Remembering a Whiskey Sour in Wartime

After revisiting an oral history from my grandfather last year, Memorial Day will now forever lead me to think about the stories he used to tell and the whiskey sours he loved as a young man. And because every good story deserves more than one telling and classic cocktails will never go out of style, I've decided to tell you about his time in WWII again this year while I enjoy a delicious whiskey sour.

Fixin's to make a rhubarb whiskey sour
But, it is spring, and I do love to play with recipes. So my whiskey sour today has been made with rhubarb syrup. A little less traditional perhaps, but delicious and seasonal nonetheless. And who's to say, outside of wartime, that my kinfolk back in the day didn't add rhubarb to their whiskey sours?

My grandfather was born in Joliet, IL, and he grew up close to his grandparents, who farmed two lots and built a smokehouse. Their house had a large attic where sausages hung from the ceiling and dried and preserved produce from the garden and farm was stored through the cold Illinois winter. As Grandpa said, "The attic was full with whatever they got out of the two lots that they were farming... the beautiful plants and everything they had cultivated. They worked hard day and night."

So, I would like to think they may have added rhubarb syrup to their cocktails.

And boy did they have an appreciation for good, local food back in the day. My grandfather recollected:

"I remember as a little boy, people from all over came... they would smell that smokehouse going and that food in there was unbelievable. She made her own sausages, and she’d go to the meat market way down the other end of town with her horse and buggy. Beautiful! They said that animal that she had was beautiful. It just struck beautifully with that buggy, that brand new buggy."

I can just picture my great, great grandmother riding across town in a shiny buggy pulled by a magnificent horse with sausages that she was proud to have made herself.

My grandfather had tried to join the army a few times before he was of age and was rejected. When he was finally old enough, he was pulled from the group destined for the infantry because he had attended what was then known as the Lewis School of Aeronautics (now Lewis University). He was sent out West for training and later chosen to be a photographer.
Grandpa in WWII

Sometime during his training near Kingman, AZ, Grandpa decided to go into town to buy a Valentine's Day gift for his "sweetheart Arlene" (my grandmother). This is what he had to say:

"I bought her a beautiful rhinestone choker necklace and bracelet and earrings and everything. Oh, it was beautiful. Six deep rows of rhinestones all the way around. Being a soldier with a private’s pay... well a PFC salary at that time was hardly any money… I bought it anyway. What the hell, the army’s gonna feed me the rest of the month! I did have a few dollars in my pocket too. So after I bought it, I went in this little tavern down the street [to have] a few drinks before I went back... At that time, I loved to have whiskey sours."

As will happen after too many whiskey sours, Grandpa had to use the men's room...

"I had pretty good change on the bar. At that time you’d hate to leave change on the bar and go to the bathroom, come back, somebody’d come in and change would be gone. I told the lady bartender, I says, 'Can you watch my change?'"

And being a good hostess, she replied, "Oh yeah, sure. Don’t worry about it; we’ll take care of you."

So, Grandpa got off his stool and all of a sudden he was standing in eight inches of water.

"Water was runnin' through the dog-gone tavern like you couldn't believe. I said, 'Oh my god what in the world is it?' I’m hanging on the bar, and this and that, and there’s a river comin' through the tavern. I told the lady and she said, 'Oh don’t worry that’s nothin there, that’s just a flash flood up there several miles up, it’s comin down here.'"

For the lady bartender, a flash flood was no big thing, but for grandpa, it was "one heck of an experience."

Grandpa was in photography school for almost two years with the military. Near the end of the war, he was sent to Kwajalein, an island in the Pacific. About that same time, his mother sent him a bottle of Old Taylor whiskey, which he thought was the "cream of the crop." Of course, you weren't allowed to ship whiskey at that time. To make sure it went through the post, his mother put the bottle in a carved-out loaf of bread wrapped it in tinfoil.

She was a crafty lady, my great grandmother.

The bottle eventually made its way to Kwajalein, and while his birthday had surely passed by then, Grandpa was still happy to celebrate:

"Did I get drunk! I got that bottle. I showed the two buddies [in my tent]. I shared a little bit with them. Then I said, 'We’re going down to the beach. We’re going to lay down and watch the surf come in, and when it hits our feet, we’ll wake up!'

Baloney! That never happened. We got drunk, sailed that bottle out there in the sea in one of the old pill boxes that was in the water. We got wet and everything else."

Rhubarb syrup gave this whiskey sour a mauve hue
Soaked and soused, yet again. You see? Gastronomic obsession and an appreciation of good liquor really are in my genetic lineage.

It's only proper that I commemorate Grandpa's contribution to the war with a whiskey sour.

I hope you're holiday has been equally commemorative and libatiously enjoyable.

Whiskey Sour
1.5 oz whiskey
.75 oz lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup
.25 oz egg white

Shake vigorously with ice. Pour into a rocks glass with several cubes of ice and garnish with an orange or lemon slice.


  1. Nice stories commemorating a classic cocktail. I think I need to step out to my watering hole.

  2. Thanks, Mark! I'm glad it inspired libations.


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