The sour category of cocktails is arguably the most popular of any mixed drinks, containing as it does the Whisky Sour, Margarita and Daiquiri. There’s something magical about a delicious base spirit being simply mixed with sugar and citrus juice to create a lip-smacking, thirst-quenching whole.
As with most cocktails of a certain age, the exact origins of the Whisky Sour have been lost to history, however it’s thought that the sour category of cocktails has its roots in the British Navy. With water and beer not fit for consumption on long sea journeys, the men were given a standard issue of rum in the 18th century.
In order to combat drunkenness, which was a big problem in the West Indies, Commander in Chief Vice Admiral Edward Vernon declared the following in 1740:
‘To captains of the squadron!… The daily allowance of half a pint a man is to be mixed with a quart of water, to be mixed in one scuttled butt for that purpose… it is to be served in two servings, one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The men that are good husbands may from the savings of their salt provisions and bread, purchase sugar and limes to make the water more palatable to them.’
Rum, sugar, lime juice and water – here we have the ingredients of a Daiquiri, and the construct of a Sour. This rough mix came to be called Grog.
Fast-forward 100 years, and the recipe for a Sour first appeared in print in the 1862 book The Bartender’s Guide written by famous bartender Jerry Thomas, with both a Brandy Sour and a Gin Sour included. The first mention of a Whisky Sour specifically was in 1870 in the wonderfully named Waukesha Plain Dealer.
When making a Whisky Sour, it is important to always use fresh lemon juice. As the sourness of lemons vary, it is best to check the flavour of your drink to see whether it needs to be adjusted accordingly before pouring from the shaker – a super-sour cocktail can leave some people’s teeth on edge.
One of the most popular twists on a Whisky Sour is to simply add egg white to the recipe. Known as a Boston Sour, the egg white creates a silky mouthfeel.
The Whisky Sour’s popularity in America has meant that whiskeys from that country can feel as if they have a monopoly over the cocktail, however that isn’t actually the case. Go forth and experiment!
Best whiskies for a Whisky Sour
Dewar’s 12 Year Old
The story of this blended Scotch whisky brand begins as many others did in the 19th century: in a small wine and spirits merchant shop in Scotland. The company pioneered ‘double ageing’, when a blended whisky is returned to cask for further maturation and marrying, and indeed its 12 Year Old undergoes a further six months in cask. Orchard fruits, butter, nuts, vanilla pod, tobacco tin and ginger are all present on the palate.Alc 40%
Four Roses Yellow Label
Four Roses distillery makes much of the varied flavour characteristics that different yeasts bring, boasting five in its arsenal, which are added to two different mash bill, or grain, recipes. This results in 10 different whiskeys that can be drawn upon to create different products. Yellow Label incorporates all 10, while other products are usually a blend of a handful. The result is a whiskey boasting marmalade and lemon peel, corn-on-the-cob slathered with butter, honey, vanilla pod and white pepper. Alc 40%
High West Campfire
Situated at 2,100m above sea level in Utah, High West is the world’s only ski-in, ski-out whiskey distillery. It takes an unconventional approach to its product creation too, as witnessed with Campfire, a moreish blend of rye distilled at High West, plus sourced bourbon and peated Scotch whisky. Sweet vanilla fudge and caramel are accompanied with fruity berries, tobacco spices and nutmeg, all finished with a wisp of bonfire smoke. Alc 46%
Jameson Black Barrel
The most famous Irish whiskey brand around the globe, Jameson is made at Midleton in County Cork. Black Barrel is a weightier offering than the classic Jameson, boasting a proportion of whiskey that has been made in a pot still, and then aged in barrels that have been double charred. The result is a liquid full of vanilla, caramel, sweet spices, stone fruit and chocolate with a creamy mouthfeel. Alc 40%
Michter’s US 1 Sour Mash
Sour mash whiskeys are the spirituous equivalent of sourdough bread. When it comes to fermenting the ‘mash’ of the grains, some of the previously fermented mash is added to start the process off in this new batch. This small-batch whiskey is neither a rye nor a bourbon, and has flavours of vanilla ice cream drizzled with honey, cherries and plums, plus cinnamon and black pepper spice. Alc 43%
Pikesville Straight Rye
Originally made in Maryland in the 1890s, Pikesville Straight Rye has been owned by Heaven Hill since 1982 and is now made at the company’s Bernheim distillery in Kentucky. Notes of crème brûlée, cocoa powder, coconut and liquorice are prefaced by the spicy bite of the rye, with hints of charcoal lingering in the background. Alc 55%
Hailing from the Isle of Skye in the Hebrides, Talisker is famed for its peated whiskies that finish with a crack of spicy chilli. This no-age-statement Scotch was created with the intention of dialling all those key characteristics up to 11 – and it doesn’t disappoint. Reminiscent of drinking whisky on a beach as the wind whips sea spray and bonfire smoke into your face. While you nibble on a banana dipped in dried chilli flakes. Alc 45.8%
Wild Turkey Straight Rye
When it comes to consistency, Wild Turkey has a definite claim to the crown, being made by father-son duo Jimmy and Eddie Russell, who have been at the company for 66 years and 39 years respectively. In fact, Jimmy is the oldest and longest-serving Master Distiller in America. Fresh and spicy, this is an excellent mixing rye, with a dry palate of fennel, pepper, rye bread, vanilla and toffee. Alc 40.5%