Star Of The Show

Trends may change and evolve, but Bourbon-based cocktails are always in style.

Innovation in Bourbon has inspired bartenders to get creative with Bourbon-based cocktails. At Eight Row Flint in Houston, the Eight Row Old Fashioned (pictured) uses mint and sorghum vinegar to complement Beam Suntory’s Maker’s Mark Bourbon.
Innovation in Bourbon has inspired bartenders to get creative with Bourbon-based cocktails. At Eight Row Flint in Houston, the Eight Row Old Fashioned (pictured) uses mint and sorghum vinegar to complement Beam Suntory’s Maker’s Mark Bourbon.

Bourbon is as classic as it gets—particularly in the U.S., where it was born—and today there are more brands and expressions available than ever before. Not too long ago, many Bourbons had fairly similar, corn-forward flavor profiles, but that’s not really the case anymore, notes Steve Marshall, lead bartender at Dirty Habit in the Hotel Zelos in San Francisco. “More distilleries are willing to take risks and experiment with things like how they age their Bourbon and the percentage of corn and wheat they use because people are looking for more unique Bourbons,” he says. “It takes a lot to stand out in the massive number of available Bourbons, and it takes something incredibly unique to stand out in people’s memories. By using Sherry, Port, and other wine casks, as well as rum casks or Mizunara finishes, labels have been able to add yet another level of differentiation to their Bourbons.” 

Jason Asher, partner and vice president of beverage for Barter & Shake Cocktail Entertainment, which owns Grey Hen Rx, located at the Century Grand in Phoenix, also notes the proliferation of Bourbons on the market today, calling attention to smaller craft selections. “We’re seeing great expressions coming from all over the U.S., which helps to further broaden the category,” he says. “You can get a really special Bourbon from Savage & Cooke in Vallejo, California and on the opposite coast an equally interesting offering from Widow Jane in Brooklyn, New York.” 

With all of these brands and styles available, Bourbon has become a versatile spirit for mixing, muses Patty Dennison, head bartender at Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, New York. “That’s what I like most about working with Bourbon: As there are so many different styles, ranging from high rye to wheated, it’s easy to find the right Bourbon for the cocktail you’re creating,” she says. “For example, using a lighter expression of Bourbon in a Sour can make whiskey more approachable to the consumer. On the other end of the spectrum, you can use a single barrel expression in a spirit-forward cocktail that will have a little bit more flavor when you’re catering to someone who’s already a fan of Bourbon.” Indeed, with the right Bourbon and the right application, it’s possible to make a Bourbon enthusiast out of just about any cocktail drinker.

Popular Pairings 

When creating a cocktail, it’s always recommended to use ingredients that complement the base spirit. “Just like when cooking, you want to look to the flavor profiles of the main ingredient and find items that bring out whichever of those flavors you want to highlight,” says Christina Ramey, general manager of Eight Row Flint in Houston. “With Bourbon, some of the most common tasting notes are caramel, nuts, chocolate, and pepper. If the Bourbon has more chocolate notes, I would use orange in my drink; if the Bourbon has pepper on the nose, I use lemon.” 

Ramey adds that baking spices are also big in Bourbon. “When I go to taste a Bourbon, I typically ask myself which baking spices I smell and taste—of course, you find those notes in other spirits as well, but not as much across the board like Bourbon,” she says. 

Bourbon and baking spices are indeed a match made in cocktail heaven. Before Dennison joined the bar team at Grand Army Bar this year, she worked at Hawksmoor in New York City, where she created the Breaking News ($20), comprising Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon, Current Cassis liqueur, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, house-made cardamom citric cordial, Angostura bitters, and club soda. “My most important guideline is to focus on the base spirit—you’re creating the cocktail around that, so it’s important to use ingredients that will bring out the Bourbon and really make it shine in the cocktail,” Dennison notes. “For instance, Woodford Reserve has notes of orange, baking spice, and blackberries to me, so I use my tasting notes to create a cocktail around these flavors already present.” 

Dennison adds that peach is another flavor she’s always liked pairing with Bourbon. Barter & Shake’s Asher echoes this: “I really love the combination of peach and amaro when combined with great Bourbon,” he says. At Dusek’s Tavern in Chicago, the Daisy ($13) blends F.E.W. Bourbon, Combier Orange liqueur, Rare Tea Cellars Georgia Peach Nectar rooibos tea, lemon juice, and orange blossom water, while at Gran Blanco in Venice, California, beverage director Andy Miller’s Off Hours Farmer ($17) features Off Hours Bourbon, Nonino amaro, lemon juice, and a house-made shrub comprising peaches and tarragon. 

“Traditional Bourbon cocktails have long been built around flavors that work well with the mixture of spice and sweetness found in Bourbon,” Dirty Habit’s Marshall says. “Natural sweeteners such as agave and honey, as well as citrus fruits have long been used with Bourbon.” His Golden Sting ($15) blends Redwood Empire Pipe Dream Bourbon, Lo-Fi Gentian amaro, lemon juice, honey syrup, and orange blossom water.

The Spice Force (pictured) from Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, New York is a twist on the classic Bourbon-based Boulevardier.
The Spice Force (pictured) from Grand Army Bar in Brooklyn, New York is a twist on the classic Bourbon-based Boulevardier. (Photo by Max Flattop)

Old Standbys, Updated

In addition to the go-to flavors bartenders gravitate toward when mixing with Bourbon, there are certain classic recipes always linked with the spirit. “When people think of Bourbon-based cocktails, Old Fashioneds, Manhattans, and other spirit-forward cocktails are what come to mind,” Dennison says. “With other Bourbon cocktails waxing and waning in popularity, the Old Fashioned and Bourbon Manhattan are cocktails that the typical Bourbon drinker is going to go for—nine times out of ten, a riff on one of these drinks is going to be relatively popular with Bourbon fans.” 

At Eight Row Flint, the Eight Row Old Fashioned ($13) comprises Weller Full Proof Single Barrel Bourbon, piloncillo syrup, and Angostura bitters, while the Eight Row Julep ($13) mixes Maker’s Mark Bourbon, sorghum vinegar, simple syrup, and fresh mint. Both drinks were created by Morgan Weber, owner and beverage director of Agricole Hospitality, which owns the venue.

“Classic cocktails making a comeback have been the driving force of Bourbon’s increased popularity,” notes Nick Jonjevic, director of food and beverage at Rowdy Tiger Whiskey Bar & Kitchen in Atlanta. Lead bartender Nicole Kerr’s Sour Tiger ($16) is a riff on the Whiskey Sour, blending Four Roses Single Barrel and Old Forester 86 Proof Bourbons, Sorel liqueur— made with Moroccan hibiscus, Brazilian clove, Indonesian cassia, and Nigerian ginger—lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white, while bar ambassador Blake Hanley’s Ginger ($16) is a take on a Kentucky Buck, featuring Old Forester 100 Proof Bourbon, Dewar’s White Label blended Scotch, lemon juice, Fever-Tree ginger beer, and Peychaud’s bitters. 

“Recently, the Negroni has come back as the drink of the moment and with this, Boulevardiers are resurging as well and are called for more frequently, giving other spirit-forward Bourbon classics a run for their money,” Dennison notes. At Uccello Lounge, located inside the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Van Nesscafé ($14) is bar manager Ulysses Toimil’s take on the Boulevardier, mixing Maker’s Mark Bourbon, Campari aperitif, Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth that’s been steeped with coarse mortared coffee beans, and house-made aromatic and orange bitters. “I’m seeing more innovations of classic cocktails—a return to traditional recipes only done with more modern techniques and ingredients,” Dirty Habit’s Marshall says. 

“I think with constant innovation in cocktails, but also craft cocktail technology, we’ll always see classic cocktails evolve as people put their own touches on them.” At Old Elk Distillery’s cocktail bar The Reserve in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Hot Sazzy ($10) is a modern version of the Sazerac, comprising Old Elk Blended Straight Bourbon, simple syrup, Peychaud’s Bitters, and hot water, topped with a house-made absinthe bitters-infused creamy foam. “The Hot Sazzy stays true to the classic Sazerac except in the style of a Hot Toddy and we played with the absinthe ingredient and made a crafty foam,” says beverage director Melinda Maddox, who created the drink. “I love this drink because cocktail purists and craft enthusiasts alike will enjoy it.”

Dusek’s Tavern in Chicago sticks to a tried-and-true pairing of peach and Bourbon in the Daisy (pictured).
Dusek’s Tavern in Chicago sticks to a tried-and-true pairing of peach and Bourbon in the Daisy (pictured). (Photo by Jacquelyn DeVries)

Outside The Ordinary

Jonjevic points out classic Bourbon-based cocktails and twists on these recipes certainly still have a great deal of momentum behind them, but they’ve been giving up some ground to more experimental cocktails lately. “With many more Bourbons on the market than even five years ago, there’s a greater variety of flavor profiles to choose from, and this increased variety of depth and complexity in Bourbon is allowing for more cocktails with nontraditional flavor combinations and pairings to arise,” he says. “There are the obvious flavors on the sweet side of the spectrum like honey, maple, chocolate, and vanilla, but Bourbon works well with savory and floral flavors as well. It really lends itself well to just about any style of cocktail.”

At Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky, chef and owner Sara Bradley’s Saved by the Bell Pepper ($12) is one such Bourbon cocktail that features more experimental flavor pairings, blending Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, St. George Green Chile vodka, honey syrup, smoked pepper jelly, The Bitter Truth Celery bitters, and Peychaud’s bitters. Similarly creative, beverage director Ally Marrone’s Spice Force Five ($17) at Grand Army Bar comprises Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon, Worthy Park Rum-Bar Gold rum, La Cigarrera Amontillado Sherry, house-made salted corn syrup, saline, and Angostura bitters. “With more craft Bourbons coming out every year, more nuanced cocktails built around specific labels have become more common,” Marshall says. “It’s now possible to find a Bourbon that has a particular blend of corn, wheat, and rye that a bartender or mixologist needs to fine tune their recipe and achieve the flavor profile they’re looking for. As a result, more risks are being taken by going far outside the traditional cocktails associated with Bourbon.” His cocktail the Devil’s Favorite Angel ($15) at Dirty Habit features Angel’s Envy Bourbon, Choya yuzu liqueur, Trincheri sweet vermouth, simple syrup, egg white, and house-made Thai chili bitters.

“I love that Bourbon is versatile yet still maintains a strong presence in cocktails,” Marshall adds. “Bourbons range from spicy to smoky to sweet to spirit-forward—whatever kind of cocktail you’re looking to create, there’s a Bourbon out there that can work for it.” At Grey Hen Rx, Asher’s Widows & Wives ($19) mixes Widow Jane 10-yearold Bourbon, goji berry-infused Campari, Carpano Dry and Antica Formula vermouths, Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, Green Chartreuse liqueur, soy sauce, Angostura bitters, and muddled Thai basil, while his Raid the Cargo ($18) blends Maker’s 46 Bourbon, Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Aveze gentian liqueur, bergamot and lemon juices, house-made ancho chili, ginger, and honey syrup, house-made sandalwood bitters, and muddled strawberry. “I really enjoy working with Bourbon because of the diversity in the category,” Asher says. “From mash bills to barrel finishes and everything in between, Bourbon truly has a wide variety of expressions that appeal to everyone.”

Bourbon-based Cocktail Recipes

Breaking News

By Patty Dennison
(Photo by Ben Pickles)

1¾ ounces Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon; 

½ ounce Current Cassis liqueur; 

½ ounce Cocchi Vermouth di Torino; 

½ ounce cardamom citric cordial¹; 

2 dashes Angostura bitters; 

Top with club soda; 

Lemon coin.


In a Highball glass, build Bourbon, liqueur, vermouth, cordial, and bitters. Add ice, top with soda, then short stir to combine. Garnish with a lemon coin.

¹Crush 5 green cardamom pods with a knife to expose the seeds. Add crushed pods, 250 grams granulated sugar, 25 grams powdered citric acid, and 250 grams water to a small saucepan and heat on medium until sugar dissolves (5-10 minutes). Allow cardamom to steep for 30 minutes, then strain and refrigerate.

Widows & Wives

By Jason Asher

2 ounces Widow Jane 10-year-old Bourbon; 

½ ounce Goji berry-infused Campari²; 

¼ ounce Carpano Dry vermouth; 

¼ ounce Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth; 

Dash Luxardo Maraschino liqueur; 

Dash Green Chartreuse liqueur; 

2 drops soy sauce; 

Dash Angostura bitters; 

2 Thai basil leaves; 

Lemon peel.


In a mixing glass, muddle 1 basil leaf. Add Bourbon, Campari, vermouths, liqueurs, soy sauce, bitters, and ice. Stir, then strain into a Martini glass. Express a lemon peel over the drink, then discard and garnish with remaining basil leaf pinned to the glass.

²Combine 1-liter bottle Campari with 113.4 grams dried goji berry in a 1-gallon freezer bag. Sous vide at 135 degrees for 90 minutes. Allow to cool completely at room temperature, then fine strain.

Sour Tiger

By Nicole Kerr

1 ounce Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon; 

1 ounce Old Forester 86 Proof Bourbon; 

1 ounce Sorel liqueur; 

1 ounce lemon juice; 

½ ounce simple syrup; 

1 egg white; 

Edible flower. 


In an ice-filled cocktail shaker, combine Bourbons, liqueur, juice, syrup, and egg white. Shake, then strain out the ice and do a dry shake. Pour into a coupe glass and garnish with an edible flower.