Sour Cocktails: Simple and flexible; the sour stands the test of time

Story by Cara Devine. Cara is our Melbourne-based drinks writer. She is the manager of Bomba in Melbourne and the face and talent behind the cocktailing youtube channel Behind the Bar. You can email her at

“From roughly the 1860s to the 1960s the Sour, and particularly its whiskey incarnation, was one of the cardinal points of American drinking… Two things appear to have driven the Sour’s quick elevation to indispensability: It was simple, and it was flexible.”

Thus speaks David Wondrich in ‘Imbibe’, explaining the phenomenon of the Sour’s rise to prominence in the drinking culture, but the same attributes that first elevated it to indispensability may well also explain the drink’s continued appeal.

The Sour is one of the Grandfather drinks, appearing in Jerry Thomas’ magnum opus, ‘The Bartender’s Guide’, in 1862 and mentioned even further back in various newspaper articles. According to Thomas, “The sour is made with the same ingredients as the fix, omitting all fruits except a small piece of lemon, the juice of which must be pressed in the glass.” And so the Sour template was set into stone as base spirit, lemon and sugar – although, interestingly, he did not actually include a whisk(e)y Sour at this point, but ones based on gin, brandy and rum. Nowadays, a fluffy halo from the use of egg white (or alternative) is also expected, but this did not actually come until later – in 1922 Robert Vermiere advocated for the use of “a few drops of white of egg” to improve the cocktail, and although it had been seen earlier this style really took off post-Prohibition. Similarly, the whiskey Sour may not have been in Thomas’ original trio but the American affinity for their native spirit soon guaranteed that it saw off competitors to become the Sour of choice.

“The Whiskey Sour is an iconic drink for a reason. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been between visits, it’s an old friend greeting you with the same warmth as always and you always leave with fond memories.” – Michael Keogh of Memphis Slim’s in Adelaide.

Now, if we want to get extremely deconstructive about it, this golden triangle of strong, sweet and sour basically underpins any cocktail with citrus – of course a Daiquiri, Margarita and Pegu Club are cut from the same cloth – but the whiskey Sour has so thoroughly cemented itself in the public consciousness that nary a bar menu I see doesn’t have a variation on there (although they often contain fruit other than lemon, and extra flourishes too. Jerry Thomas bless us for we have sinned!).

“The Whiskey Sour is an iconic drink for a reason. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been between visits, it’s an old friend greeting you with the same warmth as always and you always leave with fond memories,” says Michael Keogh of Memphis Slim’s in Adelaide. “Regardless of skill set, experience or wealth of knowledge the whiskey Sour base is a classic structure that every customer and bartenders of every level can enjoy.” The Memphis Slim’s Penicillin is a twist on a twist, incorporating Australian native ingredients such as wattleseed into Sam Ross’ honey and ginger spiked Sour.

One of the main appeals may be the fact that ‘whisk(e)y’ itself is such a broad term. Sure, the original would have been American whiskey but nowadays rye, bourbon, blended whiskies or a single malt from any given country are all acceptable in a whisk(e)y Sour, giving a huge canvas of flavour profiles on which to build your drink and making it easy to find flavour matches in any season. Is it summer and berries are bountiful? Pair with a spicy rye! Winter time and all you have to use are apples and dates? Don’t worry, a Highland malt will hit the mark. For those who wish to experiment in this regard, I highly recommend Shaun Byrne and Nick Tesar’s ‘All Day Cocktails’. As you can imagine from (half of) the brains trust behind Marionette liqueurs, the pair are passionate about utilising and preserving seasonal produce and the book is full of great prep recipes just begging to be added to whisk(e)y and lemon – I’d be more than happy to see spiced blackberry syrup, banana caramel or apricot jam in my glass as the sweet component of a Sour.

Sometimes, great creativity comes from a simple starting point and the whisk(e)y, sweet and sour blueprint is one that generations of bartenders prior and generations to come will use. The oldest known mention of the whiskey Sour was in a Wisconsin newspaper in 1870. “‘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.” And maybe, just maybe he added – “but give it a little zhuzh this time – are you doing anything cool with native botanicals?”

Credit: Michael Keogh

35ml Dewar’s White Label Whiskey
5ml Roasted Wattleseed Distillate
20ml Gonzo House Vermouth
30ml Ginger Honey Syrup
20ml Fresh Lemon Juice
Glassware: rocks
Garnished: Atomised Tasmanian Pepper Stalk Hydrosol
Picked Crystalized Ginger

Roasted Wattleseed Distillate:
100g Roasted Wattleseed (Acacia Baileyana used)
700ml Neutral Grape Spirit
Vaccum Sealed and Sous Vide @ 60 degrees for 3hrs
Strained, bottled and sealed.

Gonzo House Vermouth:
Made from spent wine in-house, locally sourced and foraged wormwood, native botanicals and spent citrus peel.
Cold steeps, some Sous Vide at very low temperatures for short amounts of time.
Infused with sliced Ginger, cold steeped over 24hrs.
50g Ginger: 750ml Vermouth
Ginger Honey Syrup:
1kg Ginger Juiced
1kg Honey
Double the Amount Ginger Juice in 1:1 Sugar Syrup (ie 500ml Ginger Juice = 1L Sugar Syrup)

Tasmanian Pepper Stalk Hydrosol:
Tasmanian Pepper Stalk burnt and smoked in a flat pan with a low dish of water inside. Smoked and sealed; the longer the better but at least 2 hours.
Water holds smoke VERY well, add it to an atomiser and you’re set.

Credit: Fred Siggins

60mls (2oz) Starward Nova (or other Australian whisky)
20mls (2/3oz) Lemon Juice
1 heaped barspoon of apricot jam*
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
Glass: rocks
Garnish: Dried Apricot & Sage leaves

*Apricot Jam Recipe from ‘All Day Cocktails’
(Makes approx 2kg)

1.5kg apricots
1 kg caster sugar
30ml lemon juice

Stone the apricots then put the fruit in a bowl, cover with half the sugar and leave to macerate overnight. The next day, place the macerated fruit in a large saucepan and add 250ml water and the lemon juice. Simmer over a medium heat until the fruit is soft. Add the remaining sugar. To test if your jam has reached setting point, place a small saucer in the freezer. Once cold dollop a teaspoon of jam onto the saucer, wait, then run your fingers through the jam – it should leave a clean streak with no jam leaking into the middle. While the jam is hot, transfer to sterilised jars.