Understanding Sour Cocktails

by | May 6, 2022 | Culture, Mixology

Professional bartenders know that sour cocktails are some of the most flavorful – yet difficult to truly master – alcoholic beverages. Consisting of a wide range of cocktail classics, great sour cocktails achieve a balance between disparate elements.

In our guide below, we’ll explore the sour cocktail, list some of the most popular sour cocktail recipes, and provide tips on creating your own classic whiskey sour cocktails guaranteed to thrill your guests at your next event or gathering.


The Art of the Sour Cocktail

Sour cocktails typically consist of three primary elements: liquor; an acidic component like lemon juice, lime juice, or other fresh citrus juice; and a sweetening agent like a simple syrup or honey syrup.

On its face, the sour cocktail sounds simple to prepare: Combine the three primary ingredients to a cocktail shaker, add ice, and serve. Take, for example, the classic gin fizz. Add lemon juice, simple syrup, and an egg white to a shaker. Shake vigorously, then top with club soda (or an alternative soda water) to finish the drink off. Sounds simple, right?

The reality is somewhat more complex. Bartenders must carefully balance the amounts of ingredients to achieve a cocktail that is tangy, tart, and sweet all at once. Too much of any one ingredient and the cocktail doesn’t have the characteristic sweet/sour balance.


History of Sour Cocktails

Punches were the earliest form of cocktails in the Old World. Many of these punches were based on rum, which was a favorite of sailors in the British Navy. Sailors would often mix their daily rum rations with lime juice (which had the added benefit of preventing disease like scurvy). When they returned to shore, their favorite shipboard libations followed and the first “punch houses” were opened in London in the 1600s.

It was in Canada that a sour cocktail first appeared on a bar menu, taking place in 1856. A few years later, the first known written recipe for a sour appears in The Bartender’s Guide, which featured recipes for three different sours: A brandy sour, a Santa Cruz, and a gin sour.


Liquors Used in Sours

While the rum sour and brandy sour cocktail were some of the first recorded recipes, inventive bartenders have used a wide range of spirits in their sour cocktail creations. In addition to brandy and white rum, sour cocktails are made with a base spirit like Tequila, Gin, Whiskey (bourbon or rye), Vodka, or even Amaretto (an Italian liqueur).

Certain sour recipes, such as the Amaretto sour, will use a liqueur like Maraschino liqueur or Amaretto to add balance to the sweet and sour flavor components. These liqueurs are naturally tangy and sweet, making them ideal for inventive and refreshing cocktail favorites (just be sure to reduce the quantity of sugars from your other ingredients, to keep the cocktail balanced).


Keys to Sour Cocktails: Lemon Juice and Lime Juice

Whether squeezed fresh just before adding to create a homemade sour mix, or used as a garnish, lemons and limes are the heart of the classic sour cocktail. Fresh lemon juice can be prepared as the ingredients are added to the cocktail shaker or made ahead of time. The same applies to fresh lime juice. Most bartenders agree that the perfect cocktail is made only from fresh ingredients.

To garnish the drink, a lemon twist, an orange slice, or a bit of lime zest can be added to the cocktail glass immediately before serving.

Alternatives to Lemon or Lime Juice

Lemon juice and lime are not the only citrus juices used in the sour family. Orange juice is another popular ingredient, as is cranberry juice (usually mixed with lime), pomegranate juice (also often mixed with lemon or lime), or even grapefruit juice.

As mentioned earlier, some sour cocktail recipes use a liqueur or red wine to add both sweetness and tang to the finished drink. A splash of orange liqueur (just a few drops are noticeable), a measure of triple sec, or a hint of maraschino liqueur add a distinctive touch to your cocktail recipe.


Sweetening Agents

The most common sweetener for sour cocktails is simple syrup, or a preparation of sugar melted down in boiling water until a light sugar syrup forms. Simple syrup keeps for a long time (if you add a dash of alcohol added to the bottle) and can be prepared well in advance of your event. More inventive bartenders may reach for sweeteners like maple syrup, agave syrup, or honey, giving drinkers something both unexpected and entirely refreshing. As mentioned earlier, liqueurs are also used to add sweetness and a hint of sourness to many cocktail recipes.


Add-on Ingredients and Glassware to Keep on Hand

No well-stocked bar is complete without a range of mixers and add-on ingredients. If you’re preparing a lemon drop martini, a pisco sour, or a classic cocktail like the whiskey sour, some of the add-ons you’ll want to have on hand include egg whites, Angostura bitters (a few dashes goes a long way), assorted citrus liqueurs, cubed or crushed ice, fresh citrus garnishes, and Maraschino cherries.

Professional bartenders rely on the pairing of ingredients in cocktails with the proper glassware. Depending on the sour served, the glassware can include a martini glass, classic daiquiri glass, old fashioned glass, delmonico glass, and coupe glass. A chilled coupe glass is perfect for classic sour favorites like the tequila sour, which is shaken with ice and strained before serving. The coupe’s stem keeps your hand from warming the cocktail while drinking.


Ultimate Classic: The Whiskey Sour

The regular whiskey sour is perhaps the most widely-appreciated sour cocktail in the United States. Variations like the New York sour add new flourishes to the classic. The whiskey sour requires only four ingredients: Bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and an orange or lemon slice for garnish.

In a cocktail shaker, combine the spirits, syrup, and juice. Fill the shaker with ice and shake vigorously until the outside of the shaker is cold to the touch. Strain the cocktail through a slotted spoon or Hawthorn strainer, then serve in an old-fashioned or rocks glass. Garnish with a slice of orange (or lemon), and even a brandied cherry (if desired).