This Lemony Cocktail Once Was America’s Favorite
For over 100 years, the Whiskey Sour was the most popular cocktail in the United States. It’s easy to understand why. The drink has great flavor, a lovely bouquet, and looks mighty attractive.
Getting thirsty? Let’s make one!
Recipe: Whiskey Sour
This drink is a snap to make. It’s just whiskey (bourbon, preferably) combined with lemon juice and simple syrup (or sugar), shaken together with ice. You can include a bit of egg white in the drink if you want — it creates an attractive frothy, foamy head on the drink — but few people do these days (and some people call a Whiskey Sour made with egg white a Boston Sour).
The trickiest part of mixing this drink is adjusting the ratio of sour (the lemon) to sweet (the sugar) to get a flavor balance that pleases you. I don’t like drinks that are too sweet, so my recipe reflects that. You might prefer more sugar than I specify. If so, just add it. BTW, this points up one of the advantages of using Simple Syrup (sugar dissolved in water) instead of granular sugar when mixing cocktails: A squirt or two of simple syrup added to the drink sweetens it and dissolves instantly.
I like the ratio of ingredients that David Wondrich published on the Esquire Magazine website, and my recipe is adapted from his. This recipe makes 1 drink.
I always serve this drink in a cocktail glass. But if you have a sour glass on hand (a small glass with a short stem), by all means use that.
- 2 ounces of bourbon (nothing too expensive; Evan Williams or the ubiquitous Jim Beam both work well in this drink)
- ¾ ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Simple Syrup (or to taste; many people will prefer 2 teaspoons or more)
- 1 or 2 teaspoons of egg white (very optional; consider using pasteurized; see Notes)
- maraschino cherry garnish (optional)
- Combine bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker that is half filled with ice. Shake well for at least 30 seconds.
- If you are using the optional egg white, combine with all ingredients in Step 1, but leave out the ice (it’s easier to combine egg white with the other ingredients if they aren’t cold). Shake well for 20 seconds. Then add the ice and shake well for another 20 seconds.
- Strain mixture into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry if you wish.
Note that the recipe directs you to shake the drink. There are four reasons for this:
- It makes the drink cold.
- Shaking with ice somewhat dilutes the drink, which adds volume and an important dimension to the final flavor.
- Lemon (or any citrus) juice is difficult to incorporate into a drink merely by stirring. So it’s better to shake a drink that contains citrus.
- Shaking incorporates some air into the drink, which helps add a bit of a frothy head to this cocktail even without the egg white.
- Although I specify bourbon for this drink, any whiskey works (rye, Irish, Canadian, etc.). But I think bourbon tastes best.
- I wouldn’t use expensive spirits in this drink since their nuances will be overpowered by the lemon and sugar. Evan Williams has become my bourbon of choice for most cocktail making, but any bourbon will work. (Well, avoid bottles with plain white labels that merely say “Bourbon” in big black letters).
- Egg white doesn’t really add flavor to this drink, it just makes the head foamy and frothy. Egg whites are a bit of a pain to use, so I rarely do.
- But I admit the drink does look better using egg white. The picture at the top of the post is made without egg white; all the rest include egg white. Although both versions are attractive, the egg white does add a bit of pizazz.
- Eggs carry a slight (but real) risk of salmonella. So I suggest using pasteurized eggs. Although it’s unlikely that the eggs you buy will be infected, why take the risk?
- You can easily identify pasteurized eggs because they usually have a red “P” stamped on them.
- Although raw egg whites are optional in the Whiskey Sour, they are required in drinks such as the Pisco Sour, Ramos Gin Fizz, Clover Club, and Eggnog.
- You can also use dried egg white powder. Supermarkets usually stock this in the same aisle where they stock ingredients for baking. You need to thoroughly dissolve the powder in warm water before using, but they work well in cocktails.
- Today we call all mixed drinks “cocktails.” But back in the mid-19th century (when the ancestors of many of today’s popular drinks were being developed), a cocktail was just one type of mixed drink. Other varieties included punches, flips, cobblers — and sours.
- You can mix a sour using any spirit. But whiskey ruled the day when sours first became popular in the US, so the Whiskey Sour became the exemplar of its class.
- David Wondrich in Imbibe! notes that from roughly the 1860s to the 1960s, sours — particularly the Whiskey Sour — were the most popular drinks in the US.
- You probably enjoy many cocktails that are “sours” without realizing that’s what you’re drinking. For example, the Daiquiri, Sidecar, and Margarita all are sours.
The American Spirit
Whiskey is made all over the world, but in many ways it’s the national spirit of the US — rye and bourbon in particular. It wasn’t always this way, though. In colonial America, rum was the spirit of choice. It was imported from the West Indies, where big sugar plantations were established that produced molasses (from which rum typically is made). It was easy and inexpensive to ship rum to the eastern United States.
But shortly after the Revolutionary War, rum began to fall out of favor. This was partly due to increased taxes. Mostly, though, it was because of America’s steady westward expansion. Rum was too expensive to ship out west (shipping anything overland was very costly, so only necessities traveled that way).
The populace was thirsty, though, and wanted a pick-me-up. So people began using the crops they grew locally, like grains (usually corn) to make distilled spirits — especially whiskey.
And whiskey (specifically bourbon) remained the most consumed spirit in the US until the last quarter of the 20th century, when vodka replaced it in popularity.
“Just think,” I told Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as we were finishing our Whiskey Sours. “You’re holding a piece of American history in your hand.”
“Interesting,” she said, sipping the last of her drink. “We really need to do more for historic preservation. Save the Sour!”
I think that means we’ll be having another round.
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