If you’ve been paying attention for the last 10 years — and honestly, even if you haven’t — bourbon is hot right now. Beloved far and wide, the American spirit offers a complex array of notes ranging anywhere from sweet vanilla and charred oak to spicy cinnamon and vegetal rye. While the flavor spectrum may be expansive, it remains familiar, securing bourbon’s status as a spirit that’s just as wonderful to sip as it is to mix in a cocktail.
From the staple cocktails every at-home mixologist should have in their arsenal to more inventive variations, there is a hoard of mixed drinks that highlight the spirit beautifully. Read on for 17 essential and popular bourbon cocktails you should know.
The Mint Julep
The Mint Julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for almost a century and has remained a longstanding staple of Southern cocktail culture. The simple mixture of bourbon, sugar, ice, and mint was first served in the 1700s and served up in silver cups that have stuck around to this day. Just pour a bit of Kentucky’s spirit in a pewter or silver cup, throw in a bit of simple syrup and mint, and top with plenty of crushed ice to bring the spirit of Derby Day wherever you are.
The Old Fashioned
So classic it has a glass named after it, the Old Fashioned is essential in any bourbon cocktail round up, and is certainly one to familiarize yourself with. With a sugar cube or some simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and a citrus twice, it’s a good one to toast to your ancestors (or to “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, of course).
The Whiskey Smash
Essentially the love child between the Whiskey Sour and the Mint Julep, the Whiskey Smash is made with bourbon, a nip of simple syrup, some muddled lemons, and a few mint leaves to garnish. The libation brings out the sweet notes of the bourbon, which balance nicely with the tart citrus juice and coolness of the mint. Though it fell out of style for a few years, it has made a recent comeback, riding the whiskey wave as a popular cocktail served at New York City’s iconic Rainbow Room.
Lovers of the Negroni will enjoy this Prohibition-era cocktail made using whiskey in place of gin. This substitution adds an extra layer of oaky sweetness that makes this cocktail unique and memorable. First crafted in the 1920s by Erskine Gwynne, an American living in Paris, the Boulevardier is a delicate balance of bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth, bringing a European spin to the flavors of America’s native spirit.
The origins of this modern cocktail are steeped in pop culture. First created by Sam Ross in New York City, the Paper Plane is named after M.I.A.’s hit single of the same name, which Ross says he was listening to while developing the recipe. Composed of Aperol, bourbon, Amaro Nonino, and lemon juice, it’s a delicate balance of bitterness, sweet candied fruit notes, and aromatic herbal essences. It’s no wonder this cocktail has continued to “soar” and is now seen on menus around the world.
Now considered a modern classic bourbon cocktail, the Gold Rush was initially created by T.J. Siegal as a riff on the classic Whiskey Sour. A shaken mix of bourbon, lemon juice, and honey syrup, it skips the egg white, but the sweet tang of the cocktail is sure to win over all traditional sour fans.
This version of the classic Moscow Mule exchanges vodka for bourbon, creating a delightful and refreshing whiskey highball. Already serving flavors of spice and vanilla, bourbon blends delightfully with the ginger notes present in the mixer and the result is undoubtedly mouthwatering. With a drop of freshly squeezed lime juice and a cool copper mug, who can resist sipping every last drop?
The Southern Jam is a quintessential summer cocktail. This recipe combines bourbon, lemon juice, and raspberries with raspberry jam for a textural sipper bursting with a surge of sweet fruity flavor. With two cornerstones of Southern fare — bourbon and jam — merging beautifully, this cocktail is succulent and refreshing, making it easy to enjoy even when the colder months arrive.
Blackberry Bourbon Sour
This cocktail pays homage to bourbon’s Southern roots with the addition of blackberries, which are known to play well with whiskey. To make, simply shake together bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and blackberries before straining into a serving glass. The resulting cocktail serves the perfect balance of sweet and sour.
The Nor’easter cocktail is infinitely less dreadful than the storm it’s named after. The recipe calls for maple syrup — hence the hat tip to New England, one of the largest maple syrup-producing regions in the world. Best made with Four Roses bourbon, it’s shaken together with some lemon and lime juice, maple syrup, apple brandy, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and an egg white for a silky texture. The outcome is spicy-sweet and ideal to sip while curling up next to the fire as a storm rages on outside.
With the now-established reign of the Espresso Martini, coffee cocktails are having a moment. Plus, with the influx of high-quality coffee liqueurs like Mr Black, there’s never been a better time to sample other coffee cocktails like the Banker’s Choice. This recipe was first created at Philadelphia’s Bank & Bourbon bar, and while it may take a few extra hours of preparation, the results are worth it. It calls for coffee-infused bourbon (which you can make yourself), some maple syrup, Lazzaroni Amaro, and crème de pêche.
Strawberry and Maple Brown Derby
A variation of the classic Brown Derby cocktail, this version swaps out maple syrup for honey to sweeten things up. To make your own Strawberry and Maple Brown Derby, simply combine bourbon, grapefruit juice, maple syrup, and some strawberries in a shaker with ice. Once shaken and strained into a chilled coupe glass, the cocktail has a sweet foundation, with the bitterness of the grapefruit anchoring the drink and creating a balanced treat.
The Kentucky Maid
Created by the same mixologist behind the Paper Plane, the Kentucky Maid brightens and balances bourbon’s richness with muddled cucumber and mint. Sam Ross, the mind behind the shaken concoction, recommends using a spicier, caramel-forward bourbon like Elijah Craig Small Batch that will pair well with the green aromatics. With a bit of lime juice and simple syrup added to the mix, the Kentucky Maid is zingy, refreshing, and definitely delicious.
The Benton’s Old Fashioned
While the Benton’s Old Fashioned may take a bit more time to prepare than the standard classic, if you fancy yourself a bacon lover, it’s well worth the wait. Made with bacon-infused bourbon, the drink originally appeared on the menu at NYC speakeasy Please Don’t Tell where it quickly became the most popular order. The fat-washed spirit blends with maple syrup and a bit of Angostura bitters for an unctuous yet refined riff.
The Bourbon Manhattan
Invented in the 1870s in New York City, the Manhattan is easily one of the most recognizable classic cocktails in the world. The Bourbon Manhattan swaps out the traditional rye whiskey for its namesake Kentucky spirit and tempers it with sweet vermouth and Angostura. Slightly less spicy than its rye counterpart, the Bourbon Manhattan takes on sweeter notes like vanilla and caramel.
The dive bar hero that is the Whiskey Sour has served as the template for simple sippers and extravagant cocktails alike. Sticking to the traditional sour build of spirit, citrus, sweetener, and egg white, the Whiskey Sour includes bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup and adds an egg white for a smooth, creamy texture.
New York Sour
Known across time by names including the Continental Sour, the Southern Sour, and the Brunswick Sour, the New York Sour is an ideal choice for those who can’t decide whether they’re in the mood for brown spirits or a glass of Merlot. The drink — shaken with bourbon or rye, lemon juice, simple syrup, and an egg white then topped with a dry red wine float — elevates the warm citrus profile of the old-school Whiskey Sour with a tannic grape twist.