Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Whiskey Sours: Grandmother's Class Act.

The only cocktail I ever remember my grandmother drinking was a whiskey sour. The only occasion was while dining at Hoak's Restaurant, a longstanding, lakefront restaurant in Hamburg, New York. The drink became special to me through nostalgia.

The original appeal of my grandmother's whiskey sour came from the slice of orange and the maraschino cherry. As I grew older and even more attracted to bright, shiny objects, I grew to love the drink for the vintage cocktail shaker it arrived in.

Hoak's was a homely fish-fry place. In contrast, it seemed glamorous for your drink to come to the table in a tall shaker with the rocks glass on the side. You strained your own cocktail, and the drink stayed cold and refreshing. To this day, I am disappointed when a whiskey sour arrives without the shaker – not that I order the drink often. And therein lies the problem. It is time for a whiskey sour renaissance.

The whiskey sour is the granddaddy of the Family Sour – mixed drinks that have a base liquor, lemon or lime juice, and a sweetener. This balance of sweet and sour should sound familiar. Many modern, more popular drinks are based on it. The margarita, for one, in which the sweetener is triple sec.

Recently, in honor of my grandmother, I ordered a whiskey sour at the Yankee Doodle Tap Roomin Princeton, New Jersey. It was the anniversary of her death, also the anniversary of her birth. In a most Jeffersonian way, she passed away on her birthday. A woman as wise as Jefferson in many ways, she had good taste when it comes to cocktails.

The whiskey sour has a long, lovely history. It is one of the original drinks in the iconic Jerry Thomas' Bartender's Guidefrom 1862. Looking even further back, the lowly whiskey sour appears to have been the official drink of the 184-year-old Jefferson Literary and Debating Society at the University of Virginia, the oldest continuously existing collegiate debating club. Member Edgar Allen Poe probably was a fan of the whiskey sour, although later in life, poor guy, he may have called for a whiskey sour, hold the lemon, hold the sugar.

I imagine the drink is no longer the official drink of UVA debating. Think of how entertaining a college debate could be, however, when under the influence of its "official drink."


There is no reason for the whiskey sour's ostracization, its demotion to simply a grandmother's drink, as beloved as that grandmother might be. Actually, I take that back. There is a reason for the lowly status of the whiskey sour: the sour mix.

Why put sour mix in a whiskey sour? It is not too much more effort to simply dissolve some superfine sugar in some lemon juice. The true whiskey sour is, fundamentally, lemonade with lots of whiskey! Canadian, bourbon or Tennessee whiskey is just fine if you don't have rye. If you have rye whiskey in the home, with rye becoming increasingly uncommon you may not want to squeeze a lemon into it.

Here is the recipe from that iconic book, The Art of Bartending:
Whiskey Sour:
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 1 large tea-spoonful of powdered white sugar,
dissolved in a little Seltzer or Apollinaris water.
The juice of half a small lemon.
1 wine-glass of Bourbon or rye whiskey.
Fill the glass full of shaved ice, shake up and strain into a claret glass. Ornament with berries.

I don't know about the berries. I think the drink is grand with an orange wheel and a cherry, like they mix at Hoak's. That's the six-year-old in me talking. The 40-something says: "Don't you love Jerry Thomas' measurement of "1 wine-glass of whiskey"?

The whiskey sour I had at the Tap Room was nothing to write home to Grandma about (sour mix?), but the location was. It is definitely a spot you want to visit if you find yourself in this scenic college town. The Yankee Doodle is renowned for the large 1937 Norman Rockwell mural behind the wall.

The tables are covered with decades' worth of Princetonians's initials.

The wall is covered with Hall of Fame photos. Our First Lady's vibrant portrait, unveiled earlier this year, was awash in a sea of pale, male faces, comically close to the face of Donald Rumsfeld – the face of one presidential administration next to the face of another.

Here is another notable on the wall, from the class of '32:

A decade and half later, Jimmy Stewart would play George Bailey, known to have a wonderful life even when he drank too much at Martini's Bar.

Try a whiskey sour again. It's no flaming rum punch, true. It's better.