There are many rubrics by which to judge a bar’s cocktail program. Many employ an Old Fashioned test, as it is the oldest and perhaps most venerable whiskey cocktail, but in my opinion that varies too much even from bartender to bartender. You could also peruse their custom cocktail menu and see what they’ve developed. Fair enough, though those were designed to be their well-honed standouts. Over the years, I’ve developed the Whiskey Sour test. Within that glass I’ll get all the answers I need.
I. THE WELL TEST
• If they are using some no-name-brand whiskey (not even specified as a bourbon), they don’t really give a damn about you, just your dollar bills.
-If they are using Monarch, just up and go.
• If they are using something like Old Crow or Evan Williams or Jim Beam, eh, it’s fine, your drink will be fine, whatever.
• If they are doing Buffalo Trace or Four Roses, they care.
• If they are using Bulleit or Maker’s or something midrange, they love you more than their bottom line.
• If they had their own custom barrel of bourbon bottled for their well, they love bourbon, and if you love bourbon, it’s love all around.
• If the well is something like Eagle Rare or the like, you’re probably in a hotel, and you will be paying $$$, and remember, it’s only a whiskey sour.
• Nothing says “I don’t give a fuck” like dropping a dyed-red ball of what was once maybe a cherry into your glass.
• Every dollar spent on brandied cherries is worth it and then some. (Also, you can make them at home.) They look great and taste even better.
III. SOUR MIX
• Rule of thumb: nothing from the gun.
• The sour mix obviously is the make-or-break for the sour. I’ve had some truly horrendous whiskey sours, that taste like a diabetes shake and leave a sick sugared coating on the teeth. A bottle of Sweet N’ Sour mix is a bad sign.
• A good whiskey sour will have lemon juice and sugar.
• You always know you’re in a good place when you see your bartender reach to juice a fresh lemon. (Also note: the wait time will and should be a bit longer, but be patient, and thank the lord they’re not dumping sour mix in your glass.)
IV. EGG WHITES
• Whiskey sours should have egg whites in them, or at least your bartender should offer.
• Sometimes this is called “Boston Sour.”
• The egg whites add texture and balance out some of the sweetness, and your drink will take a few moments longer, since the egg white should be shaken properly.
• Garnishes: the cherry’s enough. A lemon rind will do. An orange or lime is excessive. A few drops of angostura bitters is welcome.
• Glassware: Avoid the hurricane glass always. A martini glass looks comical. A whiskey sour really only belongs in an old-fashioned glass.
•Ice: either none, or a massive cube.
• If you drop a metal straw in there, forget it, I’m done, it’s you and me forever.
• A “Ward 8” uses rye, adds orange to the lemon juice, and substitutes grenadine for simple syrup.
• Liberty invented the “Seattle Sour,” with coffee bitters and a topping of Manny’s Pale Ale foam.
A worthwhile whiskey sour: Buffalo Trace or similar; fresh lemon juice, simple syrup; brandied cherries; egg whites; in an Old-Fashioned glass.
So there you go. The whiskey sour can either be god-awful, or rather pleasant. It’s up to some key choices on the bar’s part that will tell you all you may need to know about their approach to the rest.