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A brief history of the whiskey sour cocktail (and how to make different versions)

Learn to make all these recipes of this historical drink

A whiskey sour
Dan Baker / The Manual

What is a whisky sour? The whiskey sour cocktail officially dates back to the 1860s, but sailors in the British Navy had been drinking something very similar long before that. On long sea journeys, water was not always dependable, so to combat that, spirits were often used. Scurvy, too, was another danger on these journeys, so lemons and limes were consumed to help prevent the disease (incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why British folk are called ‘Limeys’).

Finally, sugar and water were added for taste. At this point, the drink is probably starting to sound familiar. (Grog, the rum-based favorite of pirates across the seven seas, is made from the same components, substituting whiskey for the sugarcane-based spirit.)

When it comes to the official record, there are three main points of reference for the whiskey sour. The first written record comes in the seminal 1862 book The Bartender’s Guide: How To Mix Drinks, by Jerry Thomas. The original recipe is below.

Original whiskey sour recipe

Whiskey sour served in a glass
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon powdered white sugar (dissolved in a little seltzer or Apollinaris water)
  • The juice of half a small lemon
  • 1 wine glass of bourbon or rye whiskey
  • Berries (for garnish)

Method:

  1. Fill a small bar glass full of shaved ice.
  2. Shake up the powered white sugar, lemon juice, and bourbon or rye whiskey and strain it into a claret glass.
  3. Add berries for garnish

(This recipe differs from the modern-day version in the style of glass and the type of ice used, but the prototype was there.)

The next reference comes from, of all places, an 1870 edition of the Waukesha Plainsdealer, a Wisconsin newspaper. And the final reference to the drink comes two years later, in 1872. A former ship steward, Elliot Staub, “invented” a drink — the whiskey sour — in a bar in Iquique (then part of Peru). Through these three origins, we come to, more or less, what we have today — a cocktail that mixes a spirit, a sour, and a sweet.

Now that you’re read up and prepared for the day, it’s time to dive in. Check out George Dickel’s version of the original, then a few other takes on this iconic drink.

Whiskey sour recipe variants

George Dickel Whiskey Sour
Image used with permission by copyright holder

George Dickel Whisky Sour

(Pictured above)

Ingredients:

Method:

  1. Shake and strain the ingredients into an ice-filled rocks glass.
  2. Garnish with a lemon wedge or cherry.

Dewar’s Sour Rouge

(Created by Cyllan Hicks, New York City)\

Ingredients:

  • 2 ounces Dewar’s 12 Blended Scotch Whisky
  • 1 ounce lemon juice
  • 1 ounce rosemary honey syrup (1:1 honey and water with rosemary)
  • 1/2 ounce Lillet Rouge

Method:

  1. Shake all the ingredient and pour over rocks.
  2. Add Lillet Rouge as a floater.
  3. Garnish with lemon wheel and rosemary sprig.

Jeff’s Redneck Sour

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 ounces Bulleit Rye
  • 1 ounce fresh lemon sour
  • 5 ounces fresh grapefruit juice
  • 2 dashes grapefruit bitters

Method:

  1. Shake and strain ingredients into an ice-filled rocks glass.
  2. Garnish with a half wheel of grapefruit.

Basil Hayden’s Summer Sour

(By San Francisco Mixologist Matt Grippo) 

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 parts Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
  • 1/2 part fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 part sweet vermouth
  • 1/4 part Tonic Syrup
  • 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • Orange twist (for garnish)

Method:

  1. Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake vigorously for 10 seconds.
  2. Strain into an iced-filled rocks glass.
  3. Garnish with an orange twist.

Knob Creek Citrus Sour

(By Celebrity Chef Michael Symon)

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 parts Knob Creek Bourbon
  • 1/2 part lemon juice
  • 1/2 part simple syrup
  • 2 parts Orangina Soda
  • 5 sprigs thyme
  • 1 egg white
Method:
  1. Muddle thyme and simple syrup thoroughly in the bottom of the shaker.
  2. Combine with lemon juice, bourbon, and egg white.
  3. Add ice and shake vigorously for 1 minute. Strain over ice and float with Orangina soda.
  4. Garnish with a few sprigs of thyme.

Whiskey sour variation tips

Blackberry whiskey sour
Cravings in Amsterdam

The beauty of the whiskey sour is its simplicity, which also makes it endlessly customizable. Here are some exciting variations to explore in your home bar.

Fruity

  • Berry blast: Muddle fresh berries like raspberries, blackberries, or blueberries for a burst of fruity sweetness.
  • Tropical twist: Add a splash of pineapple juice, mango puree, or passion fruit liqueur for a tropical vibe.

Smoky and spicy

  • Smoky sour: Use peated scotch for a smoky flavor, pair it well with cherry or maple syrup.
  • Spicy sour: Add a few dashes of habanero or jalapeno bitters for a fiery kick.

Sweet and savory

  • Maple magic: Substitute maple syrup for simple syrup for a touch of autumnal sweetness.
  • Coffee kick: Add a shot of espresso for a boozy coffee cocktail.
Sam Slaughter
Sam Slaughter was the Food and Drink Editor for The Manual. Born and raised in New Jersey, he’s called the South home for…
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