Bourbon, a whiskey made primarily with corn and distilled in the United States, is strongly associated with the South, thanks to the many top-rated bourbon distilleries located in Kentucky. Bourbon's rich yet easy-drinking nature and its signature sweetness makes it a natural fit for cocktails, and Southerners in need of a bourbon drink to enjoy while sitting on the porch on a hot summer afternoon often turn to the bourbon sour, an easy-to-make libation designed for ultimate refreshment. We asked a group of Southern bartenders for their top tips on how to make the perfect bourbon sour, and we're sharing their valuable secrets here.
What Is a Bourbon Sour?
In its simplest form, a bourbon sour consists of bourbon, lemon juice, and simple syrup, shaken and served straight up or over ice. Some bartenders (both amateurs and pros) take a shortcut by swapping out lemon juice and simple syrup for sour mix, but beverage director Jonathan Payne of Hot Tin & Bayou Bar in New Orleans strongly advises against this method. "The problem with bourbon sours made in the home bar is the use of pre-made, artificial sour mixes. These are usually overly sweet and make a good cocktail go south in a hurry. Opt for fresh citrus, homemade syrups, and a good bourbon. These make a winning combination every time," Payne tells us.
Which Type of Bourbon Works Best?
Ultimately, your choice of bourbon for this cocktail depends on your preferences, as different styles of bourbon will provide different flavor dynamics. "The type of bourbon is more flexible when making a sour because you're adding in all those extra flavors, which will dilute some of the bourbon flavor," explains bar supervisor Justin Rankin of The Katharine Brasserie and Bar in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Rankin says that Woodford Reserve is a great option or anything local to your region. At The Katharine, we use Broad Branch for quite a few drinks because we love using local and it's made down the street from us. Frank's Reserve is a great option if you are local to Winston-Salem too."
Head bartender Carly Bulger of Mister Mao in New Orleans enjoys her sours with high-rye bourbons, which feature spicy notes. "Still Austin is a high-rye bourbon that's great for a citrusy summer sour," she says.
As for beverage director Colleen Hughes of Supperland in Charlotte, North Carolina, she opts for "Maker's Mark 46. Its high wheat content makes it a smooth and refreshing sipper." Feel free to play around with your preferred bourbon and see if it makes for a sour that suits your tastes!
How To Jazz Up a Bourbon Sour
While a bourbon sour is a wonderful cocktail in its original form, creative home mixologists can add tweaks to give it more textural variety or flavor nuances. For instance, Bulger encourages originality: "Make it seasonal! Add herbs from your garden or sub out simple syrup for something fun that you've been working on. It's really hard to mess this one up, and putting your own spin on things will impress your friends even more. Drinks should be fun!"
For a popular variation on the bourbon sour, consider adding an egg white to your shaker for an extra level of froth. "Combine bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white in a shaker tin and vigorously shake without ice for 30 seconds. Add ice, then vigorously shake again for 30 seconds. Double strain into a coupe glass and let the foam settle. Add bitters on top [for a garnish]," suggests bartender Peter Clark of 82 Queen in Charleston, South Carolina.
Some bartenders like to invite red wine to their bourbon sour party, putting a layer of vino on top of the foamy egg whites. "I like to use fuller-bodied reds, like Cabernet, Malbec, Tempranillo, Syrah, or Zinfandel for this," says bar manager Juleon Schneider of Herd Provisions in Charleston.
How To Make The Perfect Bourbon Sour
- 2 oz bourbon whiskey Hojnacki prefers Blade & Bow
- 0.75 oz freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 0.75 oz simple syrup, you can make your own with a 1:1 ratio of sugar and water
- Start by adding fresh lemon juice to your cocktail shaker. Next, add simple syrup and bourbon.
- Put a scoop of ice into the cocktail shaker and shake vigorously for a good 10 seconds. You'll feel the outside of the shaker start to get nice and frosty, and that's how you’ll know that your drink is the right temperature and proper dilution.
- Fine strain the cocktail into a rocks glass over fresh ice and add a garnish of your choice (Hojnacki recommends a lemon twist or grated nutmeg).