Updated 11/5/23 —Let’s talk about the best bourbons for cocktails at home. As a self-professed whiskey enthusiast and cocktail nerd, I spend much of my time researching, playing with, and creating bourbon cocktails. The number of whiskies and bourbons available now on the market can be utterly intimidating to someone new to bourbon cocktails or whiskey tipples.
So, from my home bar to yours, I want to give you a leg up on selecting some solid bourbons to start your bourbon cocktail journey.
Have you ever stood in front of a wall of bourbon bottles (this happens a lot in liquor stores around Kentucky and Tennessee) wondering which bourbon to choose for a particular cocktail or tasting?
As a member of Bourbon Women (an organization dedicated to women exploring bourbon culture) and an Executive Bourbon Steward (from Moonshine University), I can tell you that selecting a bourbon cocktail can lead to an existential crisis when you first start mixing at home. There are so, many, bourbons.
Some experts say to use bottom-shelf or bourbons you don’t like, others advocate using only the priciest for your bourbon cocktails to make sure they have a solid, elegant base to build upon.
My answer, naturally, to the 5 best bourbons for cocktails at home will be somewhere in the middle.
I don’t think you should make cocktails with bourbon you wouldn’t drink neat, unless you are building something where the base spirit will be completely imperceptible, like a Long Island Iced Tea or a Tequila Sunrise. And generally, in most bourbon cocktails you want the notes, aromas, and tastes of bourbon to carry through the cocktail.
When you create cocktails for those new to bourbon, you’ll want to start with a lower proof, less assertive bourbon, and ease them into their love of bourbon cocktails. But once they get a taste for bourbon, they’ll slowly drift to more spirit-forward cocktails.
So what bourbons should you keep on your home bar for cocktails?
If you ask any bourbon drinker, we’re likely to have a different set of base bourbons, but when someone mentions a bourbon we didn’t have on our list, we can think of a few uses of that bourbon in flights and cocktails that would work.
Bourbon drinkers are often equal opportunity sippers. If the company is right, we can find any whiskey enjoyable.– heather
Criteria for the 5 Best Bourbons for your Home Bar Cart
I decided to use a few criteria to reduce the list of possible bourbons. I still came up with more than five, so you’ll have some options.
Easy to Source/Generally Available Bourbons
I should make the caveat here that I am talking about easy to source in the US, and ones that are from larger producers where possible. There are some that I may list that might not be available overseas or in smaller bourbon markets, but if you can find them, they are worth the purchase.
All these bourbons are ones I enjoy sipping neat as well as in a cocktail. Now if I’m sipping only, I’ll likely choose a different set, but these are all bourbons on my home bar.
Choose Mid-level Proof Bourbons
I’m a strong proponent of using mid-level proof bourbons – 90 to 105 proof – for bourbon cocktails for two reasons.
First, it keeps the bourbon flavors active and present even after dilution occurs during mixing or shaking the cocktails. Second, higher proof bourbons tend to have more flavor even after dilution and can stand up better to more assertive cocktail elements, say a Campari in a boulevardier, or tart lemon juice in a citrus-heavy sour.
The idea here is to have bourbons on your home bar that don’t disappear into the cocktail. Whether you use the whiskey as a base to add proof, or to add flavor, or to stand up against a strong-flavored element, I find mid-range proof bourbons occupy the sweet spot.
Select Bourbons that Play Well with Others
Some bourbons are fabulous on their own or on the rocks but put them in a whiskey cocktail and they can overpower some of the lighter elements and throw off the balance in the cocktail. Aggressive bourbons can be too much for some cocktails.
I personally love Wild Turkey’s Rare Breed, but for some bourbon cocktails, the proof and flavor are too aggressive. If I’m looking for something to balance delicate fruity notes or slight baking spices, I won’t pull Rare Breed. Instead, I might look for something more balanced like Woodford Reserve or Elijah Craig Small Batch.
But if I’m making a cocktail that’s going to go over ice and dilute over time or one that has to stand up to assertive flavors (think bitters, amari, Suze, Cynar, etc.) I might reach for the Rare Breed.
How to Test if a Bourbon Deserves a Place on Your Home Bar
There’s only one way to test if a bourbon will be a long-time occupant of your home bar. You have to make cocktails with it. Shocking, I know.
But there should be a method to your madness.
The best way to test out bourbons is to be methodical about the bourbons and the cocktails you test them in. Here’s what I do:
- Pick 4 cocktails, ones that you know you’ll be making regularly. I use an old fashioned, a Manhattan, a whiskey sour, and a boulevardier.
- Either buy a bottle, trade with someone who doesn’t love it, or get a 375ml of the bourbon you want to try. You’ll need about 7 to 8 ounces to make those four cocktails.
- Make one cocktail an evening, or two, and taste test them with the bourbon. I don’t suggest all four at once because after two it’ll be harder to make great cocktails as you’ll be tipsy. And your palate might be off because you’ve had two cocktails already.
If you love the bourbon in two or three of those cocktails, it’s a purchase to make for your home bar. If you love all four, better get a few bottles of that bourbon for your home bar.
Remember: Your palate and preferences are your own. No one else can tell you what whiskey you’re going to like, but they may be able to suggest ones you should try. Don’t let anyone mansplain your bourbon selection to you.
My 5 Top Choices of Bourbon for My Home Bar (for Cocktails)
I love this bourbon neat. I love it in cocktails. At 94 proof it’s able to stand up in most cocktails to all but the strongest flavors. And it melds beautifully with delicate flavors. If I’m working with fruit flavors or want to use floral notes in bitters or lighter layers of flavor I start with this bottle. In Kentucky it’s around $30-35 a bottle (we have high taxes on alcohol in the state), but it’s a solid bottle I recommend both for sipping bourbon neat and making cocktails at home.
For your home bar, Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon is a great place to start. Made in my hometown, Louisville, Kentucky by Heaven Hill, it makes a magnificent Manhattan and old fashioned and stands up well in a sour.
I used to live solidly in the Old Forester 86 proof Bourbon camp, and then I did a taste test of the 86 proof against the 100 proof. If you have access to both bottles, do a blind tasting. The raisin notes, dried fruit and cherry explode on the palate with the Old Forester 100.
When used in a cocktail, under the dilution of stirring or shaking, it stands up remarkably well and makes my favorite Old Fashioned (you can find the recipe here). When I want to use smoky notes or bitters, I’ll often use Old Forester, its oakiness blends well with the smoke without overpowering it.
I am convinced this bourbon can do just about anything. However, some people don’t like Old Forester 100 because of the banana flavors or the heavy molasses notes that some discern. I don’t find either of those when I nose or taste the cocktail or neat, but some do.
I go back and forth between these three, honestly. Small Batch Select is more expensive at $55, and a little high for bottles you’ll use for cocktails, but the flavor is creamy, rich, full of strong baking spices, and a little pepper.
Small Batch is less expensive at $30-35, but easy to blend with fruity and lighter cocktails. It’s not strong enough to stand up to heavy flavors, but still lovely in old fashioneds and whiskey sours.
The single barrel at $40 is an excellent choice at 100 proof, but as it is single barrel, the flavor profile will be different with each bottle. A quick nose and taste of the bottle will tell you if it will work for your purposes.
These might be harder to source outside of the Kentucky area and Midwest/Southern States, but these are the kinds of flavors that stand up well to more aggressive elements in cocktails, but still blend well. New Riff is a newcomer to the bourbon scene in the last few years, but their bottled in bond bourbon changes the game. At four years, it’s already an excellent bourbon, rich in character, with a little heat of youth in flavor, but still creamy mouth feel from the rye in the mash bill and lots of notes of fruits, caramels/sugars, and spices.
This is a bourbon that makes an excellent Manhattan or boulevardier. Its heat stands up to more bitter or assertive flavors. I find Early Times Bottled in Bond similar in that respect and it’s more readily available throughout the states.
Though it’s harder to find than it was a year ago Early Times Bottled in Bond has enough character to stand up to stronger flavor elements like Cynar or Campari and still leave the cocktail tasting of whiskey. I hope they keep it around in general availability. If this isn’t available, Evan Williams Single Barrel is another Heaven Hill product that will stand up to more assertive flavor elements.
Johnny Drum ($30) and Old Bardstown Bottled in Bond ($20) are both bourbons made by Willett Distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky. At 101 and 100 proof respectively, they are firmly in my favorite proof category. Johnny Drum has strong elements of cinnamon and baking spices, great caramel and vanilla notes. It’s an easy one to sip and it makes killer Manhattans.
Old Bardstown with its lower price point is a very good bourbon with a nice bite to it that stands up well in whiskey sours and old fashioneds. While not as well-rounded as some of the other bourbons on this list, it’s always on my bar for initial testing of new cocktail recipes. If a cocktail works out with Old Bardstown, but some of the flavor matches with the base spirit and the cocktail aren’t quite right, I can use another bourbon from this list to round things out and find a better match.
Other Bourbons for Your Home Bar
While those are my top 5 (or 10, if I count the alternates), I keep many more on my bar for cocktails (and even more for sipping neat). Below I have list of other bourbon bottles to consider. I stay away from single barrels over 110 proof for cocktails unless it’s a special occasion and I’m not driving anywhere.
Your own selection should take into account your budget, what’s available near you, and what fits your palate best. Make sure to taste test your selection with cocktails to see which you prefer.
Remember: don’t let anyone tell you which bourbon you like. They can make suggestions, but your palate is yours.
Other bourbons fantastic for cocktails that didn’t make the short list:
- Wilderness Trail Small Batch
- Old Forester 1910
- Michter’s Bourbon
- Evan Williams Single Barrel
- Russel’s Reserve Bourbon
- Baker’s Small Batch
- Jim Beam Black
- Maker’s 46 (and some Maker’s Mark Private Selects based on the barrel and aging)
Recommended Bar Tools
You don’t need every slick, beautiful bar tool out there, but there are several I’ll recommend. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. However, that does not affect the cost of the items below.) My favorite pieces usually come from the Cocktail Kingdom section of Amazon:
You may already have these bar essentials, but just in case:
Bold Old Fashioned – Single
- 2 oz Old Forester Whiskey Row 1920 expression or any high proof bourbon 110 or above
- ½ oz demerara syrup 1:1 demerara sugar to water
- 3-4 dashes Hella Bitters Smoked Chili Bitters
- Garnish: charred cinnamon stick
- Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a charred cinnamon stick.