What Is A Sour?

Written By Alexandra Vaughn 


Have you ever ordered a whiskey sour from a bar and in turn received some overly sweet, syrupy drink complete with a sticky, calcium chloride and sulfur dioxide soaked maraschino cherry for garnish? Many people (and some unknowing bartenders) think that squirting sour mix from a bar gun into any cocktail constitutes a sour. While technically they are not wrong, we implore you to get down and dirty and squeeze some limes! Or at least try a fresh version next time you're out! Let's take a closer look at what a sour actually is. 


Traditionally, a sour is a family of cocktails consisting of a base liquor, an acidic element, generally a fruit juice like lemon or lime, and a sweetener. Some recipes use egg white which adds a fluffy texture. 

By this definition, those bartenders are not wrong, however, in our humble opinions, fresh juice is always more appealing than the super sweet sour mix that streams out of the fruit fly infested bar guns that are seldom washed. 

Examples of sours include:

The Whiskey Sour, Pisco Sour, Margarita and Daiquiri 

History of a Sour

The Brittish Navy can be thanked for making the sour a popular drink (if not inventing it altogether). On long voyages where the water was often contaminated and liquor was considered a safe drink, rations of rum and lime juice were often served. This mixture was used to prevent scurvy, seasickness and even malnutrition. 

The Grog

Edward Vernon was a well respected Admiral known for many things, but mostly his firm but humane treatment of the sailors. And of course for dividing a sizable heist of gold between his men. Anyhow, as history has it, On August 21, 1740 he issued a new order to captains. This order stated that the new standard daily issue of straight over proof rum be diluted with water to a 4:1 ratio and to be served half before noon and the other half at the end of the working day.

Lime and sugar were always available to mask the flavor and furthur dilute the rum lending the sailors the nickname “limeys.” This birthed the daiquari style beverage known as “grog” with which came the phrase “too many and you’ll be groggy in the morning.”  

First Known Written Recipe

It wasn’t untill over a century later that the first know written recipe for the sour was redefined and published in 1862 by Jerry Thomas in his book The Bartender’s Guide. The original recipe called for powdered white sugar disolved in soda water and served with lemon juice and whiskey or rye.  Eventually soda was omitted (likely because it lost its effervescent quality after shaking) and eggwhites became an optional addition.