On this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy explores the Whiskey Sour with H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir Saloon in San Francisco. It’s a simple classic cocktail, made with a whiskey base, lemon juice, and a dollop of froth on top. Ehrmann offers tips and tricks for making the drink and gives a quick history lesson for the cocktail geeks out there. Plus, should you incorporate raw egg white into the cocktail? Tune in to find out.
H. Joseph Ehrmann Whiskey Sour Recipe
- 1 ounce fresh lemon juice
- ¾ ounce simple syrup (1:1)
- 2 ounces 100 proof rye whiskey or high-rye bourbon
- ¾ ounce egg white
- Garnish: 1 Maraschino cherry
- Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker without ice and dry shake.
- Shake until well incorporated.
- Add ice and shake until chilled.
- Strain into a chilled rocks glass without ice. Garnish with a Maraschino cherry.
CHECK OUT THE CONVERSATION HERE
Tim McKirdy: Hey, this is Tim McKirdy and welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” Today we’re doing the Whiskey Sour, and we’re joined by H. Joseph Ehrmann. Thanks so much for taking the time today.
H: Joseph Ehrmann: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.
T: This is a real iconic and fun drink for us to explore today. I’m certainly excited about it. This isn’t a classic reference, but more recently, Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” had eight Whiskey Sours. We can maybe get into his somewhat dodgy-looking preparation there. But that’s where my mind goes with this from a cultural point of view. But it’s just a great drink and a great cocktail.
H: I think of it as a fundamental formula, the Whiskey Sour in particular, being the ultimate representation of the formula that’s so core to everything we do.
T: Isn’t it interesting, just from the get-go here, that we do call out the ingredient and the spirit, specifically in this one. Whereas you have other drinks in the sour formula that don’t, apart from actually a Pisco Sour. But much lesser known, like a Daiquiri is the Rum Sour. But we’re calling out the whiskey here.
H: Yeah. And it’s because it’s so basic and comes from a time when the selections were different from today. I mean, we had all the selections, but they were in their heydays in the mid-to-late 1800s. Those were your choices. Those drinks were all so basic. You want this drink, and you want it with whiskey or you want it with gin.
The History Behind the Whiskey Sour
T: What do we know about this cocktail historically? It’s always good to run chronologically. It keeps us on track here nicely. What do we know about the history of the Whiskey Sour? Because like you said, it is that classic formula. Are there any notable moments there that we can point to for the evolution of this drink?
H: Well, the sour concept goes back to the British Navy and the lime and scurvy and putting lime into grog with rum. At least that’s what most sources said, right? They point to the lime and rum and the Navy, bringing that together and then that leading to punch. Of course, punch being the precursor to the cocktail and that being a core component of that drink. If we see punch as the precursor to the sour, and as Wondrich says, the punch’s children. The sour becomes the core of or the base of a multitude of more complicated drinks, at least in flavor complexity. The Daisy being, in my mind, the primary spin that I and a lot of people take and adding levels of flavor and complexity via liqueurs. I think the first mention of it was in the 1850s in The New York Times, which leads on to a publishing of a newspaper in Wisconsin in the 1870s that mentions a Whiskey Sour. And everybody, of course, points to Jerry Thomas and the difference between the fix and the sour, where the fix has a bunch of fruit in it and the lemon slice being the only sour component. Or again, as Wondrich says in his “The Oxford Companion,” it’s sweet and sour versus sour and sweet. And when he looks at the sour and sweet with the focus being on the sour, it takes all the fruit out of the way. The focus is really on it being more of a sour cocktail with some sweet balance to it. The Gin Punch being the precursor, really, and the popularity of the gin, and then morphing into the gin or rum or whiskey and these different choices of your sour. It’s the Whiskey Sour that emerges as the frontrunner as the most popular order from the 1870s on. You see it pop up in all the books, but with Thomas’s book being the first one. And it pops up in tons of other books after that. I think the next major historical modification of it comes in the postwar era, when we see the mechanization and change of our entire food system and everything becoming more convenient. So it’s the evolution of the concept of sour mix, where it’s no longer about the hand-crafted cocktail of the Pre-Prohibition era as much as it is about the quick and easy. How do I make the Whiskey Sour that rolls into the whole ’50s and the Don Draper thing? What I think of is my parents making Whiskey Sours, using powdered sour mix with the big neon cherry and a slice of orange in there. That’s the sour I grew up seeing being made at my house. Then, you’ve got the era after that of the bottled Whiskey Sour mix or sour mix. The sour mix concept takes on this merger of lemon and lime, just this sourness with whatever different sweeteners come into play. And that era, let’s call it the late ’60s into the ’80s. Dale pops up and changes things in the Rainbow Room. That era of the artificial soured mix still goes on today in a very big way. Which is something I like to think my company, Fresh Victor, is trying to change.
T: Absolutely. I think we can definitely get into that later because it’s very relevant to this conversation. The era that you were talking about just before, the modernization, would those mixes have been pasteurized? Would they have ever actually even seen real fruit? Are we talking manipulation with natural flavors and maybe powdered acids? What would those have been composed of?
H: I would say it went more into that recreation via citric acid and other compounds to create something that was shelf- stable, never going to die. We can sell it forever. We’re never going to lose money. Again, that was the focal point of the entire food system until we started to see a return to farmers markets and natural ingredients. So then, you start to see some of those products mention things like “made with real juice.” That quote on the label.
T: It’s incredible that that’s something that becomes celebrated, that you would expect anything other than.
H: Yeah. Now with real juice. A mind altering concept.
T: I’m sorry if I’m also getting ahead of us here, but I notice we haven’t mentioned egg white yet. This is obviously a facet of this cocktail that we will, of course, explore. But where does that pop in? Because I don’t believe that that features in the Jerry Thomas recipe that’s so often looked to as a printed formula very early on. Where do we start to see the egg white? Does that also have to do with these food systems evolving?
H: I don’t think so, and I don’t know exactly. But I believe it came into play in the mid-20th century and came out of the kitchen. I would say even before that, because some of that foam aspect plays into the sour in the ’50s and beyond that era, that mid-20th century cocktail era. And I think that’s coming, again, from a powdered form. That creates that froth more so than an actual real egg white. When I opened Elixir in 2003, which is almost 20 years ago now, even then, when I would put an egg white into my Whiskey Sour, I had much more pushback from customers about salmonella and the riskiness of using raw egg in a drink. There’s been a big change in just 19 years of that comfort level with salmonella; what it is, how you get it, how you transfer it. And so that, I think, could have been something that scared people away and made them feel safer about a mechanized version of sour mix.
T: I think there is an argument to say that for many different reasons. I don’t know. I’m sure you can chime in here about the quality of powdered versus fresh in this front. Today in 2022 or the 2020s, is this a drink that you think most people who know cocktails or who order it and it’s not on the menu, are they expecting that egg white in there or is there some pushback? Are people asking for it without egg white?
H: I think it comes down to that delineation between the cocktail aficionado or geek, if you will, and the common consumer. If you’re just even somewhat into cocktails, addressing the egg white in your drink is something that happens pretty early. It’s not understanding the difference between a multitude of bitters and that level of geekdom. But because it comes up almost right away and because the sour in general is so core to most drinks, I think that’s a conversation that happens early. In my bar, being a whiskey bar and the amount of Whiskey Sours that we sell, I look at it and I train my team in this way. It’s the same way that I would train them on a Martini or Manhattan, saying, if the customer is not giving you the specs in their order, prod them up front for every bit of it. Do you want egg white or not? What kind of whiskey do you want? Do you want that up or on the rocks? We certainly have a house style, but it’s not stated anywhere. It’s not on the menu. Basically anything that might be considered the house style is the way I drink it. But I don’t impose that on anyone. I’d rather train everybody to draw that out. And I would say, more often than not, our customers want the egg white.
T: Is there another kind of cocktail that’s as widely known as this, if not more, that can vary so wildly in what you might be served? I guess maybe the Old Fashioned, if you’re ordering one of those in Wisconsin, say. Or maybe it’s that build with crushing the oranges and the cherry or whatnot. This is a drink that can just as easily be served up in a coupe or in a rocks glass with ice, maybe with some quite wild garnishes.
H: Exactly. Yeah, absolutely. Like you said with the Old Fashioned or I said the Martini or Manhattan, these things are so iconic and basic. But it gets to the fundamental lesson of understanding cocktails in that each ingredient is important in understanding those ingredients. And how they come together is important for understanding how you’re going to get the drink that is going to ultimately satisfy you the most. So when you understand what kind of whiskey you like in your drink and you understand your own preference for sweet or sour balance or imbalance and the texture of the drink that you want, you can always order it the way you want it. And if you have a good bartender who understands what you’re saying, you’re going to get it the way you want it. Then you’re going to find the most value in that drink. And we teach. I have an events business called Elixir To Go; obviously it’s part of Elixir, and that’s all of our beverage catering essentially. But the majority of our business for Elixir To Go is in corporate team-building cocktail classes. We obviously do lots of private ones, too, for birthdays, weddings, parties and such. But the bulk of it is in corporate. And that’s a fundamental premise of the entire class. It’s getting to understand how to order your drink so that you can get the most out of your money when you’re spending upwards of $16 to $18 a cocktail these days.
T: Absolutely. That first step of being someone who makes cocktails is understanding first, like you say there, how to order and navigate those menus and knowing what to expect. Which, again, is where this drink is kind of interesting. Many things could come your way. So it’s a fun one. We’ll get into your preference shortly on that build and that serve. But just in general, what are you looking for from your Whiskey Sour? If you are indeed using that egg white, is this as much a textural exploration as it is flavor or are you looking for just sour, essentially?
H: As we’ve mentioned earlier about what Jerry Thomas positioned, sour is the lead. People call them sours. They don’t call them sweets. It is sweet and sour, but sour is the lead. As with any drink, the principal ingredient is the spirit. Ultimately, you want to be able to taste the spirit. So you’ve got to have at least enough of the spirit to punch through. The spirit’s got to be able to do that. It’s got to punch through. My preference is for bottled-in-bond American whiskey, whether it’s bourbon or rye. My personal preference is rye or high-rye bourbon.
H: I like that spice, and I like that to really punch through. Something like a Four Roses is going to really carry its weight. But a Rittenhouse Rye makes a great Whiskey Sour, or even a Knob Creek Rye. The higher rye content, high proof. Whereas Four Roses Yellow is 90 proof, I’d rather be up upwards of 100 because it’s going to kick through. If I do that, even with the new bottle-in-bond Maker’s Mark, that’s going to kick through. But that wheated bourbon is going to be softer and sweeter.
T: To your point, we’re getting those characteristics from other aspects of the cocktail. Whereas that spice that you might get from a rye or a high-rye bourbon, as you mentioned there, there’s really not many other areas where you can get that in this drink or where you can impart that to this drink.
H: No, not at all. And understanding your whiskey is key to the base. If the principal ingredient is the whiskey, that’s where it all starts. So understanding your whiskey and how your whiskey drinks is core to moving forward. Then it gets to the sweet and sour balance. Fresh lemons and fresh lemon juice is key to this. You get that brightness that doesn’t get changed by a chemical compound or oxidation or anything like that. So that fresh lemon is the next thing I would say that you want to focus on, making sure you have good lemon juice.
The Ingredients Used in the Whiskey Sour
T: Before we go any further on the lemon juice, just one other note as we’re exploring the whiskey there, if you will. You mentioned rye, but am I right in thinking we’re not talking about some of those rye bottlings that we’re seeing emerge on the market now? They might be upwards of 95 percent, if not 100 percent rye that are maybe going to be very herbaceous or have some of the caraway character. Is that taking us too far from your preferred profile?
H: Again, that’s such a personal call. I don’t think so. If you look at a Rittenhouse Rye, it’s more of a traditional mash bill rye that’s not a huge hit of rye like the Knob Creek is. Or a Bulleit Rye, that MGP style of the rye grain coming forward. I really do enjoy that, personally. But understanding that is different from a traditional mash bill is important to mostly just understanding what those flavor characteristics are. As long as it’s strong enough proof to punch through, there’s so many good ones. I’m a judge in the American Distilling Institute competition, I have been for over a decade. I’ve been primarily a whiskey judge the entire time. I’ve gotten the opportunity to taste American craft whiskeys as the entire industry has evolved over the last 15 years or so. And it’s a huge leap forward today from where it was 15 years ago. They figured it out. There are great American whiskeys being made all over the country. And it’s thrilling; high quality new approaches, different flavors. I bought a barrel of Sazerac Rye in 2007. It was the first private rye barrel sold in California of that. And everybody’s like, “Are you crazy buying rye whiskey?” And I was like, “I love it.” You would get what you get. You could get Sazerac, you could get Rittenhouse. The choices were limited. There was also all this confusion, thanks to my mom. People used to say rye, and her generation thought you’re talking about Canadian. There was confusion as to what rye whiskey was.
T: You mentioned some of the fine work that’s being done these days and the products being put out by craft distillers. But I think we’ve definitely reached this moment where we know things don’t need to be heavily aged. For the early craft whiskey distillers here in the U.S., or the modern era, there was maybe this feeling that they just needed time to mature. But I can think of so many bottles out there right now that are two, three years old. These are phenomenal. It absolutely meets what I think of when I drink whiskey, but it’s also unique and high quality. Would you agree with that?
H: Absolutely. I will even admit to my own error. One of the cool things about the different competitions I judge is that we have to write down a full page of criticism on that spirit on every glass that we tasted and give the distiller some feedback. If I don’t like this, what don’t I like about it? How do I think you could change it? In those early days, I was constantly writing on almost every single sheet, “Put it in a bigger barrel, use better seasoned wood, let it rest longer.” Because they all had the same kind of problems. They were getting green wood notes that were destroying the whiskey. It wasn’t aged properly in these small barrels. They’re just trying to get it out. It looks like whiskey, but it doesn’t taste like good whiskey. I gotta hand it to them, they all figured it out and they figured out how to get really good-tasting whiskey out in the shorter periods. Like you said, there’s two-, three-, four-year whiskeys that are great. One of my favorites locally that we serve at my bar is Wright & Brown out of Oakland. They make phenomenal rye whiskey, and it’s three to four years of aging.
T: Yeah. You start to see some phenomenal results even at that relatively young age. And also even with the caveat that we’re aging it here in the States versus Scotland or even Canada or Ireland. You mentioned some of the profiles of whiskey that you’d like to use specifically for your version of this drink or if you’re drinking this cocktail. Do you want to be able to almost call that whiskey out? Is this a cocktail where we’re trying to make the whiskey shine, or are you just looking for that general profile? What do you expect, for example, if I made this cocktail for you with Knob Creek Rye? Would you expect to be able to call it out by name or is it more like, no, you’re just enjoying that profile, if that makes sense?
H: Yeah, I wouldn’t expect to call it out by name. But I would probably be able to call it out by category, like this is a rye whiskey. Because I can taste it, especially one of those 90 or 100 percent ryes. What’s key to picking the right whiskey for a Whiskey Sour is that strength of character in the flavor, because certain whiskeys are not that great. Personally, I don’t like a Jameson Whiskey Sour because that lighter-style blended Irish whiskey can’t contend as well with the lemon as a good, strong American whiskey would with all that wood and spice and vanilla.
T: That’s a great point. It’s called a Whiskey Sour. But across the board, it’s generally understood that we’re talking an American style. Because of, like you said, those sweeter characteristics that it has versus something from across the Atlantic.
H: Sweeter and stronger. There are certain Scotch whiskies that are phenomenal in it. I love an Islay Scotch in a Whiskey Sour. That’s going to punch through and create that complexity of flavor. Or even Red Breast, an Irish pot still whiskey, makes it great because it’s got that heft to it that punches through. It’s all about contending with the citrus.
T: That’s a great point and something we’ll explore in a little while, too, when it comes to riffs. But you had led us into lemon, you’d explored the topic of “fresh is best.” You mentioned that you work with Fresh Victor that provides wonderful different mixes. Without trying to be reductive here, but they are plug and play where you can add a certain volume of spirit, add a certain amount of the mixer, and these are made using fresh juices, and they’re incredible. We’ve been big fans at VinePair for a long time, and I think that’s relevant to this conversation because that is the evolution of these cocktail mixer sours. That’s where we are going. But can you highlight some of the challenges and why perhaps many folks out there might have had, not even just the sour mix that we’re talking about before, but a ready-to-drink cocktail that’s flavored as a sour or contains “citrus” but that misses the mark? What’s the challenge there? Can you tell us how you’re kind of overcoming that to arrive at that product that, as I say, we’re big fans of at VinePair?
H: Back in the mid-2000s, I was traveling the country and I was representing Square One Organic Spirits. And Alison, the owner, was sending me to these different markets, which was really good timing for me because at the time, Elixir was getting a lot of attention in the press. Those were early days of the whole cocktail renaissance, if you will. Meanwhile, my bar would be getting great press and then I’d pop into Chicago or I’d pop into Washington, D.C., and I’d get to meet all of these top people that I wouldn’t have met if I weren’t traveling like that. I would go to Chicago and meet Charles Joly and go meet Derek Brown and Gina in D.C. and Jackson Cannon in Boston. In each of these markets, there were five or 10 people doing something. I was in San Francisco and those people knew what they were doing. But as I was getting introduced to accounts for Square One, I was teaching bartenders how to squeeze limes and make simple syrup. And that evolved into every good bartender getting that and getting away from shelf-stable mixes and making actual fresh sours, whether it was by creating a house-made sour mix or making each drink on the menu with fresh juice. That was the core lesson of teaching people that. And that was just over a little over 10 years ago. That evolved with the boom of cocktails to the customers getting that lesson to the point where I have an entire business dedicated to just teaching consumers about that, as I used to teach pros. In teaching all of these consumers in these classes how to make a great sour drink, whether it was a Margarita, Daiquiri, or Whiskey Sour, I realized that they will be as geeked out about it and learning as they want. But when they get home — I don’t know if it’s just an American thing or a human thing — but we’re all pretty lazy. So I’m actually cutting a piece of citrus in half and squeezing that juice and measuring it and then making simple syrup and then balancing it and getting it just right. If you’re not into the geekiness of actually making a drink, you’re not going to enjoy all of those steps, as simple as they are. The time was right for something like Fresh Victor and being able to have that freshness. It was also that it’s not just the cocktail thing, it’s the overall culinary boom of everybody being interested in their food and their flavor and everything from wine to tonic to kombucha — understanding flavor. People really understood that and took back control of the natural aspect of their food. Everybody wants all-natural in what they’re going for, but they also want convenience. So that the era of the sour mix from the mid-20th century to today was all about convenience, and flavor and quality was always secondary or tertiary or worse. We’re just getting away from that. Sour is such a big thing for people in a lot of food and drink. And understanding it is not as important to them as actually getting it.
T: You mentioned that Fresh Victor also contains the sweetening agent. So it’s good to go. What are we expecting, coming back to the Whiskey Sour? Is this a standard simple syrup? What’s the norm? And what’s your preference here?
H: Simple syrup is definitely the norm. I lean on that, again, speaking to how we do things at Elixir. That’s our norm. I did a lot of early recipes with powdered sugar. Jerry Thomas mentions powdered sugar, and I think powdered sugar does make a textural difference. You’re going to get a good shake on there, and it’s quick at breaking down as simple syrup is, and that’s why we make simple syrup and make it liquid soluble and quick and efficient. I think it changes the texture quite a bit. But again, speaking as an operator, it’s a mess to try to keep powdered sugar behind the bar. Once you get a wet spoon into it or however you’re going to put it in your drink, you get clunky, and it’s not worth having in the operating environment. But when I’m at home and I’m making something, I would use it just because.
H: These days, I keep a lot of syrups around because I’m constantly doing drink development for Fresh Victor. But prior to that, I really wouldn’t keep simple syrup around much. But it’s a much easier, faster thing to throw a spoonful of powdered sugar in a drink and shake it.
T: I think that’s a great point that you mentioned, too. There are things you can do at home and there are things that make more practical sense as a bar. Going back to that OG recipe briefly, I was looking over that today. Doesn’t it mention dissolving first in seltzer water, but then it is a shaken drink? What’s going on there? Are there archaic words there, or what’s happening?
H: This is something I was going to get to a little earlier with you. Jerry Thomas is the one that really published it and brought it out. He was bartending in San Francisco. And I know from the history of San Francisco and Napa soda water and just soda water in general, it could be trusted behind bars. It was mostly natural and safe, whereas we didn’t have a whole ton of potable water back then. You weren’t just turning on your taps and getting clean water that we get in San Francisco today that’s been treated, thanks to the great additions of chlorine and fluoride. They didn’t have that. So it wasn’t easy. Soda water was more likely to be behind the bar than flat water as far as safe water goes. That was just a simple operating thing. I always look at things like where citrus comes from. In California, we grow a lot of lemons, but we don’t grow limes. All of our limes pretty much come from Colima, from Mexico — the Persian limes that we see everywhere all over the United States. Because we don’t really grow limes in many places in the United States. We grow grapefruit in Texas and somewhat in Florida and tons of oranges in Florida and some oranges in California, too. But limes pretty much come from Mexico. They’re grown in the Caribbean as well. But out here, when Thomas was bartending in San Francisco during the Silver Rush, that was what he could probably get by walking out the door. These days you can find lemon trees all over San Francisco. I don’t know that there were those back then, especially since we burned down every few years. But they were in California and they were available. You have to always look at what’s available. This is just me speculating, being the owner of the second-oldest saloon in San Francisco and being a history buff and such. I believe that the lemon aspect was kind of driven by Thomas being a bartender in California making sours.
T: Yeah, that’s a great point. It’s so easy for us to forget the context, just like myself there with the seltzer water. OK, these recipes have changed slightly over time. But the essence is still there. And the fact that they hold up means that there’s a danger of us forgetting the surroundings and the time and the period and things like that. We speak about it more on this show when it comes to how ingredients change. But it’s just something so simple as potable water.
H: We talk about the story of the cocktail and people drinking them as an eye opener in the morning, it’s because they didn’t have potable water. They didn’t have Starbucks.
T: Crazy times. Before we depart from the simple syrup here I just want to double check, are we talking in equal parts? Or is this one of those drinks where perhaps you might be tempted to go more of a 2:1? Would there be any reason for that?
H: It depends on what your base sugar is. If you’re using granulated sugar, and this is what we do at Elixir, we do a basic 1:1 granulated sugar simple. I know a lot of other bars like to go with a 2:1 rich using something like a Demerara. We keep that around and we use that for particular drinks. It’s not our go-to syrup at the bar. When you get into the Demerara, you’re getting the richness from the additional molasses and the sugar. But when you go to 2:1, you’re getting a significant bump in texture. Especially if you’re going to add any gum Arabic and use a gum syrup. The reason we keep the 1:1 and the 2:1 is because with the 1:1, we’re usually just looking for sweetness, we’re looking for balance. And when we’re using Demerara, we’re looking for more balance and texture and sometimes the richness of flavor with the molasses. So each syrup has a different application, but the way we do it is just a simple 1:1 in our Whiskey Sour.
T: And then finally, because we have covered the egg white, a simple yes or no. In your ideal version of this drink, are we including it?
H: Oh, yeah. But again, always pose to the customer as an option.
T: Right. When you’re making for someone we’re asking. When you’re making for yourself, yes.
How to Make a Whiskey Sour
T: Can you therefore talk us through bringing everything back here, tying everything together, all the components we just spoke about, but also preparation? Can you walk us through your ideal for this drink when you’re making it and calling out ingredients, if you wish to for that? And also, the preparation from start to finish.
H: Well, I would start with your shaker. I find most people have a combination shaker or three-part shaker. I keep a Boston shaker in my kitchen. So I start with that. As we train my staff and such, you start with the cheap ingredients and end up with the booze. I guess the general idea is if you make a mistake, you don’t lose the money. But when you’re making drinks at home, as I was teaching my classes, I would say, “Drink your mistakes.” I would start with my lemon juice. I usually start by cutting the lemon and fresh squeezing lemon juice and measuring out an ounce, because you’d never have inconsistency of produce with that quantity of juice. But the quantity of juice is always consistent. So start with an ounce of juice. And I would sweeten that with about three-quarters of an ounce of 1:1 simple syrup. But again, allow for that sour to lean a little bit sour. And then on top of that, put in two ounces of a 90 to 100 proof American whiskey. Generally a rye, in my case. And then about three-quarters of an ounce of egg white. If you’re getting a large egg, which most eggs in the supermarkets are, that’s going to produce about an ounce of egg white, which is fine and doable. It’s going to give you plenty of froth and texture. That’s generally what I’m doing at home because I’m not actually keeping a container of egg whites around. I’m not going to separate out a quarter-ounce of egg white to get the three quarters. So I’ll crack an egg and put the egg white in there. But in the bar, we do keep egg whites in a container and we’re measuring out three-quarter of an ounce because I think that’s actually the perfect measure to give it the froth and viscosity that you need. From there I do a dry shake. I know there’s been a lot of controversy about drivers as wet-shaken and order and all that. But I do a dry shake first and I just do it kind of quick. Because when you do a dry shake with any kind of shake, there is a gas that’s produced that will push the shaker open. So you don’t want to shake it for too long and have it pop open and get your cocktail all over yourself. Shake it just enough to break that up and emulsify it and then throw plenty of ice in and give it a really good, hard shake. And then I like my sour up, not on the rocks. A lot of people will prefer it on the rocks, but I put it up in the double Old Fashioned. Obviously it can be served on the stem, a very elegant preparation for it. But I do it up in a rocks glass, and I like just a Maraschino cherry or some nice cocktail cherry. If I’m really treating myself well, I’ll put it on a pick; otherwise I just throw it in there.
H: A traditional would be a half-wheel of orange slice.
T: What about bitters that we see in other preparations like this on top there, or maybe even an expression of lemon just to double down on that? Is that ever a route you would go or? I also think that one of the things that maybe puts drinkers off egg white cocktails is sometimes you can smell it. The foam is greeting your nose first. Are those methods that maybe help soften that blow there?
H: The use of any kind of expelled oil over the egg white will diminish the foam. It would automatically start breaking the foam down.
H: That changes that, so it’s certainly not traditional. I’ve seen people do it. I think it’s defeating in that it destroys the foam. I see the use of bitters often. The press will write something about a Whiskey Sour, and they’ll say Angostura. It’s certainly not traditional, but it works. Angostura is like a warm baking spice; it always works with American whiskey. And it certainly does deliver a nice boost of spiciness to the sour that works great with the lemon. So it works, it’s not traditional or standard. I wouldn’t do it. And if I were to serve somebody, I would certainly point out that it was in there.
T: That’s maybe something that drinks media has to answer for, this kind of cappuccino art-ification of bitters on top of cocktails. And let’s be honest, cocktail photography has come such a long way, and it’s amazing. We’re at an amazing point right now, and those things do look great in photos. There’s a bit of a proliferation of it.
H: It might also be a bit of visual confusion. Because the Pisco Sour is so visually iconic, being up with bitters and the swirl of the three dots, some people may think in their ignorance that that applies to all sours. And in fact, it’s a Pisco Sour thing. It’s not a Whiskey Sour thing.
T: And, of course, we have covered that episode before, folks. If you haven’t listened to that one, check that one out in the old “Cocktail College” archives. So I think we’ve pretty extensively covered this cocktail, the Whiskey Sour here. I’m wondering if you have any final thoughts on the drink today or today’s conversation that we should have.
H: These concepts are fairly simple. Once you understand them and embrace them, you can really see how you look on any menu, and if you see whiskey, lemon, and a sweetener and then whatever else is on there, this is just a glorified Whiskey Sour. You can make that connection and say, “What are these things that they’re doing on top of the Whiskey Sour? How is that going to change the drink, and is that going to be for me?” And you’re going to see that on so many menus. You’re going to see so many things that are based on a Whiskey Sour. As with anything essential, understanding how to make a great Whiskey Sour and appreciating it for what it is is fundamental to understanding all sour-infused or sour-inspired cocktails.
Getting to Know H. Joseph Ehrmann
T: Yeah, I think that’s a really great point there. Learn the classics and learn the classic techniques. Before you’re going to move on, let’s circle back to the beginning. I was mentioning “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” there may be one final thought on the Whiskey Sour. If you are going to be on camera filming a movie the next day, drinking eight Whiskey Sours the night before is probably not the way to go. Well, that was the Whiskey Sour. And now it’s time to get to know yourself, H., a little bit more and introduce our final segment of the show here with our final quick-hit questions. As I like to say, starting as is customary with question No. 1: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar? I’m not sure if we even have to answer this one, but let’s go through it.
H: As a whiskey bar, we have over 600 bottles of whiskey. But I would have to say about 60 to 70 percent of that whiskey is American whiskey, and probably 60 to 70 percent of that is bourbon. So it’s mostly bourbon, and that ties directly to the fact that Elixir is a historic Old West Saloon. And I found that that works the best with the concept of the bar. Personally, I’m much more of a malt drinker, and one of these days I would like to open a malt bar. I’ve got amazing malts and Scotch, both Irish and Australian, all kinds of malts. But most of our customers are coming in looking for bourbon.
T: Question No.2: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
H: I was thinking about this, and what I want to say is a jigger. I say “undervalued” because I think that so many bartenders today don’t really understand it. There are so many jigger designs now, and you have everything from the classic hourglass shape where you need three or four of them to get all the different measures to the more modern designs that have the pony etched inside the jigger or it’s see-through and you can see the lines. So you basically have one tool where you can get all of these different measures. At my bar, I leave it to my bartenders’ discretion of how they like to work behind the bar and what they want to use rather than mandate the jigger we’re using. But we want to make sure that everybody is educated on proper use of a jigger and understanding getting the right measure and the meniscus. It’s a combination of undervalued and misunderstood. In building any cocktail, when you are spec-ing out a drink and coming up with the final version, it so often comes down to the difference of a quarter- or a half-ounce of one thing over another. That quarter- or half-ounce can make a tremendous difference in the flavor of the drink. Some people will say that could be overly geeky, but it’s true. When you’re talking about the specificity of nailing it, it comes down to that. If you don’t have proper control of your jigger and understanding of the jigger that you’re using and how to get the most out of it, you can’t nail that specificity.
T: Question No. 3 for us: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received while working in this industry?
H: I would say to hire good people. Speaking as a manager or an owner, I spun my wheels in the first few years of business because I was so caught up in just being open and staying open and figuring stuff. I hired a bunch of people and was kind of in the school of, “Oh, you’ve bartended before? OK, when can you start?” I didn’t put as much time into interviewing people well, checking their references, getting to understand who they were as a person. And of course that all evolves over the time being an owner; you make those mistakes. It was in my second year when a friend of mine from outside the business said that “you need to hire good people.” Because at the end of the day, you could make the most complex spreadsheet about running your business. But if you don’t have good people, it’s going to cause every other kind of problem you’re going to have, and it can all go back to that. In 2005, I ended up having a pulmonary embolism and almost died and was in the hospital. And I had already decided to make some major changes to the bar, including writing my first cocktail menu. When I opened, it was a shot and beer bar and I was just trying to be a neighborhood spot, real casual, easy. I had no mixology dreams. I had never even heard the word “mixology.” But I had come out of the kitchen and my whole background was that I’d worked in 18 bars and restaurants before I opened my own. But I was more culinary minded and I just said, “You know, I’m going to make really good drinks and I’m going to get really good people to make them.” When I came out of the hospital, I fired two-thirds of my staff. I put out my first cocktail menu. I raised all my prices. With bad staff come bad customers, so when you get rid of the bad staff, you get rid of the bad customers. My whole business turned around in six months.
H: And I never looked back. Now, my team is great. I made it through the pandemic with them. My managers have been with me for 14 years. I’ve got one bartender who’s been with me 12 years and others, five. When you hire good people and you treat them well, they stick with you. It makes life a lot easier.
T: Yeah, incredible stuff right there. Those longer stints are definitely a testament to the working environment and the bar itself, for sure. Number 4 here: If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
H: I think it was about 2011, and I went to London with my then-girlfriend, who is now the mother of my child. We went to see Dick Bradsell at the Pink Chihuahua. We went with John Mamair, who also happened to be in town and was hanging out. John got to know Angie on that trip. We had some friends of Angie’s with us and we had such a hoot getting to meet Dick Bradsell and talk to him. John and I sat at his bar and picked his brain and took photos behind the bar and joked around. His daughter was working, and we had a great time. I had that Pink Chihuahua cocktail, which is an amazing cocktail if you’ve never made one.
T: The Pink Chihuahua is the Mexican bar underneath El Camion?
H: Exactly. That’s exactly it.
T: Oh, my God. Being a former chef from London, that’s where I plied the majority of my trade, I don’t know how I first got in there because it seemed to be more of a members thing. Anyway, one of our chefs knew someone on the door. We’d go in. This was the place that, I’ll be honest, introduced me to tequila. It introduced me to Tequila Sangrita. But also, London’s not like New York. Places pretty much shut across the board at 1 or 2 a.m., if you’re lucky. As chefs, we’re not getting out of the kitchen until 1 a.m. And again, London’s not that easy to traverse if you’re in one neighborhood and you want to grab a drink somewhere. We would finish work — say my weekend’s approaching and my weekend happens to be Wednesday and Thursday, and I’m finishing my shift on Tuesday and I want to grab a drink — Pink Chihuahua was literally one of the only spots we could get into, and I really enjoyed it for that. Sorry to hijack your answer there, but hearing that name, I’ve still got my membership card. Which again, I’m not sure where I got it from. But I’ve been carrying it around with me now for almost 10 years since I left London, so I still got it.
H: Wow, that’s great. We were coming up in the business and becoming friends with Dale and Tony. I was meeting the generation before me as my mentors. And they all spoke of Dick, and I never got to meet him. Dick never really traveled as far as I knew and never really came to the U.S. or anything. He was a bartender’s bartender who just worked. John and I were plotting to go see him and it just worked out. We had such a good time. I’ve got good photos of that. Of course, both of them are gone now. I’d love to just sit at that bar again with both of them. I didn’t really know Dick, didn’t know him personally. But the host and the pro he was, he just latched on to me and John. We had such a great time and an all-time great bar experience.
T: What an incredible place.
H: And I’ve had the Pink Chihuahua cocktail on and off my menu before, and it’s an excellent one.
T: Final question for us today: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
H: It would have to be an Old Fashioned. And it would just be a classic preparation with a bottled-in-bond whiskey. Usually I like an Evan Williams as a base, a bar spoon of 1-to-1 simple syrup, and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters. That was my dad’s go-to drink. When I drink it, I always think of him. And that’s the way I like it in that preparation. Being a young man in the ’50s, when my dad did drink it, he drank it in that other format with muddled fruit and a splash of soda. But I don’t like it that way. I drink it that way, and when I do, I think of my father who passed 20 years ago. So that’s my drink.
T: Fantastic stuff. H. Thank you so much for joining us today and sharing your wonderful insight on the Whiskey Sour. What a showstopper.
H: Thank you very much for having me. It was a lot of fun.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.