What is a sour cocktail, and why the Scotch whisky sour is the best of the lot

The sour cocktail is a family of cocktails which is made up of the following elements

  • Strong – a base spirit which can be whisky, whiskey, gin, vodka, cachaça, tequila…
  • Sour – usually lemon or lime
  • Sweet – it could be a sweet liqueur, a triple sec such as Cointreau for example; or it could be a sugar syrup; or a concentrated fruit juice
  • They also often include egg white – this improves the texture of the drink, making it silkier…smoother; and it also making it look more exciting

Common sour cocktails are, for example:

  • A Marguerita:
    • Strong = tequila
    • Sour = lime juice
    • Sweet = Cointreau
  • A Sidecar
    • Strong = brandy
    • Sour = lemon juice
    • Sweet = Cointreau
  • Caipirinha
    • Strong = cachaça
    • Sour = lime
    • Sweet = sugar syrup (in fact I simply use sugar)

And then there is the whisky-based version.

I was brought up in Montreal, where my parents were part of a diplomatic community – part of the UN. Part of the job involved regularly entertaining a mixed bunch of guests of all nationalities.

The whisky sour was a constant at their cocktail parties (we’re talking the early sixties when people had cocktail parties) because it got people going – people whose mother tongue wasn’t necessarily English.

At all times it was important to try to showcase British products and produce…whisky (from Scotland) was usually an easy sell, although in this case not quite as easy with the north Americans who had all been brought up on using bourbon or rye in their whiskey sours. However, they were a sophisticated and open-minded bunch and the preference for scotch over bourbon was almost unanimous (for why – see the Victoria Moore quote further down).

My father always added the egg white – it does, as I explain above, make the texture a little smoother – but he did it because the frothy layer on top of the glasses (they had some rather nice cut glass ones, which showed the drink up well) looked spectacular.

This is, I think, how he made it.

Recipe for a Scotch whisky sour cocktail

Serves 1


  • 60ml/4 tbsps/ whisky – not, obviously your really good 18 year old single malt…
  • 30ml/2 tbsps fresh lemon juice – don’t go overboard with this or you will lose the taste of the whisky
  • Couple of teaspoons of sugar syrup max – experiment with this – what makes the Scotch whisky sour such a good drink is that it is less sweet than the bourbon version – no point adding lots of sugar back in.
  • A small egg white (a medium egg white would be enough if you were making two drinks).

This makes a very strong cocktail – if you want you can dilute with a little soda water.


  1. Shake all together in a cocktail shaker with ice – do this with enthusiasm – it’s the shaking that makes the froth.
  2. Strain and serve…maybe with a twist of lemon.

A couple of quotes on sours to inspire you

Note: In The Sunday Night Book, Rosie Sykes includes an eye-boggling variant (the classic version is powerful enough) on the Whiskey Sour – the Light-emitting Diode. This drink, she promises:

“will relieve any excesses of dinner and have you jumping around in no time. At any rate, it’s more invigorating than licking an AA battery”.

Her version includes a dash or two of Pernod (or Pastis, Ouzo…even Raki I suppose would do), and it’s the milky opalescence of the aniseed-based alcohol which causes the drink to ‘almost glow in the dark’ – hence the name. Her garnish is a frond of fennel or dill.

“The more rounded, booming American whiskey, so fat you can almost take a knife and fork to it, seems not just potent, but also filling. As far as I was concerned, the prospect of drinking it with lemon juice and egg white – like a sort of raw whiskey lemon meringue pie – felt exhausting.

But, with the siren call of duty and research and all that…one tired night I made a whiskey sour in my kitchen and with a sip I was addicted. This drink is not what it appears. The recipe looks ferociously strong but shaking with ice dilutes it considerably……

If you switch the traditional American whiskey to something Scottish….you have an even more unexpectedly refreshing, acerbic drink, with a kind of transparency that lets the heather and peat gleam through. It’s utterly gorgeous as an out-of-the-office come-downer.”

Victoria Moore, How To Drink

What to nibble with your Whisky Sour?

The biting strength of this cocktail is up for any sort of richness. It would go very well with either Truffled, Mascarpone-laden Potato Skins; or Cheese Straws with Truffle Dip.

For more cocktail recipes on Saucy Dressings, go here.

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