The 8 Best Bourbons for a Whiskey (Bourbon) Sour
Tart and toothsome with an acerbic kick, the Whiskey (or Bourbon) Sour was the poet Dorothy Parker’s favorite Whiskey cocktail for a good reason.1 After all, like the searing quips and snappy rhyming couplets that made Parker famous, this cocktail is timeless—a plucky study of balance and bite.
If, like Parker, you’re one of the many bon vivants who has become enamored with the bracing, sweet libation since it was first mixed up over 250 years ago2 and you’ve also fallen in love with our freshly made bourbon sour cocktail, it’s time to dust off your cocktail shaker (upper right cupboard, above the sink) and try your hand at mixing up the iconic Whiskey cocktail.
Before you research what to mix with bourbon, to get you on your way to at-home Happy Hour success, we’ll take a deep dive into the history of the beloved drink and determine what’s the best bourbon for Whiskey Sour.
What is a Whiskey (Bourbon) Sour?
A piquant home remedy for 18th-century sailors desperate to keep scurvy at bay, the Bourbon Sour was first codified by legendary barman and father of mixology Jerry Thomas in his 1862 trove of American drinks: How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivant’s Companions2.
Cocktail historians credit the early prominence of the Sour with pragmatism. For those on long journeys across the seas, the idea of drinking water was a mere fantasy—it was rife with germs and quick to spoil.2
But pounding straight liquor all day wouldn’t cut the mustard, either. Someone would have to steer the ship to land, after all.
Enter citrus. Lemons and limes did double duty: diluting the intensity of the liquor while providing key nutrients to keep the boys afloat.
Quicker than you could say, “Land, ahoy!” the Sour was born. Brits favored spirits like Brandy, gin, and rum. But for Americans—Thomas among them—bourbon was king.
Stateside, bourbon made a natural match for the Sour for a few reasons:
- The corn-based whiskey is native to America and was readily available2
- The natural sweetness of the liquor acts as a perfect foil to the citrus, softening the acidic notes3
While some bartenders favor rye whiskey’s spice-forward bite for the cocktail, bourbon lends the drink an undeniable balance—allowing the citrus to sing while providing a mellow, floral sweetness.
How Do You Make a Bourbon Sour?
While nothing could be easier than pouring a freshly made Bourbon Sour from our Full Bar straight into a rocks glass, it’s still pretty manageable to make an impressive Sour at home. Looking for a classic Whiskey Sour cocktail recipe?
To make a Whiskey Sour mix, you will need:
- 2 ounces of bourbon
- 3/4 ounce of fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce of simple syrup
- Orange wheel and maraschino cherry to garnish
Simply combine the bourbon, fresh squeezed lemon juice, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker, add ice, and shake. Pour the contents over a rocks glass filled with ice and garnish with the orange slice and cherry, and Voila!4 You are the hero of happy hour, the doyenne of date night, the champion of “just chilling,” the master of meeting the parents... you get it.
Eggs? In My Drink?
Raw eggs in drinks—not just for bodybuilders.
Adding an egg white to your cocktail shaker before ice (known by bartenders as a dry shake) will give your cocktail a foamy, frothy texture.
If you have a yen for a creamier cocktail, but you’re worried about salmonella or trying the plant-based thing, add a tablespoon or two of aquafaba to your mix.3 This magical, flavorless liquid from chickpea cans perfectly mimics the egg whites’ foaming property.
What Are the Best Bourbons for a Bourbon Sour?
Now that you’ve dusted off your citrus juicer, sprung for maraschino cherries, and browsed Etsy for hours until you found the perfect vintage rocks glass, it’s time to select the best bourbon for your Bourbon Sour.
Here’s where things get interesting. You see, our favorite bourbons for Whiskey Sours? They taste a little bit like rye.
High-Rye, High-Proof Bourbon
While we favor bourbon in our Whiskey Sours, thanks to its warming notes of brown sugar and vanilla, we’d be lying if we said we didn’t crave some spice to keep our cocktail interesting.
That’s where rye enters the picture, in all of its peppery, chest-burning glory.
Rye?! But you just said we were sticking with bourbon!
Relax, have a drink—we’re getting there. Because bourbon earns its official designation by using a baseline of 51% corn in its mash bill (the mix of grains distilled to make bourbon), there’s a lot of room in the mix for other grains—and flavors.5
High-rye bourbons give second billing to, you guessed it, rye, imbuing the sweet corn base of the bourbon with complexity: a bit of a sharp edge to offset the bourbon’s trademark roundness.
This becomes critical in cocktails, which, as you know, depend on balance. It’s important that the whiskey comes through without overpowering the other elements. High-rye bourbon manages to appeal to the classic cocktail’s softer and saucier sensibilities.
Another thing to look for? Proof. Avoid lower-proof bourbons (those at 40% ABV) which can get drowned out by other flavors and seek out bottles that hit between 43% and 50% ABV.6 You are drinking whiskey, after all! You want to celebrate—and not obscure—the spirit.
All that said, here are our favorite bourbons for your Bourbon-Sour-Power-Hour needs.
The Best Bourbon for Bourbon Sour: Our Top 8 Picks
Bourbon, you want it. You need it. But which bourbon is perfect for that sweet bite of a bourbon sour?
Old Forester 100 Proof
This award-winning bourbon contains 18% rye in its mash bill and, at 50% ABV, is strong enough to stand up to the simple syrup and citrus juice in the cocktail. There’s a reason that this potent spirit—that brags tasting notes of sweet cream and caramelized sugar—is a top choice for bartenders.5
Old Grand-Dad Bonded 100 Proof
From the famed bourbon whiskey distiller Jim Beam, this cult classic bourbon hits both of our high-rye, high-proof requirements. As a bonus? It’s cheap—retailing around $25 per bottle.7 With a subtle spicy finish, lingering heat, and notes of oak and vanilla, it makes a memorable Bourbon Sour.
Elijah Craig Small Batch 1789
This fan-favorite bourbon whiskey has less rye in its mash bill than some of our other selections—around 10%—but you’d be none the wiser thanks to its complex, well-rounded flavors. Complete with bourbon’s beloved sweetness and a whiff of smoke, this 47% ABV bottle makes a balanced Sour.8
At 80 proof, Basil Hayden’s lands on the lower end of the ABV spectrum.7 But thanks to its intriguing interplay of cinnamon, smoke, vanilla, and oak, this pleasing sipper makes a mellow cocktail that you can feel comfortable ordering twice.
Redemption High Rye
It’s not a major shock that this bourbon—which comes from Redemption Rye—toes the line between the two dominant styles of American whiskey. With 36% rye and 60% corn in its mash bill,7 Redemption High Rye has more sweetness and spice than a marathon of the Great British Baking Show.
Aged in charred oak barrels, this gold-medal winning, high-rye Kentucky bourbon delights fans with notes of toast and toffee. At 45% ABV with the compelling back and forth between pepper and vanilla, Woodford Reserve is just assertive enough to give your Bourbon Sour an enduring, unforgettable finish.9
For rye aficionados, this spice-forward bourbon from Indiana might be the ticket. Named after a Prohibition-era bootlegger, this whiskey is so delicious that it should be illegal. Don’t let that stop you from adding it to your Bourbon Sour—especially on cooler nights when you’re craving a little extra bite.
Four Roses Small Batch Select
With two high-rye mash bills (20% rye and 35% rye depending on the blend), Four Roses produces noteworthy bourbon at affordable prices.7 For an everyday tipple or a party-sized pitcher, the 40% ABV variety will make a thirst-quenching, easy-sipping sour. If you’re craving something stronger at the end of the day, indulge in the non-chill-filtered Small Batch Select. You’ll be feeling no pain in no time thanks to its 52% ABV.
A Brief Refresher on Refreshments
With so much newfound whiskey wisdom in your back pocket, you’re ready to start slinging Sours like a seasoned pro. Just be sure to remember a few tricks of the trade as you meet your destiny as a drink-mixing master.
Devote time and energy to sourcing high-quality ingredients. That doesn’t mean you have to spend top dollar or buy top-shelf—affordable bourbons can still pack a pleasing punch depending on their mash bill and ABV, and fresh-squeezed citrus will only cost you a few bucks and some elbow grease. Your efforts will be rewarded with a cocktail so potent and piquant it will completely erase the trauma inflicted on our culture by Big Sour Mix.
Not quite ready to make the leap to mixology? Rest easy—we’ll hop behind the bar. Enjoy freshly made, expertly handcrafted cocktails made with cold pressed ingredients like our bold and balanced Bourbon Sour.
- R.M. Kealey. Writers’ Tipples: Whiskey Sour Recipe. http://www.rmkealy.com/2014/03/09/writers-tipples-whiskey-sour-recipe-dorothy-parker/
- Alcohol Professor. Classic Cocktails in History: The Whiskey Sour. https://www.alcoholprofessor.com/blog-posts/blog/2015/01/27/classic-cocktails-in-history-the-whiskey-sour
- Man of Many. Try the Best Whisky Sour Recipe on World Whisky Day. https://manofmany.com/lifestyle/drinks/best-whisky-sour-recipe
- Bon Appetit. Whiskey Sour. https://www.bonappetit.com/recipe/whiskey-sour
- Uproxx. A Whiskey Writer Shares HIs Favorite High-Rye Bourbons. https://uproxx.com/life/best-high-rye-bourbons-2020/
- Whisky Advocate. Build Your Best Whisky Sour. https://www.whiskyadvocate.com/build-your-best-whiskey-sour/
- Liquor.com. 5 High-Rye Bourbons You Should Know. https://www.liquor.com/articles/high-rye-bourbon/
- Liquor.com. The 9 Best Whiskeys for Whiskey Sours in 2021. https://www.liquor.com/best-whiskeys-for-whiskey-sours-5114373
- Total Wine. Woodford Reserve. https://www.totalwine.com/spirits/bourbon/small-batch-bourbon/woodford-reserve/p/91181750?utm_source=pe