniker, aka the New York Sour, and more importantly adds to the drink’s balance. “A dry red wine cuts through all that acidity and balances it out,” says McCoy. His recommendation: a red with medium tannic structure, like sangiovese or merlot. He also likes to play around with other wine-based aromatized and fortified wines, like vermouth, sherry or amaro.
3. Bourbon Is Best
If you love rye whiskey in your sour, go for it. But there’s something about the softer, vanilla and caramel notes of bourbon that just does the drink right. “With rye, there’s more spice,” says McCoy. “Bourbon has sweeter honey-toned notes, and I think two ounces of that with three-fourths of an ounce citrus and three-fourths of an ounce sweet is the perfect combo.” If you do want to add some of that punchy, savory rye spice, he recommends doing one-to-one rye to bourbon.
4. It Doesn’t Have to Have Egg White (but It’s Better with It)
You can make a Whiskey Sour sans the protein, and no one will take you to task under the flag of imbibing blasphemy. (Some would even argue that egg white makes it a Boston Sour, but we digress.) However, let’s go crazy and put ourselves on the line and proclaim, It’s better with an egg white! “It’s so frothy and so wonderful, and yet it has no taste to it,” says McCoy. “It’s all about the texture and aesthetics.”
5. It Responds Well to Riffs
Those elements of sweet, sour and silky make for an eternal nest of newly hatched ideas, like Tim Wiggins’ use of falernum and grapefruit liqueur in his version at Retreat Gastropub and Yellowbelly in St. Louis. “Whiskey Sours are all about texture, and the weight of the two liqueurs makes a velvety cocktail that’s the perfect balance of sweet and sour,” says Wiggins. “I look for velvety texture and good balance in a Whiskey Sour.”
6. Punch Is Probably Its Poppa
If you think about it, a Whiskey Sour is really just a mini single-serve version of a traditional punch recipe: booze, citrus and sweetener, plus dilution. Think about it in the reverse: Could you take the bourbon, simple syrup and citrus and supersize it? Why, yes. It’s like the liquid version of a palindrome, or something like that. Let’s contemplate it over a Whiskey Sour, shall we?