How 1 Fundamental Cocktail Formula Turns into 8+ Drinks

March 30, 2016

Sweet + sour + spirit.

This archetypal and infinitely malleable blueprint for the Sour was, alongside the Fix and the Julep, one of the very first formulas to climb out of the primordial cocktail era of the nineteenth century. It was a time when Victorian drinkers adjusted to the speed of city life and away from the communal punch bowl, and their drinks made the leap into the single servings, recipe book-keeping, and purpose-driven glassware we’re used to today.

Putting aside its historical value in the nascent world of cocktails, the Sour is still very much relevant today. Not only does it open one up to a world of classics, its versatility makes it a great tool for the curious and innovative: The balance of the parts practically begs to be tweaked and toyed with, worked over with new spirits, sweeteners and, well, anything else you might have floating around your kitchen.

Photo by Mark Weinberg

The Basic Formula

Though often written out as 1 : 1 : 2 (sweet : sour : spirit), the standard ratio, in truth (when accounting for variability between different states and the various bars within them, and the ever-changing tastes and trends), is generally only 3/4 ounce of both sweet and sour to 2 ounces of base spirit. The formula .75 : .75 : 2, however, does not have quite the same mnemonic harmony.

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We'll dive in with the granddaddy and flag-waver, the Whiskey Sour, then move on to other Sour iterations.

Whiskey Sour

2 ounces whiskey, .75 ounces simple simple, .75 ounces lemon juice

Measure out your two ounces of whiskey: Most opt for a comparatively sweeter bourbon, but a bracing rye may work better in certain variations, such as the red-wine floated New York Sour; it’s a matter of personal taste.

With your preferred booze in the cocktail shaker, add your simple syrup (the sweet) and lemon juice (the sour). And already we’re at the first fork in the road. If you’re in the mood for a frothier, more luxurious sour, crack in an egg white and give everything a nice dry (no ice) shake. This step, a “pre-shake” done with all the ingredients but without the ice, helps to better emulsify the egg white.

Whether you choose to invite eggs or wine to the party, or are looking to keep it simple, there’s really only one unbreakable rule: don’t use Sour mix. You’re better than that.

After shaking, strain into a rocks glass over a nice big cube. There, now you have something to sip on while taking this brief survey of some of the notable, and very different, Sours out there.


2 ounces gin, .75 ounces simple syrup, .75 ounces lime juice

Some people prefer theirs with gin, some with vodka. Some (insane) people prefer the Raymond Chandler version, which simply calls for a 50 : 50 of gin and Rose’s.

More reasonable voices have added little twists here and there, such as shaking with fresh basil or muddling cucumber. The simple, clean flavors at work lend themselves to such experimentation, like seasonal herbs at the farmers market.


2 ounces rum, .75 ounces simple syrup, .75 ounces lime juice

Swap in rum for gin, and this is what you get. Take this recipe, add fresh mint and soda, and you’ve made yourself a Mojito.

Brown Derby

2 ounces bourbon, .5 ounces honey syrup, 1 ounce grapefruit juice

The first time I heard of this Los Angeles classic, it sounded off. Grapefruit with a brown spirit? Honey syrup? Those concerns, of course, disappeared with the first sip. With its slightly altered ratios, it also brings up a good point: the Sour Formula is just that—a formula—and different ingredients will require slight tweaks.

Pisco Sour

2 ounces Pisco, .75 ounces simple syrup, 1 ounce lemon juice, egg white

This sour, made with Peruvian or Chilean brandy, holds a special place on the menus of bars in South America and old San Francisco.


2 ounces Cognac, .75 ounces Cointreau, .75 ounces lemon juice, sugar rim

A criminally underappreciated cocktail in recent years, this Cognac classic deserves another look. Or two, or three.


2 ounces tequila, .75 ounces Cointreau, .75 ounces lime juice

The Sour formula even works with tequila. If your experience with margaritas has been limited to the frozen or over-sweetened kinds, keep this recipe in your back pocket for summer parties. You’ll be happy you did.


2 ounces vodka, .75 ounces Cointreau, .75 ounces lime juice

In many ways, the Kamikaze is just a streamlined version of its more famous, cranberry-colored cousin, the Cosmo. Traditionally, this 70s recipe is split up into several shots, but it works just as well in a cocktail glass.

This is just an overview of the flexibility of the formula. There’s more out there to explore and more ways to tweak them all. Play with them, make them your own! Enjoy.

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Matt Merkin

Written by: Matt Merkin

Matt is a writer, photographer and bartender based in New York. He likes ten-ingredient mezcal cocktails and beer and shot specials.