4 Ways to Sweeten Up Your Whiskey Sour

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Adding a little sweetness to mellow the burn of the liquor is part of the plan for almost all cocktails – in fact, the earliest cocktails were just liquor, sugar, water, and a dash or two of bitters. These days, simple syrup (a 1 to 1 mix of water and sugar) is the most commonly called-for sweetener in cocktails, but we’ve got a lot of different choices at our disposal – like honey and agave nectar – all of which can subtly alter the character of a drink.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a cocktail conference in San Antonio, where Lucinda Sterling, the senior bartender at Little Branch in NYC, experimented with the use of different sweeteners in a classic gin sour. I decided to try the same thing at home, but with whiskey (I’m a big fan). It was a delicious experiment.

1: The classic whiskey sour.

The tried-and-true formula for a whiskey sour is this:

2 oz whiskey (I used rye whiskey),
3/4 oz lemon juice (fresh squeezed, of course), and
3/4 oz simple syrup.

These proportions did not disappoint. The lemon and sugar nicely balanced out the whiskey without completely overpowering it. The simple syrup is a very crisp and elegant sweetener; it doesn’t bring a lot to the table, but lets the other flavors do the talking.

2: Honey whiskey sour.

2 oz whiskey
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/4 oz honey
1/2 oz hot water

First, add the honey to your shaker, and then add the hot water. Stir to make a syrup; then add the other ingredients, add ice, and shake and strain into a glass.

The honey adds a very subtle sweetness. In the gin sour made with honey (also known as a ‘Bee’s Knees’), the honey really brought a lot of flavor. Here, I feel it blends more into the overall character of the drink.

3: Agave Nectar whiskey sour.

2 oz whiskey
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz agave nectar

I added a tiny bit less agave nectar than simple syrup, owing to the fact that agave nectar tends to be a little bit sweeter. Agave nectar is quite popular for margaritas, where its somewhat vegetal character nicely complements the tequila; lively debate rages on the internet over whether the agave nectar or simple syrup margarita is superior. Pairing agave nectar and whiskey is less of an obvious choice, but I think it works here. The agave nectar definitely gives the drink a certain piquancy, and maybe even a little of the vegetal character, but I liked it.

4: Turbinado sugar whiskey sour.

2 oz whiskey
3/4 oz lemon juice
1/2 oz turbinado simple syrup

I’m partial to turbinado sugar; I always put it in my mojitos. Turbinado sugar’s slightly molasses-y flavor lends a bit of depth and richness to the the whiskey sour; definitely worth a try.

Nancy Mitchell thoroughly enjoyed this research. You can find more of her recipes on her blog, The Backyard Bartender.