Today (August 25th) I accidently discovered it was Whiskey Sour day. Not because instagram told me, but because I'd written this blog post and was deep in a rabbit hole of internet based research for a client. The fact that this classic cocktail isn't really being celebrated on its 'national day', a day (according to Diffords online) that was testament to the cocktail's popularity essentially proves the point that the following blog post was exploring. Where has the whisky sour gone in 2022?!
(Original Post follows)
Where did the Whisky Sour go?
Ten years ago when you heard the word's 'whisky' and 'cocktail' in the same sentence there was a high likelihood the outcome was going to be a whisky sour. It was a mainstay on cocktail lists worldwide, one of the true classics you would master in your first few weeks behind any respectable bar.
But today (ed. especially today) it feels as though this truly classic cocktail is no longer in vogue. In this post we look at the current state of the Whisky Sour and explore a couple of interesting variations.
The craft cocktail trend of the past fifteen years has given us a whole generation of twists on 'stirred down and brown' whisky cocktails - commonly laced with the latest avant-garde modifier from the bitters world - but outside of the Penicillin cocktail (which is truly a great modern classic) we haven't seen the whisky sour maintain its dominance of mindshare in the world of whisky mixed drinks. Why is this?
Current trends are moving away from sours
It could be observed that sours have fallen out of favour because of two wider trends in drinks world; simplicity and sustainability. Nobody really declared war on the whisky sour, they just gradually stopped making them. It never looked outwardly outdated- It just seemed to quietly disappear from menus one bar at a time.
The 'art' of a great sour was getting everything just right. Fresh pressed lemon juice, egg white with real eggs.... the sour had elevated itself out of the pre prepared sour-mix misery of the history books and become a huge benefactor from the wider drinks trends of a respect for real ingredients, premiumisation and professionalisation behind the bar. All looked good for the humble sour.
when life gives you lemons... whisky sour?
Well, calls for sustainability didn't bode well for this drink. Bars started dialling back on fresh lemon use, acids came to the rescue but the result wasn't quite the same. Egg White (another key ingredient in most bars) results in hundreds of spent egg yolks going directly into the bin.. hardly a model of good practice.
Pasteurised egg white options are decent but also seem to have fallen fowl (ha ha) as more people become vegan. AguaFaba - the protein rich water from chickpeas has worked as a great foaming agent and emulsifier. SO there's a decent fix available to most...but somewhere along the line the sour became less relevant. So today (ed. National Whiskey Sour day) we ask the questions; Does the sour need saved? #savethesour? or is it hiding in plain sight?
Whisky Sour History
First- a tiny drop of history. Sours are a family of drinks that go back beyond the time that the official literature of cocktail history begins. People generally agree that concoctions resembling the cocktail predate the written records. But we do know that the first celebrity bartender, Jeremiah P Thomas referenced the drink (and many more) in his 1862 output 'the bartenders guide'. He calls for Rye or Bourbon Whiskey and the recipe is basic. Next up is a newspaper reference to the cocktail from 1870 which gives no introduction to the cocktail, which implies it was well known enough to need no intro.
Master historian of the cocktauil world, Dave Wondrich notes in his book (Imbibe!) that, at the peak of its popularity between the 1860s and the 1960s, the Whiskey Sour “was one of the cardinal points of American drinking, and… one of the few drinks that could come near to slugging it out with the vast tribe of cocktails in terms of day-in, day-out popularity.”
From there, and we're talking at a very general cocktail level here... the whisky sour has ridden the up and down waves of cocktail culture more generally. The 80s were a high point - the 90s a low - before the gradual resurgence from the early 2000's until the present day.
The other day I was bouncing between a couple of bars and for no reason in particular had a worrying thought - the sort of feeling you get when you think you've left a credit card in a bar washed over me. Where on earth did the whisky sour go? I actually couldn't put a clear date on the last time i either had one, saw someone have one or saw one on a menu. I'll be honest and say i moved on from the thought with a quick 'oh well'... but over the last few days the thought evolved as i started to kick around the myriad of reasons why this might have happened.
Maybe it has not gone, but evolved.
Firstly - let's be clear I know it's not dead. Google trend data suggests that the search term is in rude health and growing year on year. All i'm saying is that it is no longer the drink du jour. It's having a bit of a rough time in the world's top bars. Everyone seems way more excited to be making whisky based espresso martinis, boulevardiers - and that makes sense. THis post is merely a homage to the classic whisky sour and perhaps a shout out to all the modern classic riffs that it has inspired. And i should call out that just a few months ago - the New York Sour was trending - which, let's be honest is part of the Whiskey Sour vernacular. And that leads us to a serve that I believe simultaneously saved and killed the classic whiskey sour in one shake. The Penicillin Cocktail.
Australian born Sam Ross, slinging drinks at the famous Milk & Honey bar in New York riffs on a M&H drink called a Gold Rush to create the Penicillin Cocktail. A man well and truly before his time; he uses a base of Blended Scotch instead of Bourbon, and floats a dash of Islay Whiskey (compass box peat monster apparently) atop the serve. A honey ginger modifier combo take the whisky sour into another dimension altogether and this goes on to become a modern classic that sets the benchmark for modern classic. However, so good is the riff on the classic that it is a near death nail to the classic incarnation of the serve which quickly feels basic and outdated.
A good article about this brilliant drink was published on PUNCH magazine's website here. Well worth a look.
Scotch or Bourbon?
But apart from creating a modern classic, Sam Ross did something pretty incredible - almost overnight legitimising the use of Scotch in a drink that had always seen Bourbon or Rye Whiskey as the essential base. Of course it had been done before, but never so well, and until the Penicillin gained global dominance as a serve Scotch had always felt a little like the imposter in the Whiskey sour cocktail LIke a Rob Roy vs the Manhattan cocktail - the Scotch version makes so much sense, but it just didn't have the swagger of the OG. Not any more.
Things from there have evolved, and with the explosion of craft spirits on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as across the New World of whisky producing countries, infinite riffs have been made on the drink.
The other super interesting offshot of the Penicllin cocktail is the splitting of the whisky element. As blenders, this makes so much sense to us in hindsight. It's now a major trend to look at a recipe that calls for a base ingredient and instead of reaching for just one incarnation of that category taking the time to think about what combination of products might combine to make the best possible drinks experience. In this trend bartenders have become spirit blenders at point of purchase. It is a marketing department's worst nightmare - but why the hell not take, for example the dry juniper foreward notes of Tanqueray Gin and combine them with the long, long finish of Hendrick's in a martini? The result? Something completely new. Super cool. The idea of splitting the base of the whisky sour is perhaps the most diplomatic way to settle the debate between whether the best versions of this drink contain Rye, Bourbon or Scotch Whisk(e)y. There's a super idea in that. Watch this space!
We have scoured the internet and road tested a few modern riffs on the classic Whiskey Sour that are worth making. And so inspired by them and the stories that connect these drinks to either the creators of them or bars around the world we want to get a virtual happy hour scheduled to tell some stories, sip some drinks and share the enjoyment of this epic epic family of drinks. One of the oldest around, but still, one of the best.
Stay tuned for the Whisky Sour Happy Hour. Coming soon!
The Whisky sour is dead. Long live the whisky sour.
Decent riffs that show the whisky sour iss hiding in plain sight:
All of these cocktails are a simple matter of combining the ingredients in a shaker, shaking hard over ice and then straining into an ice filled rocks glass. Float means add a drizzle over the top of the finished drink (for the penicillin and new york sour)
Sam Ross of Attaboy, NYC
- 30ml Bourbon Whiskey
- 30ml Fernet Branca
- 20ml fresh lemon juice
- 20ml sugar syrup
Garnish: mint sprig
Chris Yamka | Seattle
- 50ml blended Scotch (obvs Woven!)
- 25ml ounce yellow Chartreuse
- 12.5ml ginger syrup (2:1, sugar:ginger juice)
- 20ml fresh lemon juice
- peated Scotch, in an atomizer
Garnish: lemon wheel
Sam Ross - Milk& Honey, NYC
- 50ml blended Scotch
- 20ml honey-ginger syrup
- 20ml ounce fresh lemon juice
- 10ml ounce Islay single-malt Scotch, preferably Laphroaig 10YO
Garnish: candied ginger
possibly invented by Freddy May?
- 30ml Speyside Single Malt Whisky
- 30ml Drambuie
- 25ml Fresh Lemon Juice
- 10ml Isle of Skye Honey?
- Dash AguaFaba* (water from chick pea cans)
New York Sour
- 60ml Bourbon Whiskey
- 30ml Fresh Lemon Juice
- 15ml Sugar Syrup
- 1 Dash Angostura Bitters
- 15ml Egg White (optional)
- 15ml Red wine (float)
So it turns out the Whisky Sour is in rude health - it's just become one of the most riffed on drinks of the recent cocktail era. We have had so much fun thinking about and drinking sours that we're going to organise a live version of this blog post - pulling in some guest speakers, guest recipes in a bit of a drink along virtual happy hour or #hourofsour. Watch this space for updates!