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The Whiskey Sour is a cocktail that never goes out of style, like blues music, Sinatra, and the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. Slide guitars, B. B. King, and a stool at the end of the bar where they never empty the ashtrays, just so you can see how many nails you put in your coffin. It’s a drink for those kind of nights, a Tom Waits song in a glass, and it has been for over 100 years.
The story of the Whiskey Sour is the story of a cocktail that’s just always been there. It was around even before Jerry Thomas wrote the recipe down, and that was in 1862. Back then it was a popular drink, and it’s remained so. Make no mistake, sours in general were popular at the time, but the Whiskey Sour is just sort of the one people wanted, and still want. Any bar can make one, from the fanciest craft bar to the neighborhood tavern, and it remains one of the few cocktails that’s perfectly at home in even the most questionable dives, and once you know how to make it, you know how to make a whole class of drinks.
The sour is a basic style of drink relying on 3 ingredients. Something alcoholic, which can be any base spirit, something sour, most often lemon or lime or a mix of citrus, and something sweet, usually simple syrup or any sort of syrup, is all it takes. The basic formula for a sour, the one on which most will agree, is 2:1:1, but you can commonly find an 8:3:3, which is what we prefer. In ounces, 2, 3/4, 3/4. With this formula, you can make any sour. A Daiquiri, for example, is a sour of rum, lime and sugar. Bee’s Knees? Gin, lemon, and honey. The Whiskey Sour? Bourbon, lemon and simple syrup. That’s it. It really is that simple, and experimentation is easy. For our taste, we prefer a drier cocktail, so our recipe for the Whiskey Sour cuts back on the sweetener, but it’s a very forgiving formula. Experiment with it, swap out ingredients and see what happens. Replacing the bourbon with rye will give a different character, as will using maple syrup instead of simple syrup, and it works with any kind of sour. Try rum, lime, and passionfruit syrup, or gin, lime, and mint syrup, or whatever you come up with for your own riff.
Don't stop with just simple experimentation. Embellish your sour. If you take a Whiskey Sour and add some egg white, it’s a Boston Sour. Float some red wine on top and make a New York Sour. Try making your own flavored syrup, cinnamon works well, or add some exotic bitters. Try an Apple Brandy Sour, that works, too. Are you beginning to see how the Whiskey Sour, and the sour in general is just the cocktail equivalent of a 3 chord blues progression? Pick a key, pick a tempo, and add your own color. The possibilities are endless.
Also like blues music, “easy to learn” doesn’t mean “always good.” While the Whiskey Sour may be at home among the worn felt of old, misused pool tables, juke boxes from 1985 still full of Cyndi Lauper and ZZ Top, and a bar that’ll give you splinters if you sit to close, it doesn’t mean it’s consistently good. Powdered sour mix and whatever one finds in a bottom dollar well can be as disappointing as the opening act on the B stage, but with quality bourbon, fresh lemon and house made syrup, you’ll be hearing Buddy Guy and loving every minute of it. For ours, we play it traditional, and go with Bull Run Straight Bourbon Whiskey, a rock solid, high quality bourbon that’s not too sweet, smooth as silk, and a great value. The Whiskey Sour and the blues should be something for the masses, so leave the top shelf bottle on the top shelf, and use a bottle you’d throw in your backpack for the next time you walk 47 miles of barbed wire with a cobra snake for a necktie. Blues and whiskey just go together like that.
Short shake with ice, and serve on the rocks. Garnish with half an orange slice and a cherry.