Bourbon has deep, distinct flavors that can take a drink to the next level. With its strong notes of vanilla, oak and caramel, as well as baking spices, black pepper, cocoa and fruit, bourbon tends to be smoother and have a softer mouthfeel than whiskey and an overall sweet-presenting flavor. From the iconic and classic go-to cocktails to new recipes exploring flavor pairings, there are many ways to enjoy bourbon that highlight the spirit’s intricate flavors.
One of the oldest cocktails in history, the Old Fashioned is a classic drink that dresses up bourbon in a simple way. This classic drink has been served since the mid-1800s, and while it has evolved into many variations today, it is still as popular today as it was back then. Made with bitters, sugar, and an orange slice, it’s an excellent way to experiment with any style of bourbon. Higher-proof bourbon is the key to making an Old Fashioned the best it can be, but either way it’s not a hard cocktail to perfect.
The Mint Julep came to the U.S. in the 18th century and was originally made with brandy or rum. Once rum and brandy became too expensive after the American Revolution, bourbon became the spirit of choice for the Mint Julep. The Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for almost a century and a longstanding staple of southern cocktail culture. Consisting of muddled mint, simple syrup and bourbon served with crushed ice in a silver cup, the flavor is surprisingly complex for just three ingredients.
The Manhattan is another classic and simple cocktail that has been around since the 1870s. You just need three ingredients: bourbon, dry or sweet vermouth, and bitters. The Manhattan is usually served in a chilled cocktail glass with a maraschino cherry garnish. It is a bourbon-forward drink, with the vermouth adding smooth, spiced sweetness and the bitters adding a little punch. There are many ways to adapt this classic recipe to personal taste, but it is an essential cocktail that should be in every bar.
A spin on the traditional Tom Collins that uses bourbon instead of gin, the John Collins is a refreshing highball with its sweet, sour, and sparkling ingredients. For this easygoing cocktail, you’ll use bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and club soda over ice with an orange slice or cherry garnish.
A close cousin of the Whiskey Sour and Mint Julep, the Whiskey Smash has been around since 1887 but didn’t become popular until being served at New York City’s Rainbow Room in the late 1980s. The recipe only calls for bourbon, lemon, simple syrup and mint, but the key to this drink is properly muddling the lemon and adding mint leaves to the shaker for a real flavor kick. This drink brings out the sweet notes of bourbon, which balance nicely with the tart citrus juice and coolness of the mint.
Lovers of the Negroni will enjoy this 1920s cocktail made with bourbon instead of gin. The Boulevardier is described as spicier than a Negroni, making this drink a must for the fall and winter weather. Made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, Campari and ice, and finished with an orange or lemon peel as the garnish, the ingredients create a delicate balance that brings a European twist to the American spirit.
The classic Sidecar cocktail was invented in Paris in the 1920s and is often associated with brandy. A Bourbon Sidecar calls for just about everything the original Sidecar needs, but rather than using brandy or cognac, bourbon is used with orange-flavored triple sec and lemon juice. Finish off by adding an orange twist for the garnish or even a sugar rim. This cocktail offers the right amount of citrus for a delightful sour kick, thanks to the lemon juice and orange liqueur.
New York Sour
The New York Sour is the perfect mix of liquor and wine. To make a New York Sour, combine bourbon, fresh lemon juice and simple syrup together, then shake with ice. Using the spoon method, carefully pour red wine over the top of the drink to make that perfect red float and garnish with lemon zest. You can also add an egg white to the mix for a thicker consistency. To make a Blackberry Bourbon Sour, all you add is blackberries and strain into a serving glass. The resulting cocktail serves the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
The Kentucky Mule offers a fun twist on the popular classic Moscow Mule. To make this drink, all you need is bourbon, lime juice, ginger ale or ginger beer, and a lime wedge for garnish. This version of the classic Moscow Mule exchanges vodka for bourbon, creating a delightful and refreshing highball. Similar to the Kentucky Mule, a Bourbon Nor’easter is made by mixing bourbon, lime, ginger beer and maple syrup.
It is believed that Hot Toddies first appeared in Scotland in the 1700s as a medicine or as a way to defeat the cold weather. Warm and toasty, the Hot Toddy is a classic hot cocktail that is very simple to make. The basic recipe is bourbon, honey or simple syrup, lemon juice and hot water. Most hot toddies also include spices like cinnamon, cloves and ginger, or even cayenne pepper to help clear sinuses. Ingredients are combined in a mug and then boiling water is added. This simple cocktail has inspired a number of other toddy recipes using different liquors and other ingredients.
The Paper Plane is a relatively new drink that emerged in 2008, inspired by the hit M.I.A. song “Paper Planes.” Composed of Aperol, bourbon, Amaro Nonino and lemon juice, it’s a delicate balance of bitterness, sweet candied fruit notes, and aromatic herbal essences. The cocktail was originally made with Campari, but then soon was changed to Aperol to help ease the bitterness.
While many might associate bourbon with strong, bitter drinks, there are in fact plenty of other options out there that are light, bubbly, and even refreshing, highlighting those sweet notes. The flavor spectrum is expansive but also familiar, securing the spirit’s status as one that’s just as wonderful to sip as it mixed in a cocktail.