During the warm, summer season, people like a drink that is refreshing – a little sweet, a little sour and cold. The whiskey sour fills this need in all three ways. It is a little sweet but has the tartness of lemons and served with ice. The perfect summer cocktail for ending a day working in the yard or picnicking with friends. I thought I would look at the recipes for this classic cocktail and see how it has changed over the years.

In 1882, Harry Johnson’s The New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual, provides the following recipe for the whiskey sour:

  • Harry Johnson’s 1882 Whiskey Sour: ½ teaspoonful of sugar, 3 or 4 dashes of lemon juice, 1 squirt of Syphon Seltzers water, dissolve the sugar and lemon with a spoon, Fill the glass with ice, 1 wine glass of whiskey, stir up well, strain into a sour glass, place fruit in it and serve.

Jerry Thomas’ 1887 The Bar-Tender’s Guide, has this recipe for the whiskey sour:

  • Jerry Thomas’ 1887 Whiskey Sour: Take a large teaspoonful of powdered white sugar, dissolve in a little Seltzer or Appolinaire water, The juice of half a small lemon, 1 wine glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey. Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

The 1911 publication from The Wine and Spirits Bulletin, a Louisville based trade magazine, called Beverage De Luxe, has this recipe for the whiskey sour from Philadelphia’s Union League Club:

  • The Union League Club 1911 Whiskey Sour: One portion whiskey, Juice of 1 lemon, 1 pony curacao, 1 dash St. Croix rum, Sugar. Shake well, and serve in a small goblet with a slice of orange and pineapple.

When Prohibition came to an end, The Old Mr. Boston brand of spirits started publishing their Deluxe Official Bartender’s Guide. This is their recipe for the whiskey sour in their 1935 edition:

  • Old Mr. Boston Deluxe Official Bartender’s Guide 1935 Whiskey Sour:  1 teaspoonful powdered sugar, Juice of ½ lemon, 1 jigger Old Mr. Boston Bourbon whiskey, Shake well with cracked ice and strain into Delmonico glass. Garnish with fruit. If desired, add carbonated water.

Gary Regan was an iconic bartender and teacher of the craft in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. His 1991 book, The Bartender’s Bible, has the following recipe for the whiskey sour:

  • Gary Regan’s 1991 Whiskey Sour: 2 ounces blended whiskey, 1 ounce lemon juice, ½ teaspoon superfine sugar, 1 orange slice, 1 maraschino cherry. In a shaker half-filled with ice cubes, combine the whiskey, lemon juice and sugar. Shake well. Strain into a sour glass. Garnish with orange slice and cherry.

All of these recipes have the same basic ingredients of whiskey, lemon juice, sugar and ice. It is interesting that they seem to use different amounts of lemon juice and sugar. The balance between the sweet and the sour seems to be the differential of the cocktails. Different recipes call for different fruit garnish for the cocktail and the Union League Club recipe uses additional spirits other than whiskey in it. Seltzer water seems to have fallen out of favor in the 20th century. Only the two earliest recipes call for water of any type. I have also had whiskey sours that are made using egg white, but none of my recipes I found include egg whites.

The whiskey sour is a classic cocktail, most popular in the warmer days of spring and summer. It is simple to make and refreshing to drink. Take time to make yourself a whiskey sour after working in the yard on a hot, summer day and you will be glad you did.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller