Cocktail: The Tart Tipple
The Whiskey Sour has evolved from a dangerous Prohibition drink to one that’s prominently displayed on many cocktail menus.
Photography by Daniel Wood
The Whiskey Sour, in its simplest form, sees half a glass full of liquor balanced by equal parts sweet and sour. It arrived in the 1700s, when sailors in the British Navy started mixing lemon and lime juice with rum to prevent scurvy. It didn’t take long for the rum to be swapped with whiskey or gin, and for some sugar to be added to the equation.
Straightforward, unpretentious and pleasantly potent, the drink was popular in saloons throughout the United States during the 19th century. American bartender Jerry Thomas wrote the initial handbook on how to mix drinks in 1862, which included the first Whiskey Sour recipe.
The drink’s resurgence today stems from its widespread presence among the upper class during Prohibition. While the sale, transport and manufacturing of alcohol was illegal in the United States from 1920 to 1933, notorious gangsters such as Al Capone kept the country supplied. Canadian rye whisky, particularly Canadian Club, was smuggled across the border and sold in secret drinking establishments, called speakeasies, where the elite indulged.
Mike Angus, the general manager at The Next Act, is aware of the drink’s dangerous past. “People were going to go to jail if they were caught drinking this,” says Angus, “which I think is part of its sex appeal.” Raids and arrests were constant and so was the request for a Whiskey Sour, especially because more women started drinking throughout the Roaring ’20s.
It’s almost a century later and at The Next Act, the drink remains a best-selling cocktail across its entire clientele. It’s made with two ounces of Lot No. 40 Canadian whisky, fresh squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters, garnished with a cherry. The recipe is traditional, without bitters.
Greg Peck, bar manager at The Common, makes his Whiskey Sour a little different. Peck pours egg white in with a Tennessee sour mash whiskey, which he knows changes the name of the drink to a Boston Sour. “It doesn’t alter the taste of the drink, but adds a nice frothiness to it, like a latte,” says Peck.
According to Ren Grosso, a manager at Red Star Pub, adding egg white makes it “better than breakfast.” Grosso uses Buffalo Trace bourbon and presents his straight up, in a coupe glass, with bitters artistically swirled into the foam. He says it’s key to balance the sharp tang of the citrus against the syrup and to use a full-bodied whiskey to bring its complexity through.
While these Edmonton establishments prepare their own variations of the Whiskey Sour, they all use fresh ingredients over bar sour mix, which can make or break the drink.
Traditional Whiskey Sour
2 oz. bourbon or Canadian rye whisky
oz. fresh squeezed lemon juice
oz. simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil)
Garnished with a maraschino cherry and orange wheel
Pour the whisky (or bourbon), lemon juice, and simple syrup into a shaker. Fill it half with ice and shake vigorously for about 20 seconds. Strain the contents into a bar glass filled with fresh ice, or serve it straight up. Add a cherry and an orange slice to serve.
Add more or less lemon juice or simple syrup to modify the drink to your liking.