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How to Make a Whiskey Sour, Egg White or No

These days, “sour” has become something of an umbrella term that covers any combination of spirit, sweetener, and citrus. Indeed, bartenders now often speak of the whiskey fix, the silver fizz, the whiskey daisy, and whiskey Collins as types of sours. The whiskey sour, once a mere variation on the more popular brandy sour, is today the standard bearer of the sour family, but the drink itself remains remarkably fluid.

Two glasses of whiskey daisy cocktails with orange and cherry garnish.

How to make a truly great whiskey sour

Just like an old-fashioned, the whiskey sour can be a fun vehicle for trying different bottlings. Each type—rye, bourbon, Irish whiskey, scotch—reacts a little differently with citrus. You’ll be surprised how some dusty old bottles take to a sour while others resist it. A little experimentation can go a long way when perfecting your home sour.

Bourbon is my go-to for whiskey sours. There’s just something about the roundness of the stuff that leans up well against the acid of lemon juice. Typically, I want a bourbon that has some character, but not so much that it gets in the way of things. (Buffalo Trace is a solid move, and I like Old Granddad Bonded and Old Forester sometimes.) The peppery and rustic notes of the right rye or the smokiness of the perfectly chosen scotch can also bring interesting things to the table in a sour—but when I want comfort food, I go bourbon.

If there’s one corner that you shouldn’t cut, it’s that the lemon juice (and I really do encourage you to stick to just lemon) needs to be freshly pressed and strained—ideally held for no more than 12 hours. Without preservatives, fresh lemon juice begins to oxidize immediately, drifting away from its brightness and tartness as the night goes on. Many bartenders agree that the sweet spot tends to be between four and eight hours old, but too fresh is preferable to not fresh enough—and day-old citrus juice simply shouldn’t be part of any cocktail. Whatever you do, don’t go for the store-bought stuff. Take the time to juice a whole lemon yourself.

As for the sweetener, I recommend keeping the syrup simple (a 1:1 ratio of white sugar and water, blended together and kept away from the stove). This combination of fresh lemon juice and simple syrup is the standard for whiskey sours today.

How to serve a whiskey sour? There’s precedent for an egg white, and precedent for skipping it.

Photo by Joseph De Leo, Food Styling by Judy Haubert

To egg white or not to egg white?

When I train a bartender, I teach them to ask guests a series of questions to help them quickly clarify what they want in a whiskey sour. Once they choose their whiskey, guests then decide if they want their cocktail “up” or “on the rocks,” and whether they’d like an egg white. (Insert health disclaimer here: raw egg is not recommended for various groups, you likely know who you are.) I’ve heard a lot of snotty opinions about these options, and there was a time when a specific version—with an egg white and up—was often considered to be the proper whiskey sour. (An honest look through the canon of classic cocktails will show you that any permutation thereof is entirely appropriate.) With some whiskeys, I like the body and texture that an egg white brings to the table, while sometimes I just want something closer to boozy lemonade. Hell, sometimes I splash a little club soda in there too.

Riffs, experiments, and Mr. Potato Head

Balance is a grossly overused word when it comes to cocktails, but when people use it correctly they’re often talking about a sour. Balance means harmonizing two of our tastes—sweet and sour—with the proof and flavor of a base spirit. Such a simple structure can yield a wide range of results, and switching out the whiskey is only the beginning of the fun you can have with your whiskey sour at home.

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