The whiskey sour is part of a family of drinks simply called “sours” (and is often seen as a manly whiskey drink). This category appears in the 1862 “How to Drink Mix Drinks” by Jerry Thomas. They are one of the oldest types of cocktails and they include three elements: a base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. The basic recipe has been toyed with endlessly to create many great drinks we know and love today: margaritas, Tom Collins, cosmos, and daiquiris are all part of the sour family.
The whiskey sour probably began in the 1700s when boats carried copious amounts of lemons and limes so sailors could avoid scurvy. They also carried plenty of rum. Mixing the citrus with rum and water killed a few birds with one stone – it kept them hydrated, scurvy-free and came with the benefits of alcohol.
Sailors found this recipe to be quite pleasing so they kept it in mind and opened it up to more readily available spirits once the ships docked, such as whiskey and brandy. It just so happened that railroads came into play around the same time as bourbon hit its peak. This meant everyone was drinking bourbon and citrus products could be transported easily. Hence the realization that the best whiskey for whiskey sours is usually bourbon.
Prohibition was a sad time for the whiskey sour because quality alcohol was so hard to come by. This meant that the more subtle cocktails became desolate as it was hard to mask the flavor of cheap alcohol with just sugar and citrus.
Like many drinks, it took some decades for the whiskey sour to resurface, but it eventually did. With easy access to quality whiskey and fresh, natural ingredients, the whiskey sour is a common ask in bars once again.
There are also many other cocktails that whiskey lovers can experiment with, like an old fashioned. So, once you’ve found whiskey that you like for a whiskey sour, why not use the same whiskey in some other recipes too?
The Best Whiskey For Whiskey Sours
1. Old Forester 100 Proof
Bourbon tends to be the go-to for a classic whiskey sour. For a particularly strong one, you want Old Forester 100 Proof. It really packs a punch and won’t lose its flavor in a cocktail. The palate is heavy on corn with notes of fruit, nuts, caramel, and maple syrup with a hint of spice and cinnamon.
The aroma offers sweet notes of caramel and cherry with oaky spice, chocolate, and a hint of coffee. The finish is spicy and complex, with cloves, oak, nutmeg, and pepper.
The bottle is printed with the signature of George Gavin Brown, Old Forester founder. This touch pays homage to the way he used to hand-sign each bottle as it was produced.
He and his co-founder/brother were one of the first to age their bourbon which they appropriately named Old Forester. Beginning in 1870, this is a classic whiskey that’s been consistently on the market, even during the dreaded prohibition where the company was granted permission to distill for medicinal purposes.
2. Four Roses Yellow Label
This unique and complex whiskey is actually a blend of ten different recipes. While it is a blend, all recipes included are different Kentucky straight bourbons, so they do have something in common.
Each of the blends is distilled and aged separately at the Four Roses Distillery. Doing everything in-house gives the company full control over this complex blend.
The Four Roses Yellow Label offers quite the flavor profile, lending itself nicely to an especially spicy whiskey sour without the need for rye.
The palate is smooth and sweet on the surface, with several spices and a good bite in the middle. The flavor is heavy on the corn with sweeter notes of cherry, apple, honey, orange, and lemon.
The most notable spice on the palate is oaky cinnamon. The aroma offers a simpler array of honey, poached pears, and fresh apples.
3. Glenfiddich Fire & Cane
Though Scotch isn’t as common in a whiskey sour, Glenfiddich Fire & Cane is a good one to try if you like your whiskey sour on the smokey side. The spirit itself is an experimental one, mixing both peated and unpeated barley, aging both in bourbon casks.
After being aged separately, they are combined and aged further in South American rum casks which is what gives it the signature smoky-sweet taste reminiscent of toasted wood and campfire. Caramel and marshmallows round out the nostalgic palate with an aroma of toffee, spice, and zesty fruit.
Despite having to close temporarily during prohibition, Glenfiddich remains a best-selling brand and one of the most awarded in the world. They’re also known as the first distillery ever to open its doors to the public in 1969, offering whiskey fans a brand new experience.
Their experimental series is all about innovation and testing the water with groundbreaking new ideas. Their goal is to explore the outer limits of whiskey and create something new and great.
This expression was a resounding success with its mix of sweet and smoky flavors put into one drink.
4. Wild Turkey Rye
Another good option for a spicy whiskey sour, Wild Turkey Rye is bottled at 81 proof and pays homage to America’s first-ever distilled spirit – rye whiskey.
Adding rye to a whiskey sour is a pretty traditional route as it brings out the spice and Wild Turkey is always a solid go-to. While it’s great in a whiskey sour, many tout it as an excellent base spirit for many cocktails given its warm, sweet, and spicy characteristics.
When making this rye they use an extra deep char they call an “alligator” char that gives it even more flavor.
The nose offers a tropical, fruit start with notes of vanilla and caramel. The rye is subtle on the nose with slight floral notes in the background.
The palate brings big flavors of vanilla and spice with strong notes of rye. It’s a bold flavor overall with sweet notes of caramel and orchard fruit in the background. The finish is medium with fruit, grain, and rye.
5. Bulleit Rye
Last but not least is the Bulleit Rye, another classic option for a more traditional whiskey sour. This spirit won gold and double gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and gained a score of 95 points by the Ultimate Spirits Challenge in 2014.
It’s made from an impressive 95% rye grains and only 5% malted barley and quality can be seen throughout the entire process. The whiskey is made with only the finest limestone-filtered Kentucky water and all ingredients are locally sourced.
The grains are distilled through a copper still and aged for five or six years in new American oak casks that are heavily charred. The result is a rich burnished bronze color and a nose filled with rich, oaky aromas.
The palate is more complex with notes of vanilla, honey, citrus, and spicy oak. It finishes clean and crisp with strong notes of spice and subtle hints of caramel and vanilla for a sweeter background.
How to Make a Whiskey Sour
All traditional sours follow a 2:1:1 ratio, meaning two parts liquor to one part sour and one part sweet. This doesn’t mean you can never do anything different, but this is the standard method and it’s probably what you’ll get at the bar unless you ask for something different.
It’s also an easy number to remember when mixing one up at home. So you’ll be working with three ingredients:
- 2 ounces of your chosen whiskey.
- One ounce lemon or lime juice.
- One teaspoon sweetener. This can be straight sugar or some use simple syrup.
- And a lemon/lime peel or cherry to garnish.
Unless you have a strong preference for something else, a whiskey sour is generally a shaken cocktail. Shaking it mixes the flavors and – most importantly – dissolves the sugar so you don’t have a grainy feel to your drink.
The directions are as follows:
- Combine whiskey, lemon/lime juice, and sugar into a cocktail shaker.
- Shake well for about 30 seconds.
- Strain the drink into a glass over ice.
Tip: If you’re using a lemon or lime peel to garnish, you can squeeze the peel over the drink to add a little flavor. Or, rub it along the rim of your glass.
Mix it up With Egg Whites
Yes, egg whites!
If you’re going straight traditional, ignore this part. Egg whites were never a part of the original sour recipe, but some bartenders in the 1800s wanted to make their cocktails even fancier. The answer was egg whites.
You don’t need much, but they work to balance the sometimes harsh flavors of a whiskey sour while adding a creamy texture and leaving a pretty layer of white froth on top.
Making it with egg whites is easy – just add a quarter ounce of egg whites to the other ingredients before mixing. Adding them at this stage not only blends them in well but it creates the “fancy” frothing effect.
The only difference may be in how you use the ice. Frothy egg whites and ice cubes may not work well together. Instead, consider shaking the mixture with ice and pouring it into an empty glass.