Mimi Sheraton’s Quest for a Classic Whisky Sour Yields ‘Mixed’ Results

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Reading about so many of today’s celebrated bartenders and their wildly inventive cocktails, I wondered if any knew what a good old Whisky Sour is, and if, in fact, they even care to master it.

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At Grant Achatz’s sky-high Aviary, the drink was a New York Sour combining egg white, red wine, spiced pear and rye—an airy, palate-tingling eye-opener.

Whenever I hear the word “cocktail,” I get a mental flashback to the tiny, white linen napkins, each with an embroidered red rooster in one corner, that my mother passed to guests with pre-dinner drinks. The connection between a rooster and a cocktail has never been really clear to me, but in any case, cocktails have always sounded glamorous.

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The sour glass is plainly shown in my standby bar books that include The New International Bartender’s Guide, The Savoy Cocktail Book and The Official Mixer’s Manual.

Perhaps that is why a few iconic cocktails recall certain events or periods in my life. Among such is a perfect straight, very cold dry gin martini with green olives in a stemmed cocktail glass. (For a vodka martini, I sub tiny pearl onions for olives.) Before a steak dinner, a Bloody Mary seems right, but only if it is ice cold and straight up in a cocktail glass (never a highball glass) and completely sans vegetation. (When I want a salad, I’ll order one.) And on the first crisp and stylish fall night in New York, I opt for an Old-Fashioned served in the correct low, wide, straight-sided glass along with a few rocks, an orange or lemon slice and a cherry, all aromatic with the scent-of-autumn Angostura bitters. But my far-away favorite for its light, cool astringency is a Whisky Sour, and here as always for me, “whisky” means Scotch, not that I ask for a pricey single malt for a cocktail, a sheer waste considering other flavors added.

Reading about so many of today’s celebrated bartenders and their wildly inventive cocktails, I wondered if any knew what those good old classics were like, and if, in fact, they even care to master them. And so lately—and loosely—I have been researching Whisky Sours to somewhat “mixed” results.

My version of the classic combines Scotch whisky, lemon juice, a sweetener such as superfine sugar or, preferably, simple syrup, and a raw egg white all shaken with ice, then poured into a stemmed glass with a slightly tall, narrow, slightly tapering “bowl” then garnished with a small orange or lemon slice and high-quality maraschino cherry. The sour glass is plainly shown in my standby bar books that include The New International Bartender’s Guide, The Savoy Cocktail Book and The Official Mixer’s Manual. Oddly, none of those books includes egg white, so I cannot tell when it was added. Even odder perhaps are the differing versions online, the biggest surprise being that of the authoritative Geoffrey Zakarian, who shows the drink with egg white but in a sort of stemmed Old-Fashioned glass with rocks in plain view.

My search began back in 2016 at Upland, the jam-packed and spectacularly good restaurant with a huge bar scene where I ordered a Scotch Sour, without laying down any ground rules.

The first two were sent back as incorrect, the first lacking the foam-inducing egg white and with rocks included, the second minus the rocks but also the egg white. “Where’s the egg white?” I asked and, abracadabra, the cool and snowy foam topping of the chilled-but-rocks-free third drink told me I had arrived. It missed total perfection only because it was not served in a Sour glass. Neither did that glass appear in any of the dozen or so places that I tried even when the drink was excellent. Probably the Whisky Sour is not popular enough to justify buying a special glass.

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Through the months I researched Scotch Sours and in every case, the correct drink arrived if only after a bit of coaching.

Through the months I researched Scotch Sours at Augustine, Temple Court (then Fowler & Wells), Union Square Café, DaDong, the Grill, Le Coucou (best sort of almondy cherry), Lobster Club and Aviary, plus a few more I cannot recall because I had no notion of writing about them.

In every case, the correct drink arrived if only after a bit of coaching. Three of the places were especially noteworthy. When I ordered the drink at the Grill, the captain returned to ask if I wanted egg white, and then the bartender produced a winner. But the two biggest surprises were non-classic but totally delicious: At the sparkling new Japanese-inspired Lobster Club, it was a pungent and exotic Sudachi Sour made with white rum, the needly astringent juice of the green sudachi citrus, egg white and pineapple the snowy foam topped with three pretty rosy dots of bitters. And at Grant Achatz’s sky-high Aviary, it was a New York Sour combining egg white, red wine, spiced pear and rye—an airy, palate-tingling eye-opener. And thus do I welcome two new members to the Sours family in the hope that they will beguile enough to become classics.

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