Like most booze geeks, the drinks I typically prefer are those that are more complex and esoteric–give me the aroma of anise and spice rising off a Sazerac, or the puzzle-box of flavors in a Floridita or a Ramos Gin Fizz, and I’m a happy lush. But on the list of drinks that have earned my respect, there’s one of more humble character. This cocktail carries its history like baggage; it’s been mixed so often, and so poorly, that it’s acquired the reputation of a vagabond. While drinking the drinks your grandfather drank is somewhat in vogue right now, this is a drink your grandMOTHER drank, and as such, many people unfortunately avoid it. I’m referring, of course, to that simple cocktail that roams the world in a wife-beater tee and boxers, reeking of cigar smoke and in bad need of a shave; the drink that master hoochologist David Wondrich calls “the fried-egg sandwich of American mixology;” the libation that could be described as Stanley Kowalski in a glass. It is, of course, the Whiskey Sour.
WAIT–before you start clicking your mouse to take you elsewhere, give this old barfly’s companion a second glance. While not fancy, the whiskey sour has a history: It belongs to one of the old families of original cocktails, appearing in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 drinks book alongside the other cocktail ancestors, the juleps, slings, sangarees, cobblers and smashes that are mostly lost to the ages. Not so the whiskey sour: While the drink is like a stale Sinatra song, constantly buzzing in the air of a million old dives, the whiskey sour still has a lot to its credit: It’s quite easy to make, and it’s a reliable fallback for those times when you’re in the mood for a drink but can’t think of anything else to mix, or when the only things in the house are whiskey, lemons and sugar. And there are definitely times when you could do a lot worse than easy and reliable.
Any booze can be used in a sour to good effect. Simple formula: two parts spirits, juice of half a lemon, and just enough sugar to make it go down right. In other words, it’s lemonade made with liquor instead of water–what’s not to like? It’s also the jumping-off point for a gazillion other cocktails, from the New Yorker to the Pisco Sour (if you use rum as your booze of choice, and lime instead of lemon juice, you’ve got yourself a Daiquiri); and, if the sweetness is provided by a liqueur, the sour begets concoctions such as the Margarita, the Sidecar, the Aviation and even the blasted Cosmo.
The whiskey sour is the one mixed drink I remember my dad making for himself (using the bottled sour mix, which by all means you should avoid), and ordering in a bar. And, when made right, it has a humble character, kind of subdued in the glass yet still flexing its tattooed biceps, just to keep you from mistaking it for a sissy. I like mine straight-up, in a cocktail glass, but they’re also fine on the rocks, in a sour glass (a kind of cross between an old-fashioned and a Collins glass). Whatever–this drink makes itself comfortable wherever you put it, even in a plastic cup, and it doesn’t mind being garnished with a simple orange wheel and maybe a cherry. The whiskey sour almost laughs at itself, tucking its thumbs in its belt loops while showing off the garnish like a tattered daisy stuck in its hat band–“Hey, lookimee–CLASSY!”
This drink is best enjoyed while wearing jeans and a t-shirt and sitting on the steps, tossing a tennis ball for the dog. Or inside, lying around in your shorts while something vapid and sports-oriented burbles from the TV. If you eschew the sour mix and enjoy the honest labor of squeezing the lemons yourself, you’ll find a lot of charm left in the old WS.
- 2 ounces whiskey (rye is the standard, though bourbon or Tennessee whiskey also work just fine)
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 1 tsp bar sugar
Dissolve sugar in the liquid, then shake everything well with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass, or an ice-filled whatever glass. Garnish, if you like, with an orange wheel and a cherry. Drink. Repeat.
* Note: some recipes also call for an egg white. Sure, why not–just shake it with a little more vigor, unless you like that slithery quality in your drink.
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