Sours rule the bar. The public may not realize it, but many of the cocktails they order and enjoy are sours — that is, broadly speaking, drinks with some citrus in them. The Daiquiri is a rum sour. The Margarita, year in and year out the most ordered cocktail in the United States, is another sour, made with tequila and curaçao. The Sidecar is the same, but with brandy. The Cosmopolitan, the last cocktail to have achieved the status of household name, is nothing but a fancified vodka sour.
The Whiskey Sour is part of this family, perhaps the head of the family. But it arguably has had the misfortune of actually being called a sour. It’s hard to run with the cool kids with such a prosaic name. People seem to have recognized the drink’s clay-footed personality from the first. In an amusing sidebar published in 1919 in a Louisiana newspaper, a writer, contemplating the dawning of Prohibition, suggested calling a saloon by the euphemistic “bookcase” in future, and cocktails by the names of famous authors. A Dry Martini, for instance, would hereafter be called an H.L. Mencken. The writer he thought the best match for the Whiskey Sour? The social realist Theodore Dreiser. A fine novelist, to be sure, but the most bloodlessly earthbound of his trade.
This is unfair. For the Whiskey Sour has the goods to be not just a dully satisfying, but a potentially excellent drink. There are a few steps you can take to set yourself in that direction. First, choose your whiskey wisely. It needn’t be top-shelf bourbon, but quality shows here. Unlike a Manhattan, in which whiskey and vermouth vie for your taste buds’ attentions, the whiskey will show here. Second, proportions are important, so don’t be casual in your measurements. Two ounces of whiskey will provide the needed punch. Three-quarters each of fresh lemon juice and simple syrup will furnish the correct balance between sweet and sour. (All sours are, after all, sweet drinks, the name notwithstanding.) Try a 2-to-1, sugar-to-water ratio for the syrup to lend the drink even more body. And the mixture will need a rigorous shake — not just to render it super cold — something the cocktail benefits from — but to line the surface of the drink with some invigorating ice shavings.
I know this all from experience. The Whiskey Sour was the first cocktail I ever made for my wife. While readying myself before one of our early dates, I found myself wanting in the provisions department. I had no vermouth, so Martinis and Manhattans were out. I was bereft of bitters, so Old-Fashioneds and Sazeracs were scratched. I did have the goods for a Whiskey Sour, though. But would a Whiskey Sour do? I was doubtful, but the situation was what it was and, minutes after she arrived, I went about shaking up a couple, using Buffalo Trace Bourbon and an antique cocktail shaker from the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. I handed the drink to her. She sipped it and said, “This is the best drink I’ve ever had.”
Every cocktail has its day.