Whiskey Sour

WhiskeySourJBMProposed By: Jonathan

Reviewed By: David

The sour is one of the most basic of cocktails. A mix of spirit, sweet, and sour elements with no augmentation required provides a simple and refreshing drink. We’ve tried the Pisco Sour, which is in the end a direct derivation of the early brandy sour, but to this point have not had a whiskey sour. Perhaps the end of the Mad Men series was a good week to try this classic that started its fall out of favor in the 60’s-70’s.

The popularity of sours spanned more than a century from the 1860’s to 1960’s. David Wondrich tracks sours of all types back to a time before the famous Jerry “Professor” Thomas—although the father of all bartending, or so it seems, included the drink and discussions of it in his guides. If there was a debate about such a simple drink, Thomas engaged in that discussion about how sweet or sour the end product should be. There were also the inevitable flourishes, a swirl of claret perhaps, as mixologists provided their own touches to lessen the simple.

That sweet/sour debate is obvious when one looks for recipes for a classic whiskey sour. Bourbon is the preferred spirit, but, after that, the proportion of sweet, proportion of sour and what type of sweetening agent varies by source. Early recipes are marked by sugar dissolved in a small amount of water, which gave way to sugar and seltzer water, and that in turn was replaced by syrup.

There were eventually variations that used some egg white for a frothier drink (a Boston Sour), and, in what was probably part of the demise of the drink, sour mixes that provided sweet, sour and froth all in one bottled mix. I settled on a simple ratio:

2 ounces bourbon
¾ ounce simple syrup
¾ ounce lemon juice (approximately one small lemon)

Mix those three, shake with ice, strain over new ice in a glass and garnish with an orange slice and cherry. This is a drink that has its own glass, a small goblet style, but my cabinet runneth over on glassware so I went with an old fashioned glass.

I had every intention of trying one basic sour and then a Boston Sour but one was enough. It’s not that this isn’t a classic for a reason—it was very good—it’s just that the combination of sweet and sour all too effectively blends with the bourbon to the point you almost forget it is there. A dangerous combination on a warm afternoon so one was enough.

Here’s David’s Review:

WSDMIn my cocktailian experience, the classic drinks aspire to the greatest subtlety. A serious mixologist will tell you that introducing a quarter of an ounce more vermouth to a martini, substituting a different bitter in a Manhattan or Old Fashioned, or reordering the preparation of a Caipirinha makes all the difference. Still not-so-savvy after nearly two years on this blog, I wonder how much subtlety is lost on me.

People often say of art, “I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like.” That’s my response this week. I tried three Whiskey Sours, one with the traditional bourbon, one with rye, and a third with Canadian Whisky. All were good. To me, the key to the drink isn’t in the spirit but in the lemon that stands up well in such a spirituous libation—otherwise, but for a little optional sugar, it’s all alcohol. I’m not at all sure what the word “bracing” means in culinary diction (if it means anything at all), but that’s the word I want to use. From the first sip, you know you are holding a real drink.

And, actually, if you like the ingredients, I wonder how you could mess it up. The taste certainly changed with the different spirits, but the bracing aspect of the cocktail didn’t. Of all the whiskeys, I like rye most, so I enjoyed that Whiskey Sour, but the other tasters in my family thought the mellow and round character of bourbon balances the lemon best. I’m not averse to testing their theory further, as this cocktail is not only incredibly easy to make but also incredibly easy to quaff (see: Three Whiskey Sours).

Which leads to my one quibble about drinks like the Whiskey Sour. They’re perfect for sipping, and with all the ice, the quantity seems tiny. For me, it disappears too quickly, and I want another. That said, my brother will confirm that I am the world’s fastest consumer of food and drink. I often look down to discover an empty plate or glass with symptoms of “foodnesia”—I search my mind to remember what I just ingested and how it may have tasted. I’m no sipper, and making Whiskey Sours my constant drinking companion might lead to slurred speech, lambada demonstrations, and/or impromptu Elvis impersonations (my personal favorite: Love Me Tender).

You, Dear Reader, might consider that outcome a good thing, and my worry of cutting loose certainly says volumes about my enjoyment of this classic cocktail. But I’m generally a restrained and reserved person who hopes to navigate life with as much dignity as I can manage. If I’m only going to have one drink, the Whiskey Sour won’t be it.

Jonathan’s take: The great debates of cocktails still amuse me. Too much sour! No too much sweet!

David’s Take: Now I know what to order whenever I’m sitting at the bar waiting for our table to be ready.

Next Week (Proposed By David):

There’s no guarantee that, even by next weekend, our fancier cocktail glasses will emerge from moving boxes, so I devised two requirements for next week’s choice—it has to use a Collins glass (we have those) and it has to include Gin (I like Gin). So we’ll be making a Salty Dog, a variety of the Greyhound Cocktail (gin, grapefruit juice, and lime) that calls for salting the rim of the glass. That, we can also do.

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