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How to Make the Perfect New York Sour, a Refreshing Whiskey Cocktail to Toast the End of Summer

Something to sip as the sunshine wanes.

new york sour rye whiskey red wine lemon Photo: courtesy Adobe Stock

True breakthroughs can come from anywhere.

Isaac Newton claimed that it was only after seeing an apple fall from a tree that he began to think about what would become his theory of universal gravitation. Archimedes was in the bathtub when he suddenly realized his principle of displacement and buoyancy, whereupon he leapt up and ran, naked, screaming “Eureka!” through the streets of Syracuse. And in the early 1880s, some unnamed Chicago bartender looked at a whiskey sour and thought, improbably, “What if I put red wine in this?” inventing in a bizarre flash of insight one of the great warm weather whiskey drinks of our time.

Refreshing whiskey cocktails are a hard needle to thread, mixologically speaking, for two reasons. First, from the moment you start trying, you’re already at war with whiskey’s intrinsic character; whiskey wants to be under a blanket in winter, or sipped slowly after dinner, or huddled around a fire. It’s the spirit equivalent of a bowl of stew. The dark heavy flavors of oak and vanilla and baking spices are all cigars and deep leather chairs, and getting whiskey to play nice with lemon juice and sunshine is like getting a bear to wear a hat.

What’s more, simple whiskey sours (whiskey, lemon, sugar) don’t really work, because the oak tannins in the whiskey clash with the lemon juice. When alcoholic mixtures get cold, their tannins become extra-astringent, so whiskey sours always need something else to push them from good to great. You could use an egg white, which is the most popular solution, as egg whites have proteins which bind to the tannins in the whiskey and make the whole thing smoother and more pleasant. Or you could use honey instead of sugar, which is called a Gold Rush and operates on the same principle.

Or, you could do it with a little misdirection, like our 1880s bartender, and float some red wine over it—what he called “a Claret snap.” No one who’s had any significant quantity of wine and whiskey in the same night woke up the next morning thinking that it had been a good idea, but nonetheless, this drink works on every level. No bent-spoon or abundance of caution required: add the wine gently on the ice and it easily layers on top, turning a merely ok drink into a delightful and arrestingly beautiful one. The fruitiness of the wine occupies the flavor space where the tannins would be unpleasant and somehow effortlessly closes the loop. It’s one of those cocktails that’s so simple in conception, so easy in construction, so beautiful once made and so delicious once enjoyed that it seems almost unfair. It’s like finding out a supermodel is smarter than you are.

It seems like everyone has tried to claim this for their own. Over the years it’s answered to the Chicago Sour, the Continental Sour, and the Southern Whiskey Sour, but ultimately New York stepped in and made what would become, though sheer hegemony, the most enduring claim. Whatever it’s called, it’s an easy and visually striking cocktail, perfect for standing over a barbecue on a long September weekend, enjoying the still-warm sun and despite the whiskey in your glass, willing it to hang in the sky just a little while longer.

New York Sour

  • 2 oz rye whiskey
  • 0.75 oz lemon juice
  • 0.75 oz simple syrup (1:1 sugar to water)
  • 0.5 to 1 oz light red wine

Add rye, lemon juice and simple syrup to the shaker tin with ice and shake hard for 10 to 12 seconds. Strain over fresh ice in a rocks glass, leaving 0.5-inch clearance on the top of the glass. Top with between 0.5 oz and 1 oz of light red wine. 

Notes on Ingredients

Whiskey: We’re talking bourbon and rye here. The cocktail doesn’t strongly prefer one over the other, so go with whichever you have around. Given all options, I slightly prefer an affordable, not-too-intense rye whiskey like Dickel Rye or Sazerac Rye, but it changes based on moon. One is not inherently more suited than the other.

Wine: Style of wine matters less here than you might think. If I had one guiding principle, it would be not sweet. As long as its dry, the bookends of Pinot Noir and Cabernet work differently, but equally well. Again, if I had all options, I like the subtle, light fruit of a Pinot Noir or Beaujolais, but use what you have.


Every week bartender Jason O’Bryan mixes his up his favorite drinks for you. Check out his past cocktail recipes.

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