Riff Diaries: The Whiskey Sour

Whether served up at a cocktail joint or on the rocks at a dive, the Whiskey Sour is America's most democratic cocktail.

The first time I drank a Whiskey Sour I was sitting at a crusty Tulane University bar in the Garden District of New Orleans. I was 17 and had made my way past the doorman through a series of smiles, eye flutters and the professional wheedling of my college host friend. I was visiting with a couple other girls on spring vacation from our tiny high school in rustbelt Ohio. We were thrilled our parents had allowed us to leave the state, let alone trusted us to behave in such a revel-heavy town. (I’m sure they didn’t actually.) New Orleans was wild territory, filled with a fierce, reckless energy heightened by the aromatic zephyr of old beer mixed with night jasmine zinging down every street. With a real cocktail in hand (never mind the plastic Solo cup), we were grown-ups for a night, albeit very wobbly, flat-chested ones. The next morning, we were back to being teenagers with severe headaches and a vow to never drink Whiskey Sours again. But history always repeats itself. 

Looking back, I’m positive those first Whiskey Sours were made with Ecto Cooler-colored sour mix and a well bourbon that was most likely poured from a plastic handle. But there is something persuasive about one’s first encounter with the strong-sweet-sour formula all tumbled over ice and shaken to a frothy head.  So often, like anything we’re determined to love, the initial encounter will always be rose colored. And honestly, I remember that first speed-poured Whiskey Sour as completely delicious.

A real Whiskey Sour is a simple combination of bourbon or rye, sugar and lemon juice. Its simple, three-pillar sour structure makes it a prime blueprint for riffing. PUNCH likes a strong base and usually opts for a ratio of 2 ounces of whiskey to 3/4 sugar and 3/4 lemon. The ingredients are swappable like the clothes on paper doll and accessories are always welcomed. Add an egg white for a smooth, whipped quality and you’ve got a Boston Sour (our preferred version). Add Amaretto and high-proof whiskey and it’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s classed-up on the oft-maligned Amaretto Sour. Switch out simple syrup for rich, nutty maple syrup and you’ve made Erik Adkins’ Filibuster cocktail. Top the original with a red wine float and it’s become the New York Sour, a technicolor 19th century classic. The beauty of the Whiskey Sour lies in history repeated: what’s old can always be new again.

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