Whiskey cocktail

How to Make the Classic Rye Whiskey Cocktail – Robb Report

“A cocktail, to be of any value, must have the quality of reviving the drinker; he must take him out of the doldrums of the world of work and give him rosy visions of himself and his neighbor.

— Frank Shay Esquire’s “Ten Best Cocktails of 1934”

Just because something is famous doesn’t mean it’s good. If you’ve turned on a TV in the past 20 years, you already know that, but it’s a fact worth acknowledging from time to time, as you flip through the index of history.

The Ward Eight is a classic cocktail, said to have been invented in Boston in 1898. It is usually understood as a base of rye and lemon juice, similar to whiskey sour, with the addition of lemon juice. orange and grenadine. Now, if this sounds like something invented by a 9th grader, you’d be comforted to know that bartenders have been struggling with the recipe for a long time.

My favorite Ward Eight story comes from an article in boston magazine in 2006. A number of the city’s most talented bartenders had banded together under the banner of the “Jack Rose Society”, consulting together to determine the best possible recipes for various drinks, or in their own words, “to fix the wrongs of misunderstandings”. classic cocktails. Bostonians, they quickly turned to the Ward Eight (the only classic cocktail in town) and announced the “Great Ward Eight Debate”, an evening of experimentation and deduction, and to which, fortunately for us, they guest journalist Anthony Giglio.

The event turned out to be frustrating. They tinkered with it all night, but Ward Eight stubbornly resisted greatness. They tried changing the whiskey, several types of grenadine and dropping one or the other juice, but it was either too sweet or too sour or just not good. “A dozen jaw-dropping renders later,” writes Giglio, “[Scott] Holliday asked politely, “Is it possible that this isn’t a phenomenal cocktail?” The group exchanged thoughtful glances. So Gertsen said, “Of course! With that, the Ward Eight was consigned to history, leaving the company to bigger questions.

Normally I would be tempted to agree with this august group and leave it at that, but I won’t for two reasons. The first is that while there hasn’t been much progress in oranges, lemons or pomegranates over the past 16 years, rye whiskey has grown surprisingly since 2006, which gives us a much larger color palette to paint with. The second is that any cocktail can be excellent. It’s just a matter of how much you’re willing to deviate from its original recipe.

It’s unclear if Ward Eight is worth picking up. For one thing, it’s a pre-prohibition classic, and we only have a limited number of them. Two bars named themselves after the Ward Eight, and it was cited as one of Squire “Ten Best Cocktails of 1934.” On the other hand, when do we admit that sometimes classics are “classics” just because everyone says so? Concrete example: with regard to Squire article, it is often mentioned that journalist Frank Shay included the Ward Eight as one of the ten best cocktails of 1934, but what is almost never mentioned is what he actually says about it: “Personally , I don’t like this drink,” he wrote, “but it deserves a place of honor because it has survived and because many otherwise reputable people claim it.”

Quarter eight (classic version)

  • 2oz. rye whiskey
  • 0.5oz. Orange juice
  • 0.5oz. Lemon juice
  • 0.5oz. Grenadine

Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice, shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds and strain into a cocktail or coupe glass. Garnish with an orange zest.

NOTES ON INGREDIENTS

Courtesy of Bulleit Whiskey

Orange juice: Must be fresh. Of all the major citrus juices, the orange has the most dramatic difference between fresh and even day old. Fresh orange juice sings. Insist on it.

Grenadine: Grenadine is a pomegranate syrup and can be purchased off the shelf if desired – Small Hands Foods and Liquid Alchemist come to mind, but anyone using real ingredients would be great. Avoid Rose’s.

You can also make it yourself, it’s an equal amount of pomegranate juice and sugar. Put a cup of each in a saucepan and set over low heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves (no need to boil). You can stop there, but if you want it to look pretty, add 1/2 tsp rosewater and stir to combine. The above will yield 12 oz. grenadine, which is enough for 24 such drinks. Keep refrigerated.

Whiskey: This is the difficult question. At Ward Eight in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago, they make their Ward Eights with 100-degree rye whiskey like Rittenhouse, citing the cocktail’s juiciness as the need for higher proof. They’re not wrong – sweeter and it risks being too sweet, and Rittenhouse makes for a stiff, crisp cocktail. Another choice is to use something that is almost entirely rye, like Bulleit or Dickel rye, which succumbs slightly to the juiciness of the drink but is mild and pleasant, like a hot bath.

The best, for me, is to deviate from the classic and use bourbon instead of rye. The orange in the recipe practically calls for bourbon, and the grenadine is fine. Our old friend Buffalo Trace made the best version of the lot.

Other Ingredients: As good as bourbon is, it still struggles with the tannin issue we discussed in our whiskey sour review. Do you need anything else. Some people incorporate sherry, which is a good idea. Some early recipes contained soda, which is less good. The obvious idea, and my favorite, is to incorporate an egg white, which has the dual function of binding with the tannins in the whiskey and packing down the sweetness of the final product. In the end, if you changed the whiskey and added an ingredient, is it still a Ward Eight? Maybe not. But it’s a great cocktail.

Buffalo Trace Whiskey

Photo: Courtesy of Buffalo Trace

Quarter eight (delicious version)

  • 2oz. Bourbon
  • 0.5oz. Orange juice
  • 0.5oz. lemon juice
  • 0.5oz. grenadine
  • 1 egg white

Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker without ice and shake “dry” for five seconds to whip in the egg white. Add ice, shake vigorously for 8-10 seconds and strain into a cocktail or coupe glass. Garnish with an orange zest.


Each week, craft cocktail bartender Jason O’Bryan shares his favorite recipes. In case you missed it, check out last week’s drink.