Kevin Carlow
Frothy yumminess. Credit: Kevin Carlow

Is there any cocktail more iconic than a classic sour? Well, maybe … but does any cocktail look cooler in a photo?

There is a special elegance to the sour, served up in a long-stemmed coupe, laced with bitters on the frothy, creamy head. The great thing is: Sours aren’t even particularly hard to make. With a little practice, the home bartender can quickly become an expert. Obviously, since raw eggs are involved, you need to make sure you’re comfortable with potential health risks before you begin. Now that the lawyers are satisfied, here are some sour-style drinks that will bring a little classic elegance to any holiday soirée.

Before we begin, it’s a good idea to clarify how eggs got into cocktails in the first place. Yes, the luscious texture is the reason we still put them in, of course, but as big of a reason is that when this all started, distillation wasn’t the science it is today. If you were lucky, the distiller knew how to remove the head and tail from the batch (or cared to), and all the methanol and other bad stuff that can come with them. (That means the first and last of the distillate, in case you’re not a complete booze nerd.) The spirits would also contain a lot of congeners, the ride-along molecules that allow spirits to have flavor … both welcome and not-so-welcome flavors. People figured out that certain things, when added to the spirits, would bind to many of these “off” flavors, and the removal of the curdled protein (often eggs or milk) would clarify the remaining spirits. Alternately, they would leave the milk or eggs in the drink if it was meant for immediate consumption—creating the basis for milk punches and sours.

So let’s make some drinks for immediate consumption, shall we?

Let’s start with the whiskey sour, that classic American drink that has been spread all over the world. Brandy sours were originally more popular, and egg white was an optional but popular ingredient. As is still the case today, the sour could be more sweet than sour, but every bartender has a different opinion on that. The great Jerry Thomas favored a very sweet sour, for instance. Feel free to make up your own mind on that:

  • 2 ounces of rye or bourbon whiskey
  • 1 ounce of fresh lemon juice
  • 3/4 to 1 ounce of simple syrup
  • 1 egg white

Separate the egg, and add it to the cocktail tin; check for quality and stray yolk bits. Add the remaining ingredients; shake without ice for about 10 seconds, using both hands to secure the shaker from exploding all over the place! (Trust me: It still happens to me on occasion when I get cocky.) Then add ice, and continue shaking until the tin gets icy. Double-strain into a coupe, and dash the foam with bitters, using a toothpick to create a pattern of your liking.

A sour can be made with gin as well; just substitute and proceed as above. For a more colorful cocktail, try a Clover Club:

  • 2 ounces of gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon
  • 1 ounce of raspberry syrup
  • 1 egg white

Prepare the syrup by smashing raspberries into plain simple syrup, and strain. Prepare the cocktail as with the previous sours, but skip the bitters, or use Peychaud’s instead of Angostura for a more complementary flavor and color.

Of course, let us not forget the famous sour of South America, the pisco sour. Although I have had Peruvians livid at me for saying so, according to cocktail historian David Wondrich, the pisco sour has its origin with American expatriates in the late 1800s. American bars would serve up their sours using readily available local spirit pisco (a grape brandy) instead of whiskey or American brandy. You can simply sub in pisco for whiskey and use the same formula, but many bartenders favor a mix of lemon and lime—including this bartender. Experiment, and find your favorite preparation. Angostura is a must for this one.

Of course, we can’t forget the New Orleans version of a sour, known today as a “Ramos Gin Fizz.” This “eye-opener” also includes seltzer and cream, and is poured into a small fizz or juice glass. I am sharing the original recipe from Ramos himself, slightly paraphrased, although modern versions vary.

  • 1 tablespoon of superfine sugar
  • 3 or 4 drops of orange flower water
  • Juice from half a lime
  • Juice from half a lemon
  • 1 1/2 oz of Old Tom gin
  • 1 egg white
  • Half a glass of crushed ice
  • About 2 tablespoons of whole milk or cream
  • About an ounce of seltzer water

This should all go into the shaker and be shaken for about a minute—carefully, so the shaker doesn’t pop open; double-strain into a fizz glass. Many bartenders make it a two-stage shake, dry-shaking (no ice) everything but the cream and seltzer, before adding the cream and shaking it with some ice, and then straining into a chilled tall glass with seltzer pre-added. Try it both ways, and see what you favor.

Since it’s the holiday season, I would be remiss to not mention that classic milk and egg punch, egg nog. There are as many ways to make this as there are bartenders, but I tend to use about four eggs, separated. I beat about a quarter-cup of sugar into the yolks until they lighten, then two cups of bourbon; one cup of Jamaican rum; and two or three cups of whole milk. Whisk the whites until they become stiff peaks, and fold them into the mixture. Let this chill in the refrigerator for as long as you can resist; top with nutmeg in each glass to order.

And watch out on behalf of your grandma … there are reindeer on the loose this time of year!

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...