Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.
When a new drinker begins to discover the wide world of whiskey cocktails, there’s a tendency for that person to primarily be directed at two classics: The old fashioned and the Manhattan. And although both of those choices are indeed classic, they might not truly function as the best introduction to the category for those who are just beginning to dip a toe into drinking spirits. The Manhattan, after all, is a fairly bracing (though darkly seductive) drink to those who don’t consume neat spirits, while an Old Fashioned is little more than sweetened bourbon or rye with a dash of bitters and perhaps a slice of fruit. Many drinkers are no doubt looking for a bit more casual and inviting introduction to the field, and there’s another classic that perfectly fits this bill: The whiskey sour.
The whiskey sour is one of the most simple and fundamental of all whiskey drinks, having existed at least since the 1870s, and likely well before—this makes it, along with the old fashioned, one of the oldest “cocktails” in existence. Unlike the old fashioned, however, the whiskey sour is lengthened considerably with citrus and simple syrup, which makes for a drink that is comparatively less strong, more refreshing, and an easier sipper. The whiskey sour is therefore an excellent outside/warm weather drink, although it’s just as refreshing as the counterbalance to a roaring winter fireplace.
Moreover, there are countless ways one can modify the classic whiskey sour in order to suit the mood, making it a versatile template for home whiskey cocktails that are particularly easy to make. None of these drinks call for particularly obscure or hard to obtain ingredients, which is part of the joy of the whiskey sour: It’s a cocktail that is meant to be easy.
Here then are five essential whiskey sour recipes.
Might as well start at the beginning. The original, classic whiskey sour is nothing more than whiskey (bourbon or rye, though bourbon is more common), paired with lemon juice and simple syrup. It can be served shaken and on the rocks, which is the most common modern preparation, but it can also be served “up,” in a coupe glass for a stronger drink without the ice—in this case, you may want to add some egg white or cocktail foamer in order to generate a denser and longer lasting foam for the sake of aesthetic appeal. Don’t worry about the egg white, by the way—as we’ve written about previously, it’s perfectly safe to use in cocktails.
Here’s the most basic whiskey sour recipe:
— 2 oz bourbon whiskey
— .75 oz lemon juice
— .75 oz simple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a drink shaker filled with plenty of ice. Cap and shake vigorously until very cold, before pouring into a fresh rocks/old fashioned glass filled with ice. Classic garnishes typically include an orange slice, maraschino cherry, or both.
Some drinkers may find the classic whiskey sour cocktail to be too tart or acidic for their liking—in their case, the Whiskey Smash may be the perfect alternative. In terms of construction, it’s basically a simple meeting point between the original whiskey sour and the mint julep, providing a simplified way to get the best of both worlds. Because the lemons are muddled but not fully juiced, meanwhile, the overall acid level of the whiskey smash tends to be lower than it would be in the true whiskey sour, which makes for a gentler drink. The mint, of course, adds a nice freshness. One can also add a variety of fresh fruits to a whiskey smash recipe, such as raspberry, blackberry or strawberry. Here’s the recipe:
— 2 oz bourbon whiskey
— 1 oz simple syrup
— A quarter of a lemon, cut into several small pieces
— 5 to 8 mint leaves
Add the lemon pieces and mint leaves to a cocktail shaker and muddle them to release their oils—a tiny pinch of salt is optional here, but it can be pleasant. You can use a wooden muddler for this, or failing that the back of a spoon. After muddling, add the other ingredients along with plentiful ice. Cap and shake the tin until very cold, then strain into a fresh old fashioned glass with ice. Garnish with a few additional mint leaves. A classic, extremely refreshing cocktail.
The Ward 8 hails from Boston in 1898, being almost as old and storied as the original whiskey sour. As is the case with so many of these drinks, both the recipe and what drinkers think of as a “Ward 8” has often changed with the times, but one of the most persistent and notable aspects of the drink is that it’s specifically made with rye whiskey, rather than bourbon. So too does the citrus often alternate, as you can find Ward 8 recipes that call for various combinations of lemon, lime and orange juice. Here, we’ve settled on lemon and orange, in addition to the all-important presence of grenadine, which gives the cocktail a darker complexion. Unlike the traditional whiskey sour, it is also consumed “up” more often than it is on the rocks. The recipe:
— 2 oz rye whiskey
— .5 oz lemon juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— 1 barspoon grenadine (real pomegranate grenadine vastly preferred)
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, along with plentiful ice. Cap and shake vigorously until very cold, then strain into a classic cocktail glass (martini glass) or coupe glass. The traditional garnish is a maraschino cherry.
This is a small but significant modification to the classic, original whiskey sour recipe, which tames the tartness of the lemon juice by adding a small amount of dry red wine, typically as a floater at the end of the drink, which can then either be left on top or stirred to incorporate it. The presence of the wine knocks down the perceived tartness of the whiskey sour, giving it additional richness and subtle red fruit notes that play beautifully in the drink’s new profile. This is a favorite whiskey sour variation for many wine drinkers, including my wife in particular.
The amount of red wine that is used here can be quite variable, from only a barspoon or two, to an ounce or more—it simply depends on how much wine/dark fruit presence you want in the final drink. The layered nature, meanwhile, makes the drink quite attractive for photos, but I personally believe it tastes better if you eventually stir it to incorporate all the wine. Here’s the recipe:
— 2 oz whiskey (bourbon or rye)
— 1 oz lemon juice
— .75 oz simple syrup
— .5 oz red wine (which can be increased to your taste)
— 1 egg white (optional)
To make, simply add all ingredients except for the red wine to a shaker, fill with ice, and shake thoroughly until well chilled. Then simply strain the drink into a rocks glass over ice, and pour the red wine over the back of a bar spoon to float it on top of the New York Sour. If you want to fully incorporate the wine rather than floating it, simply stir.
Whereas most of these drinks are easygoing and very simple, the Halekulani is a bit more adventurous, but it’s a great jumping off point into a wider world of cocktails influenced by the whiskey sour. This one draws both from the classic whiskey sour, as well as traditionally rum-based tropical/tiki drinks such as the daiquiri or the jungle bird, essentially swapping in bourbon into a citrus-driven drink that would typically feature rum. It was created in the 1930s at the Halekulani Hotel in Hawaii, a product of its famous bar/lounge The House Without a Key.
The Halekulani features a panoply of ingredients that work beautifully with bourbon—the lemon juice featured in most of these other recipes, along with pineapple, orange and other dark, caramelized sugars. Also note, most Halekulani recipes call for strong bourbon of 100 proof or more, although this is optional. Here’s the recipe:
— 1.5 oz overpoof bourbon
— .5 oz pineapple juice
— .5 oz lemon juice
— .5 oz orange juice
— 1 barspoon grenadine or pomegranate molasses
— .5 oz demerara syrup or brown sugar syrup
— 1 dash Angostura or otherwise aromatic bitters
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. Shake hard, and strain. The Halekulani can be served as either an “up drink,” or over a glass of fresh ice. Served “up” in a cocktail glass or coupe, it’s a fairly potent tropical drink, akin to a stronger, whiskey-based daiquiri. Served in a rocks glass over ice, it’s somewhat more friendly and easygoing, like a tropically influenced whiskey sour. Either way, it’s delicious.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.