Top Shelf: Behold The Second Coming Of ‘The Sour’

Something happened to the sour. Whiskey sour. Pisco sour. Boston sour. Gin sour. Try ordering one of these drinks in your local watering hole (read, not craft cocktail bar), and one of two things will happen: you’ll get a bartender that isn’t sure what goes in it, or worse, you’ll get the drink that almost put me off the classic sours forever. What was that drink? What was wrong with it? What should it have been? Let me take you back in time with me…

The whiskey sour used to be my go-to drink when I went out. When I was still in my drinking infancy (which sounds kind of illegal, but wasn’t), I ordered them because it was something I could remember when put on the spot. I knew I liked citrus, and I didn’t want to order a Cosmopolitan or an anything-tini. A whiskey sour, in contrast to the Sex and the City favorites, sounded vaguely John Wayne-y and bad ass. So it became my drink. Did John Wayne actually drink whiskey sours?* I have no idea, and I certainly didn’t then. I was a 21-year-old undergrad, not a cowboy.

*Update — looks like he did actually enjoy whiskey, but possibly liked tequila even more.*

During the entire time that I was ordering these drinks, I don’t think I ever got a real one. What I got, every time, was a drink that was a simplified — bastardized — version of the original recipe. A true sour combines your base liquor, citrus (often lemon), a sweetener of some kind, and sometimes egg white or bitters. My whiskey sours checked off the base liquor, but then swapped out all of the other ingredients for sour mix, which tastes like a combination of Country Time Lemonade powder, motor oil, and yellow highlighter pens. You can buy sour mix in pretty much any supermarket or liquor store. Please don’t.

Why exactly this drink became the phoned-in monstrosity that it often is today is probably a little more complicated than I’m going to make it, but suffice it to say, that reduction of complication is probably exactly what happened to this classic cocktail, which has been around since the mid-1800s. Whiskey sours — and their other sour brethren — weren’t exactly complicated beverages, but they did take a little time. Juicing citrus, making simple syrup, whipping up an egg white foam; these aren’t things that take too much time if you’re making one or two drinks. But serving them for hundreds of patrons a night? With the invention of artificial flavorings and preservatives, it’s a small wonder that some bars turned toward a quick fix.

At any rate, I drank these quick-fix whiskey sours for a long time with no problem, but then one day, somewhere between my 21st and 24th birthday, somewhere between my regular local dive bar and my first craft cocktail bar, I developed something that really messed with my ability to drink cheaply.

Tastebuds. The simple combination of hard alcohol and processed sugar stopped being palatable. I wanted actual flavors in my drinks, not the six-degrees-of-separation-from-flavor I was getting. The day I had my first real whiskey sour, I realized what I’d been missing, and it wasn’t the obligatory orange slice and maraschino cherry.

Sours deserve a second look, a second coming, if you will.

Helping us take that second look is Terry Williams, the General Manager of Anvil Bar & Refuge, in Houston, Texas. Anvil knows their classic cocktails; they are Houston’s first bar dedicated to the classics, and they have the menu to prove it. The 100 List. Which in their words…

began as a laminated training guide for the bar staff — a minimal list of required cocktail recipes every bartender should know by heart. Our new staff was routinely seen studying this list of recipes when we opened, and frequently, guests would ask to see it. Eventually, we succumbed to their requests and added the list of classic cocktails to our printed menu. While the list has changed slightly over time as we occasionally rediscover lost classics, it has also become an iconic part of our bar and a wonderful way to explore the world of classic cocktails.

In 2013, only a few years after opening, Anvil was named a James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program. They’ve since been nominated four more times. Needless to say, they know how to make a sour. Now let’s find out exactly how, with Terry Williams.

So what makes for a really good “sour”? What are some tips and tricks to use to ensure that the drink comes out tasting delicious?

A really good “sour” works just like any other cocktail, you want to use the best ingredients possible to create your drink. Fresh juice (Anvil’s citrus juice is never more than a couple of hours old), consistent sugar syrup, high-quality spirits, fresh eggs.

When making a sour with an egg white, you want to whip the egg white to a nice frothy foam without over diluting the cocktail. This can be tricky if you don’t have high quality ice cubes like Kold Draft or Hoshizaki. So before you add ice to shake your sour, you can dry shake (shaking the cocktail ingredients without any ice), whisk the cocktail, or stick it in a blender without ice to achieve the proper consistency.

What are some missteps a home bartender might want to avoid in attempting to make a whiskey sour themselves? Any common mistakes?

Old eggs. Anvil uses eggs from a local farm, what they lack in uniformity of egg white size, they more than make up for with flavor. They never have off odors or flavors that you sometimes see in commercial eggs.

Another common misunderstanding is the reason for placing bitters on top of sours (very common in Pisco Sours). You might think the reason for doing this is to give bartenders a chance to practice their latte art, but really it’s to give the cocktail an aromatic aspect. The egg white foam that rises to the top will have little to no aroma (or as mentioned above, an off odor) and a few drops or a tiny mist of bitters on top can really enhance the cocktail as long as it’s not overdone and overpowering.

Could you share a recipe with us?

Terry’s Favorite Whiskey Sour


  • 2 oz Old Grand-Dad 114 Proof Bourbon
  • 1 oz Lemon Juice
  • 1/2 oz Turbinado Syrup (2:1 by weight Turbinado sugar to water)
  • 1 Egg White
  • Angostura Bitters


  • Combine all the ingredients except the bitters in your shaker.
  • Dry shake without ice until nice and frothy.
  • Add ice, shake and strain into a glass.
  • Garnish with the smallest mist of Angostura bitters on top.