Love it or hate it, the whiskey sour is a misunderstood cocktail for consumers and one that is often polarizing for bartenders.
Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?
What is a cocktail?
Well, one of the first published definitions of a cocktail appeared in an editorial response in The Balance and Columbian Repository of 1806. It read; "Cocktail is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters."
A more modern definition became; “A cocktail is an alcoholic mixed drink, which is either a combination of spirits, or one or more spirits mixed with other ingredients such as fruit juice, flavored syrup, or cream.”
So what is a ‘sour’ in reference to cocktails?
Sours belong to one of the old families of original cocktails and are described by Jerry Thomas in his 1862 book How to Mix Drinks. This family of cocktails contains liquor, an acidic element (typically a citrus juice like lemon or lime juice), and a sweetener.
So what is so misunderstood and polarizing you might be asking? Well, it’s what would later become the most accepted recipe for a whiskey sour that I would like to focus on as we have just recently passed International Whiskey Sour Day.
There are a few sources that both Bartenders and Mixologists refer to as cocktail bibles; the aforementioned How To Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas, The Joy Of Mixology by Gary Regan, Dale DeGroff’s The Essential Cocktail, The Savoy Cocktail Book by Harry Craddock and David Wondrich’s Imbibe.
We tend to refer to these as our sources for what is “traditional” and “correct.” As with any recipe, things change and evolve over time and cocktail recipes are no different.
Now back to the controversy.
The egg white became a staple of this recipe at some point and I think most Mixologists would say it is essential, and I am one of those. Unfortunately, once Salmonella became natural in most consumers’ lexicons, you see the egg white begin to disappear from modern Whiskey Sour recipes. And that’s just a damn shame.
The chances of getting Salmonella from an egg white in a cocktail are incredibly unlikely. And the squeamishness about the egg white comes from a lack of understanding of how it’s used in the cocktail and why I believe it's so important.
Now, of course there are people out there who are allergic to egg white. If you are allergic to dairy, you can still eat eggs: eggs do not contain lactose or any milk protein. And there is an alternative which is called aquafaba.
Aquafaba is just simply chickpea brine and when used in cocktails, it will give you the same effect as the egg white. Before you ask, no, it does not taste like chickpea, just like your cocktail will not taste like an egg if you use egg white.
The whiskey sour is a simple cocktail to make once you have mastered the measurements and technique, however, the flavors that this cocktail delivers and the texture, can be incredibly complex.
I have spent years tasting whiskey sours around the globe. It has always been one of my favorite cocktails, yet, often, a difficult cocktail to find executed to my liking. What I am looking for is a velvety texture and a nice weight, not too heavy, not too light. I am also looking to taste the whiskey that has been chosen for the cocktail and have the juice and sweetness balance perfectly so I am tasting spice, sour, sweet, bitter, in every sip all together.
There are a few stand out whiskey sours that I have enjoyed recently, one that comes to mind right away is from the Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland Oregon. It had all of the elements I was looking for and was served in the glassware that I prefer for this cocktail. And no matter who makes it when I am there, it will always be consistent and that is difficult at times to find.
So here is my favorite recipe, that for me is tried and true.
It’s important to begin with the proper glassware, there is such a thing... as a sour glass (which is also known as a delmonico glass). It has a rounded cup with a stem specifically for sweet, citrus drinks, such as a whiskey sour cocktail. The stem helps keep a cold drink from the warmth of your hand. Now having explained this, it brings me to my next preference. When it comes to a perfect whiskey sour, I believe it should always be served up, meaning, no ice in the glass and served in ‘that all important’ stemmed glass.
Let’s begin by building with the whiskey. The original recipe when using whiskey in the US was to use rye whiskey, simply because it was available before bourbon. Rye whiskey is fantastic in a whiskey sour, but bourbon works just as well. I recommend choosing a higher proof whiskey to stand up well amongst the other flavor components in the cocktail. For this recipe I will use Uncle Nearest 1884 Small Batch, it’s 93 proof and full of honey and nut flavors.
2 ounces of Uncle Nearest 1884 whiskey (If you don’t choose Uncle Nearest, I say try to stick with something 90+ proof.)
½ ounce of lemon juice (Fresh squeeze is essential here, concentrated juices taste different, they are more acidic and not the best for your teeth and your tummy.)
½ ounce of simple syrup ( ½ cup of granulated sugar, demerara is best, to 1 cup of water, simmer until the sugar is fully dissolved and then store in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 4 weeks.)
½ ounce of egg white or aquafaba (You can use liquid egg whites which are pasteurized so you don’t get the same fluff as with a cracked egg, but it is perfectly acceptable.)
Add all of your ingredients to a cocktail shaker without ice. This is important, it’s called a dry shake. Shake vigorously for about 30 seconds at least. Keep your eye on the clock the first few times.
Then add a small handful of ice to the shaker and shake again until the cocktail shaker feels cold. Strain your cocktail into the glass. Then open up the shaker and spoon the lovely foam onto the top of the glass. I then use a butter knife to flatten the foam across the glass so it’s nice and even.
Now comes the fun part, the garnish. You’ll want to use an aromatic bitter like Angostura and do a few gentle shakes right in the middle, on top of the cocktail, then with a toothpick you can gently pull the bitters across the foam into shapes.
You can also add some cocktail cherries on a stick as well, and voila, you have my idea of a perfect whiskey sour.
I don’t call myself a cocktail expert, that seems like an impossible feat. But I do consider myself an expert in my own cocktails and my own preferences. So, master the basics until you nail it every time. Then you can add variations and you’ll find what works best for you and you’ll be the master of your own cocktails.
Now, let’s make this entire week a whiskey sour week. I think this cocktail deserves more than just one day!