The Story of the Whiskey Sour
When it comes to our cocktails, we love going back to basics with the classics. And with just three ingredients, the Whiskey Sour is a classic cocktail that still sees unrivalled popularity with both its classic recipe and its modern variations. It’s enjoyable and easy to assemble, but mastering that delicate balance of sweet and sour is what sets the best bartenders apart from the rest.
Photo © Matthias Soberon
But where did this delicious drink come from? From sea voyages and punch taverns, to egg whites and red wine twists - this is a cocktail that’s been on quite the journey. We dived into its history to learn about its incredible beginnings right through to its modern interpretations, to find out how it became one of the most well-known cocktails of all time.
The History of the Whiskey Sour
While the first printed proof of the whiskey sour appeared in the 1800s dates back to way before this, and it’s likely that we actually have the British Navy to thank for it! As rum didn’t go off during long periods at sea, it was preferred to other drinks such as beer for long voyages. The sailors mixed their rum with lime to get their Vitamin C fix, avoid malnutrition and prevent them from getting scurvy. That’s right - their sours were literally life-saving! They called the Daiquiri-like creation ‘Grog’ (ever wondered where the phrase “feeling groggy” came from?), and their early concept of the sour was brought to shore when Punch Houses were established in London in the 1600s. From here, the basics of the whiskey sour were refined.
The first printed record of the sour appeared in 1862, in Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks where, instead of syrup, he relied on dissolving sugar in water before adding the remaining ingredients. However, the earliest record of a whiskey sour came eight years later in a Wiconsin newspaper and, given it was spoken about with no explanation, suggests that the drink was already widely popular by 1870. In David Woodrich’s book, Imbibe, he says: “From roughly the 1860s to the 1960, the Sour, and particularly its whiskey incarnation, was one of the cardinal points of American drinking”.
A whiskey sour is based on three pillars - spirit, sugar and citrus - which means a sour is basically a smaller version of a punch, the earliest form of cocktail. Because of the similarity in ingredients, it’s thought that punch is a key element in the sour’s evolution, and this simple template is the same one that formed other classics like the Daiquiri, the Margarita, and so many more.
But in case you’re wondering what it was like to drink a whiskey sour in the 1800s, we’ve included the recipe from its very first time in print below:
- 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.
The Modern Twist
One thing you definitely don’t see in the original recipe? Egg whites.
In the early days of cocktail making, people used what they could find, adding new ingredients as they became available until they’d created their own adaptation or twist. The egg white was added later as a frothy element to an already established cocktail.
If you want to put a twist on a whiskey sour, it can be as simple as splitting the base between bourbon and another spirit like Fernet, or adding different sweeteners like honey-ginger syrup, as we do in a Penicillin. New Yorkers even decided to add their own signature twist in 1870, topping the drink off with a dash of red wine to create the New York Sour.
These renditions of the whiskey sour have become classics in their own right, but the original three-ingredient version is still how the drink is best known today. The recipe has evolved greatly over the years, but we’ll always revert to the classic.
The Classic Whiskey Sour Recipe
- 50ml bourbon
- 25ml lemon juice
- 1 tsp simple syrup or caster sugar
- 15ml egg white (optional)
- Lemon slice
- Maraschino cherry
Shake the bourbon, lemon juice and syrup/sugar and egg white vigorously with ice. Strain into a chilled sour glass. Garnish with the lemon slice and cherry.
Cover image © Matthias Soberon