I'm a freelance writer from Maine, and I love writing articles on topics that I have an interest in.
It can be intimidating to mix a new drink for friends and if you aren't sure how to make a whiskey sour, of course it's easier to buy a case of beer. But if you love entertaining and want to impress friends and family at your next dinner party or backyard barbecue, serving quality, homemade cocktails with premium ingredients will make your party a hit.
How to Make a Whiskey Sour
To me, the best whiskey sour is the perfect mixture of flavors—you'll taste smoke, vanilla, and oak from a quality bourbon, the sharp bite of citrus from freshly squeezed lemon juice, and (if done properly) that sour taste is cut just enough with the perfect amount of simple syrup. When served ice-cold with a beautiful garnish, there's just nothing better.
Of course, if you ask every bartender in the country how to make a whiskey sour, you'll hear a lot of different answers. The truth is that as long as you like how it tastes, you're probably doing it right. In my view, the key to making the best whiskey sour (or any cocktail for that matter) is to use fresh, high-quality ingredients. Completing prep-work before my guests arrive also helps...that way, when guests ask for another glass (and they will!) I don't have to break away from the conversation to mix. I have a batch of fresh, homemade sour mix ready to pour and nobody is kept waiting.
Better With Bourbon
I know I won't make friends with any single-malt guys or gals (but hey, they aren't putting their whiskey in the sour mix anyway), but for my taste, you can't do better than high-quality Kentucky-straight bourbon. The good news is that you don't have to break the bank when you purchase a high-quality bourbon in the US. Brands like Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, and others are sure to be available just around the corner from where you live.
Learning how to make a whiskey sour isn't difficult and remember—what I feel is perfect may be a bit too sweet or a bit too sour for your palette. The best recipe I know is simple and easy to remember. I'll share it with you now and if you're interested I hope you'll keep reading as I discuss bourbon selection, presentation, garnishes, and the history of the drink in the space below.
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- 2 cups quality bourbon
- 1 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 cup simple syrup
- 1 or 2 oranges, sliced
- Maraschino cherries (1 or 2 per serving)
- Plenty of ice
- To create simple syrup, pour ~1/2 cup of water and ~1/2 cup of pure cane sugar into a small pot and heat slowly on medium-low, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Measure one cup of the simple syrup and place it in the refrigerator (or freezer if you're in a hurry) to cool as you prep the other ingredients. Reserve extra for use another time.
- If possible, use freshly squeezed lemon juice. Halve the lemons and squeeze by hand or use a juicer until you have one cup of fresh lemon juice. If you'd rather use bottled lemon juice, I recommend finding an organic pure lemon juice brand for the best flavor.
- Use a clean empty seltzer or juice bottle to mix 2 cups of name-brand bourbon (Jim Beam is a great choice) with 1 cup of lemon juice and 1 cup of simple syrup. If you're in a rush to chill, add a couple of ice cubes. Refrigerate until serving.
- Fill glasses with ice, shake your mixing bottle or bar shaker vigorously, and pour whiskey sour over a glass filled with ice.
- Slice oranges to use as garnish with the maraschino cherries. Garnish by dropping orange and cherry into the glass or for a decorative take, fold the orange around the cherry and use a plastic skewer. Enjoy with friends!
Rules Can be Bent or Broken
Remember that the best whiskey sour is often the simplest. There's no reason to kill yourself hunting for rare bourbon when a fine bottle in your local liquor store will do just fine. Quality ingredients mixed in a proven 2-1-1 ratio is the ticket and remember that the best way to learn how to make a whiskey sour is to practice, practice, practice!
This Recipe is Easy to Scale
One advantage of this simple recipe is that the ingredient ratio is easy to remember, making it easy to learn how to make a whiskey sour. This recipe is also easy to scale, so you're covered whether you're mixing a drink for yourself or you're prepping for a 12-person holiday get-together.
The ratio for this simple whiskey sour recipe is 2-1-1 (2 parts whiskey, 1 part simple syrup, and 1 part lemon juice). I like bold, strong-flavored drinks that allow me to taste every ingredient and enjoy the way they play off of one another. For some, this exact whiskey sour recipe may be a bit overpowering at first sip, but I promise that if you mix it over plenty of ice it makes for a delicious drink once the ice begins to melt. If you find this recipe too sour or too sweet, add a splash of water to your drink or a few ice cubes to the mix prior to serving. This will eliminate the need to wait for melting ice.
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Choosing the Right Bourbon
While there's sure to be a debate about what the perfect bourbon is for the best whiskey sour recipe, I recommend either Jim Beam's Kentucky Straight Bourbon or (if you feel like spending a couple of extra bucks) Elijah Craig offers a bottle of bourbon that is aged for 12 years for just $22. This is an absolute steal and it makes an excellent sipping whiskey, if you're into that sort of thing. Elijah Craig is considered by many to be the best brand of bourbon available.
Why American Whiskey?
There are a few reasons why I prefer to spend my money on Jim Beam and Elijah Craig. First, both brands are American—in fact, they're owned by the same family. Additionally, Kentucky bourbon is part of a rich American tradition and every time I crack open a bottle I feel as though I'm enjoying a little piece of American history. I know that sounds corny, so if you aren't buying that the "story" of the bourbon makes it taste better, think of it this way: drinking American history is way more fun than going to a museum!
A Third Option
I was excited when Jim Beam came out with a new, affordable whiskey called Devil's Cut. I like this bourbon for mixing because it offers a rich, oaky flavor loaded with spice and sweet caramelized notes from the oak barrels. It's a terrific option for this recipe.
Traditionally, a whiskey sour is served over ice and garnished with an orange slice and/or a maraschino cherry. But when you're deciding how to make one in your home, you can garnish it however you like. My advice is to get creative but not to go overboard—the simplicity of this drink is one reason why it's so good.
Pop Your Whiskey Sour Cherry
One fun new take on the traditional whiskey sour is to replace maraschino cherries with ripe whole cherries. You can skewer them, hang them over the edge of the glass with their rugged stems, or (if you plan ahead) you could slice, pit, and freeze ripe cherries and drop them into the glass along with ice cubes. They'll cool your drink and as they thaw they'll sweeten it with a delicious natural flavor!
Keep It Simple
When you're working on your garnish or tinkering with your recipe, remember to keep things simple. If you want a martini, make a martini. If you're trying to decide how to make a whiskey sour then refer to the recipe above.
The same goes for garnishes. One of the reasons the recipe hasn't changed much over the years is because it's already great. Your job is to get out of the way and let the ingredients do the work. This drink doesn't need a garnish at all. If you mix great ingredients and serve over ice, you've already won.
If you decide to mix up a batch of whiskey sours for unexpected visitors and you're hoping to dress up the presentation, a simple lemon wedge or two in the glass or on the glass's lip will do the trick.
The Evolution of the Whiskey Sour Recipe
People have been experimenting with whiskey sour recipes since the late 1800s when the first one was poured in Wisconsin, but the practice of mixing "sour" drinks dates back to the 1700s.
It turns out that "yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum" didn't just speak to the carefree lifestyle of sailors and pirates. Fresh fruit spoiled on long sea journeys and scurvy (a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency) was a serious issue when sailors spent months at sea. To prevent scurvy, crews would squeeze lime and other fruit juices into their rum. The rum preserved the vitamin C, keeping the crew healthy (and happily inebriated) and the lime juice made the rum taste sour. It didn't take very long for sailors to start using sugar to sweeten the fruity rum, creating the key mixing philosophy that has made today's whiskey sour recipe so popular.
The Boston Sour
Some restaurants modify the recipe I've offered above, adding a dash of egg white to the mixture, which makes the cocktail quite frothy when shaken and poured. This notable variation on the traditional whiskey sour recipe first became popular in Boston and, as a result, a whiskey sour made with egg white is called a "Boston Sour".
I get a little squeamish about the idea of raw eggs in my cocktail, so I prefer a whiskey sour recipe without this addition. Many bars use the inexpensive "sour mix" available in your local liquor store and these store-bought mixtures create little to no froth. I've found that using homemade ingredients (freshly squeezed lemon juice and homemade simple syrup) creates a much denser, frothier drink than you'll find in most bars and restaurants and that this whiskey sour recipe offers the heavy body of the Boston sour without the risk of salmonella.
Make This Recipe
In the video below, you'll notice the bartender makes some slight modifications to the 2-1-1 ratio, producing a stronger drink by using 2 parts whiskey to 3/4 lemon juice and 3/4 simple syrup. She also uses a variation on the traditional garnish with a ripe cherry and lemon wedge. This is the sort of customization that's terrific—with time you can learn how to make a whiskey sour that's all your own!
Everyone's taste is different and learning how to make a whiskey sour that tastes perfect to you and your friends will take some experimentation. I know some who prefer a mixture of lime and lemon juice and there are others who add a dash of maraschino cherry juice from the jar to their recipe. The 2-1-1 ratio (bourbon to lemon juice to simple syrup) is an easy-to-recall ratio that helps me remember how to make a whiskey sour. I hope you'll try this recipe, rate it and let me know what you think in the comments. If you made a modification to this recipe that worked out well share it with me and others in the comments below.
Thanks for reading—cheers!