Make Yourself Comfortable

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.

Whiskey Sour

  • 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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6 Responses to Make Yourself Comfortable

  1. boyd says:

    Why the egg white? Because it gives you a silky foam on top that can’t be beat.
    If you’re going to go a little Rocky on your diet, there are worse ways to get your raw eggs.

  2. Peter says:

    You are so right about the attitude of a whiskey sour. It is the one cocktail I am happy to order in a local bar in Glasgow (that’s the one in Scotland), in my southern English accent, without causing a deathly silence to descend on the denizens!

    (I’d probably have to bring my own egg, though. I don’t regard the egg white as optional!)

    Now all I need is the dog and tennis ball…

  3. [...] is in my current rotation: it’s a tasty goddamn drink. I mean, look at it: it’s just a basic whiskey sour, a drink so classically awesome that it can do pretty much everything except explain to your wife [...]

  4. [...] there’s a whole other group of drinks that traditionally involve eggs: sours. Whether it’s a Whisky Sour, a Pisco Sour, or a less prosaically named cocktail like the Clover Club, there are lots of [...]

  5. [...] the country revisit the classic sips, the whiskey sour is quickly coming back into style—the Cocktail Chronicles argues, “While the drink is like a stale Sinatra song, constantly buzzing in the air of a [...]

  6. I know, I know, it is an old article. But still a whiskey sour is one of the absolute favorites of mine!

    And I never thought about a lowly reputation of it.
    I thought that Bourbon whiskey is the standard for a sour… but rye is also fantastic. I think properly made it is one of the most rewarding drinks every invented.

    Important is, that you use the right ingredients. I don’t like Scotch sours [which are also often seen] – the maltiness and smokiness in combination with the lemon just doesn’t work for me.
    if you then choose a bolder whiskey with a bit higher proof [lets say Knob Creek with 50%] you are in heaven. The sweetness of sugar combines with the sweet tasting whiskey.
    You can also easily use a different sweetener to modify the taste: corn syrup, honey, caramel syrup; even preserve [apricot and peach working very good].

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