For the best whisky cocktails in Hong Kong, seek out the sour
Taking inspiration from a 155-year-old recipe, local bartenders concoct their favourite versions of the classic cocktail, from the traditional to the experimental
The first recorded recipe for a whisky sour can be found in Jerry Thomas’ The Bar-Tender’s Guide, published in 1862, although the basic formula is thought to have been around since the 18th century.
The “sour” family of drinks are made from a wide range of spirits and include a number of classic cocktails.
Gary Regan’s The Joy of Mixology defines a sour as containing “a base liquor, lime or lemon juice and a non-alcoholic sweetening agent”, adding that the sweetener can be dispensed with if the base is a liqueur.
Thomas’s original formula called for bourbon or rye whiskey, dissolved sugar and the juice of half a lemon.
Some time later, creative bartenders began adding egg white to sours, changing their texture and giving them a frothy head. That ingredient is now included in the International Bartenders Association’s official recipe, though it’s described as “optional”.
More recently, a vogue has arisen for making sours with Scotch whisky instead of one of its American cousins.
“I’ll generally ask the customer if they prefer bourbon or scotch, and whether or not they want egg white, although the classic recipe is definitely with bourbon. Bourbon is much sweeter, while scotch has more spice and vanilla,” says Toby Lo of Quinary bar in Hong Kong, who has experimented with a number of different sour formulas. “For people who are new to scotch or American whiskey, and just beginning to learn about it, the sour is a great place to start. It’s a very accessible cocktail.”
One of the bar’s signature cocktails, the Quinary Sour, is made with Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, liquorice root, Chinese black sugar and Angostura bitters, but if you want to try that particular version of the classic, you only have a few more weeks in which to do so.
“We’ll be introducing a new sour at the end of April in which we’re using dashi [Japanese broth] for a savoury effect. That will be completely different. We’re still experimenting with the syrup,” Lo says.
Sours are also something of a speciality at Quinary’s sister bar, The Angel’s Share.
The Angel’s Sour is made with Johnnie Walker Red Label, egg white, simple syrup and black walnut bitters.
“We add the egg white for the mouthfeel, and we shake it. That creates the texture,” bartender Lok Cheung explains. “Then we squeeze a lemon twist over it, so you get the oils.”
The drink is then poured over a block of ice, and the finishing touch of a few drops of black walnut bitters is gently added to the froth.
The whisky sour has also provided the base for a new cocktail, the Grey & Gold, which Cheung created for the winter round of this year’s Diageo World Class cocktail competition, and which got him into the semi-finals.
It is intended, according to an Angel’s Share Instagram post, to showcase “the dramatic landscape and climate of [the Scottish island of] Skye with rocks and waves, especially when captured on camera in shades of grey, and the true beauty of Talisker 10-year-old whisky that is made there, which reflects the colour gold”.
The Grey & Gold is presented in a cup rather than a glass, accompanied by a small burner diffusing osmanthus and sandalwood incense.
“This is a smokier sour with oriental elements, including house-made osmanthus syrup,” Cheung explains. And he has indeed found a harmony between the peaty smokiness of the whisky and the fumes from the osmanthus and sandalwood. A luxurious extra touch is a garnish of flecks of gold leaf. “This one has no egg white, so it’s a completely different texture.”
Bartenders also may play with syrups to go for a specific taste, including maple syrup or those made from honey or marmalade. “Really, you can make a sour with any kind of syrup,” Lo says.
One bar that has taken the maple-syrup route is The Woods in Central, with its Oak Whiskey Sour made with French-oak-infused Michter’s Rye Whiskey, Canadian maple syrup, and fresh lemon juice. The Woods Sour, unless you request otherwise, includes egg white.
For a spicier sour, try Butler bar in Tsim Sha Tsui, which offers one made with High West Double Rye from Utah.
The Angel’s Share 2/F, Amber Lodge 23 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2805 8388
Quinary 56-58 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2851 3223
The Woods LG/F, 17-19 Hollywood Road, Central, tel: 2522 0281
Butler 5/F-6/F, Mody House, 30 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2724 3828