For bourbon aficionados and traditionalists, the only true way to enjoy this warm, woody liquor is in a glass, neat—no frills, no fuss, and let’s be honest, no fun. The bold notes of oak, vanilla, and caramel complement a wide range of flavors, so why are we still pretending that drinking it straight is the best option?!
We say enough with the madness. From sweet and sour to crisp and bubbly, we’ve rounded up some of the best bourbon cocktails that are sure to please even the snootiest of sippers.
First Things First: Is There Actually a Difference Between Bourbon and Whiskey?
“Whiskey” and “bourbon” are often used interchangeably, which can be more than a little confusing to brown liquor newbies. The short and sweet of it is this: all bourbon is whiskey, but not all whiskeys are bourbon.
All whiskeys are made from fermented grains and aged in barrels. For a whiskey to be classified as bourbon whiskey, over half of the grain mixture (or mash) must be corn. For a whiskey to be classified as a straight bourbon whiskey, the spirits must be aged in charred oak barrels. The corn and charred oak are responsible for bourbon’s signature sweet and woody notes, respectively.
Contrary to popular belief, not all bourbons must be made in Kentucky (although the Commonwealth is responsible for 95% of the global bourbon supply). Bourbon County, Kentucky, is to bourbon whiskeys what the Champagne region of France is to sparkling wine.
The distinct sweetness and oakiness of bourbon add subtle nuances to cocktails that a regular whiskey can’t, but if you’re in a bourbon bind, don’t worry. Most novice whiskey drinkers won’t be able to tell the difference between a multi-ingredient cocktail made with bourbon and one made with regular whiskey.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know—an old-fashioned is a pretty predictable choice when it comes to bourbon cocktails, but there’s a reason this classic drink is, well, a classic. A muddled sugar cube, dash or two of bitters, and a citrus twist draw out the peppery, gingery notes of a well-spiced bourbon like Bulleit.
This boozy concoction has been a crowd favorite since the 1880s. Somewhat similar to an old fashioned, a Manhattan consists of bourbon, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a cherry for garnish. A port barrel bourbon, like Isaac Bowman, adds a touch of sweetness to offset the bitterness of the bourbon and vermouth.
A French take on a Kentucky classic, a champagne julep adds a dash of bubbly to a traditional mint julep. The crisp bubbles cut through the sweetness of muddled mint and simple syrup, keeping this cocktail more refreshing than cloying. Take mixing out of the equation entirely with Maker’s Mark Mint Julep—just add a little (or a lot) of champagne, and you’re ready to sip in style.
Apple Cider Bourbon Cocktail
Because our love of fall flavors knows no bounds, we choose to throw seasonal traditions to the wind by making this mouthwatering apple cider bourbon cocktail year-round. Spiced apple cider, bourbon, lemon juice, and thinly sliced ginger combine to create a not-too-sweet, not-too-stiff cocktail that tastes like autumn liquified into a glass.
Apple Cider Bourbon Sangria
Did you really think we’d have just one apple cider and bourbon combo? Revamp your tired old sangria recipe with a new take on a fruity classic. This apple cider bourbon sangria calls for fresh cider, dry white wine, and a bold and spicy bourbon like Old Grand-Dad Bonded for a crowd-pleasing, irresistible flavor.
Simple, refreshing, and perfect for any occasion, the Belmont Jewel was named the official drink of the Belmont Stakes in 2011. Lemonade, pomegranate juice, and a citrus twist add a sweet, mouth-puckering flavor to a full-bodied bourbon. And since we’re talking about horse racing here, it’s best to stick with a classic Kentucky bourbon like Woodford Reserve Double Oaked.
Wild Turkey bourbon unveiled their Americana creation, the Rooster Cocktail, in honor of the opening of the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit in 2011. This bold, unique cocktail combines Wild Turkey bourbon, sarsaparilla soda (similar to root beer), and cinnamon schnapps for a flavor profile that’s the perfect blend of sweet and spicy. Opt for Goldschlager schnapps for a Rooster that looks as good as it tastes.
Cinnamon Maple Whiskey Sour
Prepare to have your mind blown with this new take on a bourbon staple: the cinnamon maple whiskey sour. The tart lemon cuts through the woody, spicy flavors of an oak-heavy bourbon, like Baker’s, while ground cinnamon and maple syrup draw out sweet, cozy notes of vanilla and caramel. Because if you’re going to make a drink, why not make one that satisfies all your tastebuds?
Contrary to what the name suggests, this bourbon-and-ale combo is bound to have you feeling like royalty in no time. The Beggar’s Banquet was created in 2010 by Aisha Sharpe and features bourbon (duh), lemon juice, maple syrup, Angostura bitters, and a British bitter ale (or ESB) like this one from Fuller’s. The result is a well-rounded cocktail that combines the best of the bourbon and beer worlds.
Spiked coffee is normally associated with cream or coffee liqueurs like Bailey’s and Kahlua, but we’re here to set the record straight: Kentucky Coffee is the way to go. Lebanon, Kentucky’s Bulleit Bourbon Distillery created the perfect Kentucky coffee recipe: robust black coffee, smooth Bulleit bourbon, and brown sugar to taste. The only way this could be any more quintessentially Kentuckian is if you were drinking it on a horse.
While we’re talking about recipes that the fine commonwealth of Kentucky has perfected, we can’t exclude a cocktail classic: the Kentucky Mule. Kentucky Mules deviate from the traditional Moscow Mule with their use of bourbon instead of vodka. Full-bodied ginger beer beautifully highlights the rich, spicy, and subtly fruity flavor of Four Roses Small Batch bourbon. Again — all you really need at this point is the horse.
Feeling under the weather? Hot toddy. Having trouble sleeping? Hot toddy. Trying to warm chilly bones? You guessed it; the hot toddy is a well-loved favorite thanks to its signature combination of soothing honey, warm tea, lemon juice, and of course, bourbon. This catch-all cocktail is a great drink to have in your back pocket for any occasion, sniffly or otherwise.
Bourbon balls are a classic Kentucky confectionery made of Nilla wafers, cocoa powder, sugar, corn syrup, and bourbon. A bourbon ball cocktail is a deliciously sweet concoction of bourbon, creme de cacao liqueur, hazelnut liqueur, and heavy cream. We’re not trying to tell you how to spend your time or anything, but this delectable drink takes about 40 minutes less to make than the candy and tastes just as good. So…you decide.