Words by Simon Difford
Sours are a family of cocktails that contain a base spirit or liqueur, citrus juice as the sour element (usually lemons) and a sweetener – most commonly sugar but also honey, agave syrup etc.. However, if the base is a liqueur then no additional sweetener may be required. While Sours can be incredibly simple, they are arguably the oldest and most important of all cocktail categories.
The combination of base spirit, water, sugar and citrus mean that a sour is basically a scaled down punch. Punch is the earliest form of cocktail [see history of punch] and due to the similarity in ingredients, many site the punch as being the sours predecessor - and by extension, also of Collinses, Fixes, Daisies, Coolers and Cobblers - what drinks historian David Wondrich calls "The Children of Punch" or "Lesser Punches".
The British Navy is credited for popularising, if not inventing the sour. Rum was readily available around the Caribbean, and unlike beer, didn't go off during long voyages, so rum became the official libation of the British Navy. To help combat scurvy and malnutrition, the sailors often mixed their rum rations with lime juice to make a Daiquiri-like mixture known as Grog, which in turn led to British sailors being nicknamed 'limeys', and the phrase, "Too many and you'll be 'groggy" in the morning." [see Naval rum and the history of the Grog]. Sailors brought Punches and Grogs ashore and Punch Houses where first established in London in the 1600s.
The first record of a Sour appears in 1856, alongside that for a Fix, as part of the hand-written list of the 107 mixed drinks then offered at in the Mart Ackermann's Saloon in Toronto, Canada. The first known written recipe for a Sour appears six years later in Jerry Thomas' 1862 book The Bartender's Guide which has recipes for a Brandy Sour, a Gin Sour and a Santa Cruz (rum sour).
Page 59, The Bartender's Guide 1862
The oldest known mention of a Whiskey Sour comes eight years later in a God-fearing Wisconsin, USA, newspaper, the Waukesha Plain Dealer. "Then may God have mercy on your soul," says I, taking a drink out of me cousin's glass. "Amen" says the Methodist, as he ordered another whisky sour."
Waukesha Plain Dealer, Tuesday 4th January 1870.
The way the whisky sour is mentioned in this 1870 newspaper shows that its popularity is such that it needs no explanation. As David Wondrich writes in Imbibe, "From roughly the 1860s to the 1960s, the Sour, and particularly its whiskey incarnation, was one of the cardinal points of American drinking...." Wondrich illustrates the Sours status with this 1879 quote from the Atlanta Daily Constitution, "When American meets American then comes the whisky sour".
The Sour's simple three ingredient construction - base spirit, citrus and sweetener, plus water (from ice) adding essential dilution - is replicated in countless cocktail recipes such as that for a Daiquiri and countless others. Indeed, it's the balanced composition of these ingredients which can set excellent craftmanship apart from the rest. A Sour, particularly a Daiquiri is the best test of a bartender's mastery of balance.
The Daiquiri is a particular style of sour which calls for rum as its base spirit. However, Sours can and are made with any spirit base, be that whisk(e)y, gin, vodka, brandy, rum or even a liqueur - as is the case in the popular Amaretto Sour, where amaretto liqueur replaces the spirit and sweet components.
Citrus - sour component
Powdered sours mixes, used widely during the 1970s-90s, perhaps inflicted more damage to the Sour than even Prohibition, five decades earlier. Thankfully, with the 1990s cocktail renaissance and a return to freshly squeezed citrus juices, Sours have been reinvigorated with the Amaretto Sour, Whiskey Sour, New York Sour and Penicillin all featuring in our annual listing of the Top 100 Cocktails. The clue is in the name and the sour element, freshly squeezed citrus juice, is the heart of a great Sour cocktail.
At its simplest, the sourness of citrus juice is balanced with sugar - mostly sugar syrup and that may be a flavoured syrup e.g. raspberry in syrup in the gin-based Clover Club and grenadine in the applejack based Jack Rose. As many shun processed sugar so alternative sweeteners such as honey and agave syrup have become popular in Sours. Liqueurs also remain an important balancing Sour ingredient and, in some cases, such as in the Amaretto Sour, liqueurs can play the combined role of base, modifier and sweetener.
As Robert Vermiere says on the Sours page in his Cocktails - How to Mix Them, "A few drops of egg improve all Sours."
Early sours did not include egg white and egg isn't an ingredient in the Sours in Jerry Thomas' 1862 The Bar-Tenders Guide. Egg white first appears 30 years later in William Schmidt's 1892 The Flowing Bowl.
1892 The Flowing Bowl pages 123 & 124
The use of egg white helped smooth bootleg alcohol in Sours during Prohibition and most modern-day bartenders, with the exception of those in Asia, favour the inclusion of egg white in a Sour.
To quote from my hero's 1948 The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, "Two or three dashes of Angostura to each drink constitute a pleasing addition to this drink." Indeed, I'd advise adding flavours of bitters that both suit personal taste and the base spirit, but as with bitters in all cocktails, just enough drops/dashes to add a hint of something but not so much as to detract from the cocktail's core flavour.
Early Sour recipes often use a splash of soda to dissolve sugar crystals (e.g. Harry Johnsons' 1900 Bartenders' Manual). Later recipes tend to call for sugar syrup, so the soda is not required to dissolve the sugar. However, many of these recipes still call for the use of soda from a syphon, but as a "squirt" on top of the drink, particularly for Brandy Sours, as stipulated in the 1923 Harry of Ciro's ABC of Mixing Cocktails and the 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book. The squirt of soda on a Sour is now reserved for Fizzes such as the Ramos Gin Fizz.
Ratios of ingredients - proportions
As stated above it is the harmonious balance of spirituous alcohol, sweetness and sourness that makes a great Sour. So what proportion to mix them in? Again, I refer to David Embury and his The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.
"As with other drinks, the proportions vary all over the map, according to the personal whims and individual taste of the author of the recipe. The bartenders' manual of a half-century ago specified for each individual drink 1/2 tablespoonful sugar, 3 or 4 dashes lemon juice, and 3 to 4 ounces of liquor. Other writers have tried to standardize on "1 sweet, 2 sour, 3 strong." Still others advise as much as 6 parts of lemon juice to 1 part of sugar. And with a variance among professional bartenders ranging all the way from I sour and 4 sweet to 1 sweet and 6 sour and all the way from 2 to 8 parts of liquor for each part of combined lemon and sugar, many of these writers still warn the gullible reader that he must follow proportions with meticulous accuracy lest the entire drink be ruined!
"The truth of the matter is, of course, that that proportion of sweet and sour is which best pleases the taste of the individual drinker, provided, always, that for the aperitif cocktail the final blend with the liquor base will produce a drink that is dry, not sweet. Just how dry, again, is a question of personal preference, but let it never be sweet. This is a matter not of ruining the drink but of ruining the appetite and the digestion.
The Sours extended family includes the Aviation, Bacardi Cocktail, Clover Club, Corpse Reviver No.2, Cosmopolitan, El Presidente, Jack Rose, Margarita, Pegu Club, Ramos Gin Fizz, Scofflaw Cocktail, Sidecar, Singapore Sling, 20th Century Cocktail, Tom Collins, Ward Eight and many more. While the Sour family is a much extended one, the following are close relations:
Amaretto Sour - with amaretto in place of base spirit and sweetener
Boston Sour - a Whiskey Sour with egg white usually served straight-up
Brunswick - a Whiskey Sour with a red wine float but no egg white
Greenwich Sour - a rye whiskey based sour + egg white + red wine float
Jersey Sour (AKA Applejack Sour) - with applejack apple brandy
Delicious Sour - with calvados apple brandy and crème de pîche
Dino Sour - with light white & dark Jamaican rums
Elder Sour - elderflower's answer to an Amaretto Sour
Lavender Honey Sour
- based on Irish whiskey with honey and Benedictine liqueur.
New York Sour (AKA: Brunswick Sour, Chicago Sour, Claret Snap, Continental Sour, Southern Whiskey Sour) - Bourbon based with red wine float (but no egg white)
Pisco Sour - the pisco based classic
See more Sour recipes
What shape and size of glass deemed appropriate for a Sour has changed enormously over the decades. Back in 1862 Jerry Thomas stipulated to "use a small bar glass," the type used for cocktails and other short drinks served straight-up. As the sour evolved, the dedicated eponymously named sour glass, a footed glass, deeper than a cocktail glass, became ever more popular and by 1884, in his Bar-Keeper's Handbook George Winter specifies to "use a fancy sour glass" for some sours and a "large bar glass for others.
In his 1908, The World's Drinks and How to Mix Them William Boothby calls for Sour recipes to be strained into a highball or punch-glass. Then in 1912, in his The Hoffman House Bartender's Guide Charles S. Mahoney says the Dizzy Sour and Gin Sour should be served in a sour glass whereas the Whiskey Sour should be served in a claret glass.
Modern-day Whiskey Sours tend to be served on-the-rocks in an old-fashioned glass, but the same drink could be shaken and strained into a stemmed sour glass and served straight-up. When it comes to Sours, as long as the glass is appropriately sized, pretty much anything goes.