Winter Classics: The History of the Whiskey Sour


Everyone has a favorite cocktail, but for sailors in the 1700 and 1800s, a Whiskey Sour was considered the best a man could drink. That wasn’t just for its taste however, as we found out…

Check out the surprising history behind the classic Whiskey Sour, and give our favorite variation a try with an exclusive recipe!

Preventing Scurvy in Sailors

The first written recipe for a Whiskey Sour appeared in 1862, when it was included in Jerry Thomas’ The Bartender’s Guide. However, it’s very likely that sours (made with any liquor) had existed for many decades prior, as they were popular drinks on board naval ships. With long months spent at sea, sailors ran a major risk of malnutrition, and the threat of developing scurvy as a result seemed imminent.

Scurvy, a disease linked to a lack of vitamin C, can cause the body to develop anemia, exhaustion, and spontaneous bleeding that eventually leads to infection and death. Given the disease’s painful symptoms, sailors began searching for a way to evade the condition with the small rations they had on board.

It had been discovered, forgotten, and rediscovered several times that eating citrus was an effective way to combat scurvy, so ships often left port with rations of lemons, limes, or oranges for sailors to eat. Given that refrigeration was also not available, sailors would take liquor like rum, whiskey, or gin on ships to have something safe to drink during long journeys. Over time, the citrus (usually lemon) was mixed with a liquor and water to create a drink that would not only quench thirst, but also effectively prevent the onset of scurvy.

The USS Vincennes, a 19th century naval ship. The Vincennes would most likely have had rations of whiskey and citrus for its crewmen. Reprinted from Tall Ships of Puget Sound by Chuck Fowler and the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, courtesy of WSHS, Wilkes Exploring Expedition Narrative, Vol. II (pg. 14, Arcadia Publishing, 2007).

The Classic Whiskey Sour… With a Twist

After being enjoyed on board ships for decades, the Whiskey Sour was finally brought on shore by sailors, where it gained enough popularity to be included in Thomas’ guide to drinks. The classic recipe for a Whiskey Sour has remained simple: with liquor, lemon, and simple syrup, the drink needs only three ingredients to be delicious. In the UK, the drink is often made with gin or brandy, but whiskey has been the liquor of choice in the States, giving it its official name as the whiskey sour.

The recipe for the Whiskey Sour has evolved greatly over the years, giving the base for many modern cocktails like the Boston Sour, or the New York Sour. Whiskey has also been often replaced with amaretto liqueur, creating the well-known Amaretto Sour. In its Boston variation, the Whiskey Sour is topped with a dash of egg white, a trend recreated in what many would call a “classic” Amaretto Sour. But the New York Sour is perhaps the best-known variation – topped with red wine, the drink has become a classic in its own right. If you’re a fan of the Whiskey Sour, give the New York Sour a chance this winter season with our recipe below!

New York Sour ( 1870s )

The New York Sour reportedly dates back to the late 1870s and was created in
Chicago by a bartender who also said that he invented the Manhattan. The latter
can’t be confirmed, but apparently the New York Sour can be credited to this
bartender. However, the name of this cocktail reportedly has changed several
times since it was created. It was also known over the years as the Continental
Sour and the Southern Whiskey Sour before becoming the New York Sour.

2 oz. whiskey, preferably rye
1 oz. lemon juice
¾ oz. simple syrup

Add whiskey, lemon juice and simple syrup to a cocktail shaker. Add ice. Shake. Strain into a
Collins glass filled with crushed ice. Float red wine on top and garnish with a lemon wedge.