Few drinks are as iconic as the whiskey sour. Perhaps owing to its three-ingredient simplicity—whiskey, lemon and sugar—the cocktail has remained a mainstay in American drinking culture for over 150 years. While variations exist, the sour as we know it today is thought to have been codified around the same period as the Old Fashioned, during the mid-1800s.
At its most basic, a sour is an umbrella term for a number of cocktails that include a spirit, lemon juice, sugar and water for dilution, usually in the form of ice. The combination is said to have been popularized by British sailors as far back as the 1600s, who sought to fend off scurvy on long journeys by creating punches (or “grogs”) using spirits and citrus.
While gin, rum and brandy were popular in early sours, whiskey became the spirit of choice after the drink took hold in America. Its first known recorded mention dates to a January 4, 1870 edition of a Wisconsin newspaper, the Waukesha Plaindealer, in a satirical article written by “Terence McGrant,” a fictional character created by politician and writer George W. Peck who purported to be an Irish cousin to U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant.
“Then may God have mercy on your sowl,” says I, taking a drink out of me cousin’s glass.
“Amen,” says the Methodist, as he ordered another whisky sour.
Early recipes for the whiskey sour largely did not use egg white, though you’ll find it listed in many formulations. Completely optional, egg white will create a creamier, richer cocktail with a frothy head, while eggless sours will tend to have a cleaner, zestier, more refreshing profile.
The whiskey sour’s fortunes waned in the latter half of the 20th century, as pre-bottled ingredients rose in prominence, and the timeless combination of fresh lemon juice and sugar was replaced by packaged sour mix. However, since the turn of the last century, as bars have reverted to well-crafted versions of classics using fresh ingredients, the whiskey sour has once again regained its position at the top of the classic cocktail pantheon.
You’ll see countless variations of this drink in cocktail books and recipes across the globe, but it’s hard to beat the simple beauty of the three-ingredient original. Here’s how to make one.
- 2 ounces whiskey
- ¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- 1 egg white (optional)
- Lemon twist, thick cut, for garnish
- Maraschino cherry, for garnish
Combine whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 10–15 seconds. Strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with thick cut lemon twist and cherry, if desired.