From the Gold Rush to the New York Sour: 7 Refreshing Whiskey Cocktails Perfect for Summer

·6 min read

Of whiskey’s many natural gifts—and we could go on and on—being a refreshing summer drink isn’t necessarily among them.

Picture yourself at the pool bar of a resort, looking at the cocktail menu. There’s lots of rum, of course (these places are practically temples to rum), and ample tequila, gin and vodka, but whiskey? The resonant woody punch of a good bourbon or rye, the very thing fans of the spirit most enjoy, is much more at home sipped slowly by a fire than it is taken through a straw at the beach. “The dark heavy flavors of oak and vanilla and baking spices are all cigars and deep leather chairs,” we’ve written of whiskey, “and getting it to play nice with lemon juice and sunshine is like getting a bear to wear a hat.”

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That, perhaps, is what makes refreshing whiskey drinks so satisfying when they work, and so enduringly popular. They are reliably among the top sellers on any given list, regardless of season, and can be a fantastic showcase the skill of a particular bar or bartender: Sometimes whiskey needs a big flavor like ginger to stand up to it, as seen in the Kentucky Buck or the Penicillin, but other times, like with the Whiskey Smash, all you need is a hit of lemon zest and touch of mint.

No matter how you put it together, whether it’s a simple and artfully composed Japanese Highball or an explosively flavorful Paper Plane, here are seven whiskey drinks designed to see you through the summer.

Whiskey Sour

Whiskey Sour Rocks old fashioned glass lemon
Whiskey Sour Rocks old fashioned glass lemon

“Is there a more agreeable drink than a well-made whiskey sour?” we asked last summer, and we’re still not sure there is. Whiskey, with its broad shoulders and oaky fullness, can be almost completely disarmed by tarting it up with fresh lemon juice and balancing with simple syrup, as bartenders have been doing since roughly forever. We say “almost” because often (though not always) you need a little extra push by way of an egg white. Check out two Whiskey Sour recipes in which you don’t need an egg white here, or just make yourself the classic version below.

  • 2 oz. bourbon

  • 0.75 oz. fresh lemon juice

  • 0.75 oz. simple syrup

  • 1 egg white

Add all ingredients to a shaker tin. “Dry” shake ingredients without ice for five seconds to whip the egg. Add ice, seal tins and shake hard for 10 to 12 seconds. Strain into coupe or martini glass—it’ll come out white at first, and the color will emerge over the course of a minute under a paper-smooth head of foam. Express a lemon peel over the top of the foam for aroma and discard and decorate the foam with a few drops or dashes of Angostura Bitters.

Mint Julep

Refreshing Cold Mint Julep for the Derby
Refreshing Cold Mint Julep for the Derby

Don’t be fooled by the Mint Julep. Its campaign materials may have you convinced it’s just a harmless little minty refresher, but in reality it’s nearly a double-pour of bourbon, tempered only by mint and a touch of sugar. Nonetheless, some 120,000 Mint Juleps are consumed across two sunny days at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby, proving that some cocktails can become refreshing daytime summer sippers just by sheer force of will, and a little crushed ice. Find out the best bourbon to use for your Mint Julep here, or if the race is about to start, quickly fix one up according to the recipe below.

  • 2.5 oz. bourbon

  • 0.5 oz.-0.75 oz simple syrup (to taste)

  • 10-12 mint leaves

In a metal cup, gently muddle the mint into the simple syrup. Add bourbon, and fill 2/3 with crushed ice. Stir to chill, until a frost forms on the outside. Then pack the rest of the cup with ice. Take two mint crowns, lightly bruise them with your fingers, and stick them against the inside close to the straw. Enjoy.

New York Sour

new york sour rye whiskey red wine lemon
new york sour rye whiskey red wine lemon

Some unnamed Chicago bartender in the early 1880s had the improbable idea of taking a Whiskey Sour and adding a little red wine to the top, “inventing in a bizarre flash of insight,” we claim, “one of the great warm weather whiskey drinks of our time.” Alone, a Whiskey Sour without an egg white is a serviceable, if incomplete, cocktail. Add a little red wine, though, and it becomes juicy and charming, the fruit in the wine perfectly filling in the gaps in the cocktail. Try one out with the recipe below, or find out why a cocktail invented in Chicago is called the “New York Sour” here.

  • 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.

Gold Rush

bourbon whiskey sour gold rush cocktail
bourbon whiskey sour gold rush cocktail

The Gold Rush—whiskey, lemon juice, and honey syrup—is a good and important drink, but we admit we don’t love it:  “The Gold Rush as it’s normally constructed,” we write, “will be forever stuck in third gear until you do something to push it to the next level.” Fortunately, that something can be as easy as spicing it with ginger, perfuming it with florals or smoke, or easier still and our favorite version, adding a grapefruit peel to the shaker tin before shaking on ice. This so called “regal shake” transforms the cocktail, adding complexity and depth. Check it out for yourself below, or find out what bourbons work best for the drink here.

  • 2 oz. bourbon

  • 0.75 oz. lemon juice

  • 0.75 oz. honey syrup

  • 1 grapefruit peel, maybe 1” x 2”, taking care to get as little of the white pith as possible

 Add all ingredients, including grapefruit peel, to a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake hard over ice for 8 to 10 seconds, and strain into rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with a lemon wheel or peel. 

Amaretto Sour

Amaretto Sour Cocktail in rocks glass on ice cherry garnish
Amaretto Sour Cocktail in rocks glass on ice cherry garnish

We hear you thinking. “The Amaretto Sour? I thought this was about whiskey drinks?” Well, the Amaretto Sour is a whiskey drink, or at least, it should be. It’s been 10 years since a bartender named Jeffrey Morgenthaler wrote on his blog that he had derived “the best Amaretto Sour in the world,” and it was the shake heard round the world. Morgenthaler’s version—Amaretto and lemon, punched up with a pour of high-proof bourbon, and smoothed out with an egg white—utterly transforms the drink. “It’s difficult to overstate how many favors the addition of high-proof bourbon does for the Amaretto Sour,” we write, “it’s not a revision so much as it is born again.” See for yourself with the recipe below, or learn why amaretto is better than you think it is here.

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and shake without ice for five to seven seconds to whip the egg white. Add ice and shake hard for eight to 10 seconds. Strain either over fresh ice in a large rocks glass or up in a coupe. Garnish with a lemon peel and, if you like, a cherry.

Japanese Whisky Highball

Japanese Whisky Highball
Japanese Whisky Highball

When is a whisky soda not just a whisky soda? When an entire generation of Japanese bartenders devote themselves to its production. The Whisky Highball has become the de-facto national mixed drink of Japan, and the Japanese have, predictably, mastered the art. “Theoretically uncomplicated,” writes Masahiro Urushido of Highballs in his book The Japanese Art of the Cocktail, “their very simplicity dictates that they be properly made, or they will be disappointing.” Find out why every decision matters (and why 13.5 is the magic number) here, or just follow the instructions below.

Make sure all ingredients and tools are as cold as possible. Add ice to a tall narrow glass pulled from the freezer and add chilled whisky. Gently pour soda water down the side of the glass. Stir minimally, to combine ingredients but to agitate the bubbles as little as possible. Express a lemon peel over the top and discard. 

Paper Plane

Decorated glass filled with fresh Paper Plane cocktail
Decorated glass filled with fresh Paper Plane cocktail

We write that the Paper Plane is “like a whiskey and orange juice that grew up handsome, and for whom everything is going right.” This crowd pleaser, invented by bartender Sam Ross in 2008, gets its charm from two different bittersweet Italian liqueurs, even though the resulting cocktail is neither particularly bitter nor sweet. It is simple to make, and easy to like and “might be,” we claim, “the best cocktail invented in the last 100 years.” Check out how Ross’s original recipe would’ve made a much different cocktail here, or just make one for yourself according to the recipe below.

  • 0.75 oz. bourbon

  • 0.75 oz. lemon juice

  • 0.75 oz. Amaro Nonino

  • 0.75 oz. Aperol

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake for six to 10 seconds. Strain up into a coupe or cocktail glass. Garnish by hitting play on M.I.A.’s 2008 banger “Paper Planes.”

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