Bourbon is a Southern gem, and America’s native spirit. One of the great things about bourbon is its complexity; a bourbon that has rich, warm notes of vanilla and caramel can also reveal hints of succulent apple and pear, or even spicy cinnamon and charred oak. The spectrum of flavor in bourbon is expansive but familiar all at once, securing it a spot as a comfort spirit that’s just as wonderful to sip as it is in a cocktail.
While some of these recipes are unmistakable classics, many are riffs that reflect bourbon’s rising popularity and somewhat recent resurgence in cocktail culture. Read on for 11 essential and popular bourbon cocktails that you should add to your repertoire.
A good Mint Julep will make you want to put on an outlandishly large floppy sun hat and your best Southern drawl. Juleps have been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century, though the cocktail was first crafted in the late 1700s. Just pour a bit of Kentucky’s spirit in a pewter or silver cup, throw in a bit of simple syrup and mint, top with plenty of crushed ice, and you’re off to the races.
A riff on the Scotch-based Penicillin cocktail, the Ray of Sunshine is a drink invented in the early aughts at the famous NYC bar Milk & Honey. Unlike its predecessor, the Ray of Sunshine often uses bourbon instead of Scotch (although either works), and adds a healthy helping of aged rum to the mix. Stir in some fresh lemon juice, ginger syrup, and a bit of soda water for texture. It’s not Penicillin, but suddenly, we’re cured.
One of the oldest cocktails in history, the Old Fashioned is a classic bourbon drink at its simplest. With a sugar cube or some simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and a citrus twist, it’s a good one to toast to your ancestors (or to “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, of course.)
The Southern Jam is a quintessential summer cocktail. With two cornerstones of Southern fare merging beautifully, it’s a sweet and refreshing drink that can easily be had all year round. This recipe combines bourbon, lemon juice, raspberries, and raspberry jam, which gives the drink a bit of texture and a surge of sweet fruity flavor.
The Whiskey Smash is a cousin of the Whiskey Sour, and like its kin, also appeared in “The Bartender’s Guide” published by Jerry Thomas in 1862. Though it went out of style for a few years, it regained traction in the late 1980s at New York City’s iconic Rainbow Room bar. The Whiskey Smash is a simple and citrusy concoction; all it takes is a bit of bourbon, a nip of simple syrup, some muddled lemons, and a few mint leaves to garnish. The sweetness of the bourbon, sourness of the lemon, and coolness of the mint culminate in a well-balanced and delicious drink.
Lovers of the Negroni will surely adore the Boulevardier, which switches out gin for bourbon, a substitution that adds an extra bit of spicy sweetness to the beloved cocktail. Invented in the 1920s by an Erskine Gwynne, an American living in Paris, the Boulevardier adds a European flair to the flavors of America’s native spirit. This coalition of continents is achieved by combining bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth.
A riff on the classic Moscow Mule, the Kentucky Mule exchanges vodka for bourbon. Since bourbon brings a wealth of complex and distinct flavors of its own to the mix, the ginger notes in this rendition are somewhat tempered, but also enhanced by the spiciness inherent to the bourbon. The result is an undoubtedly mouthwatering and refreshing drink — just add some freshly squeezed lime juice and ginger beer and pour over ice in a copper mug.
This twist on a bourbon sour pays homage to the spirit’s Southern roots with the addition of blackberries (which are known to play well with whiskey.) Just shake together bourbon, lemon juice, simple syrup, and blackberries and strain into a serving glass. It’s the perfect amount of sweet and sour — a single sip will have you imagining yourself lounging on a rocking chair on a porch, the white noise of cicadas heavy in the air.
The Nor’easter cocktail is infinitely less dreadful than the storm it’s named after. So where’s the connection? The recipe calls for maple syrup, hence its hat-tipping name to New England, one of the largest maple syrup-producing regions in the world. It’s best made with Four Roses bourbon — just shake together some lemon and lime juice, maple syrup, apple brandy, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, and egg whites for a silky texture. The outcome is a spicy-sweet confection that will have you ready to curl up next to the fire while the storms rage on outside.
This riff on the classic Brown Derby cocktail swaps honey for maple syrup, which is definitely a fair trade. The maple also plays with the berry flavors in this recipe to call to mind a nostalgic pancake-esque flavor that brings this drink to the next level. All that’s required to make this ideal spring drink is bourbon, grapefruit juice, maple syrup, and some strawberries. While it’s sweet enough to be inarguably tasty, the bitterness of the grapefruit juice anchors this drink and makes it a balanced treat.