Bourbons for Cocktails – The Top 10

There are an estimated 900 gazillion bourbons available these days. Okay, maybe it’s only about a thousand but still, with even that many to choose from, asking which ones work best in cocktails is a very valid question. Sadly, I haven’t tasted every single bourbon –yet (although, believe me, I am giving it my best), but many great cocktails have been made from a few in particular that I can confidently recommend. Read on to learn the top 10 bourbons for cocktails!

So you’re looking for that perfect bourbon for that perfect cocktail! You’ll find it in Aften’s Top 10 Bourbons for Cocktails List!

900 Gazillion Bourbons To Choose From

There are an estimated 900 gazillion bourbons available these days. Okay, maybe it’s only about a thousand but still, with even that many to choose from, asking which bourbons work best in cocktails is a very valid question. Sadly, I haven’t tasted every single bourbon –yet (although, believe me, I am giving it my best), but many great cocktails have been made from a few in particular that I can confidently recommend. 

Bourbon Is a Versatile Spirit

Bourbon is a more versatile spirit for drinks than many might think, as long as we respect the powerful punch it adds. Think, for example, of the difference between a vodka martini and a Dry Manhattan. The mixers are essentially the same, dry vermouth and bitters, but the base spirits give a wholly different result. The depth and richness bourbon brings can really make a cocktail go –boom!

In making these selections, a consideration of flavor comes first. On its own, the spirit is strong on the palate with big, bold notes of vanilla, caramel, smoke, nutmeg, apple, orange, mint…the list goes into the hundreds.  Therefore, knowing which flavors dominate a bourbon you wish to mix will seriously help in making the right choice. This, of course, means that tasting it neat is absolutely necessary –in the name of research! 

This can also help to avoid mistakes that result in the nearly unforgivable tragedy of having to pour bourbon down the drain, due to it being mixed with less than ideal ingredients for its flavor profile, at no fault of its own.  For example, if there is a bourbon with a lot of heavy chocolate notes, I won’t be putting that in an apple cider drink. Weird. Or perhaps one that displays a bold peanut flavor could be kind of funky in a drink containing herbal mixers such as tea. Just as well, a floral-forward bourbon would be lost in a coffee concoction.

Flavor consideration also applies to the other ingredients for your drink. Again the options are endless, but a good starting point is always with the classics. The list below showcases bourbons that work well across the board and especially so for the Old Fashioned, Whiskey Sour, Manhattan and the more modern Kentucky Mule.

Digging Deeper Into Flavors

Digging deeper, flavors are essentially molecular structures we translate with our genetic ability to taste. One can dive down a rabbit hole of geekiness here and ponder molecular aggregates and physiological responses on our receptors, which are questions many scientists could not even answer. Or we could utilize the good ol’ trial and error method. The list here is designed to help eliminate some of the error. With the classic bourbon cocktails in mind, the following bourbons exhibit dominant flavor profiles that pair well with ingredients in those classics with plenty of complexity to counteract uber sweet ingredients like simple syrup.

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100 Proof Is The Sweet Spot

In addition, sticking to bottles around 100 proof is a good gauge. The potency of alcohol content adds balance to the other mixers. Anything under 90 proof is too weak for the job while cask strength stuff puts up too much of a fight. We want our ingredients to play nicely together.

Availability and affordability also come into play. For example, Kentucky Artisan Distiller’s Whiskey Row Bottled-in-Bond makes a killer Kentucky Mule, but it’s only available in Kentucky. Likewise, so does the Horse Soldier Small Batch Bourbon, but for about $78 each, I’m saving that one for sipping.

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The Top 10 Bourbons For Cocktails

Here are, in no particular order, a top ten list of bourbons for stocking your home bar: 

Old Forester Bourbon 100 Proof
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1. Old Forester 100 Proof

Price Range: $30

Tasting Notes: 

Nose – caramel, coffee, cherry, oak, créme brûlée, ethanol

Palate – toasted oak, pecan, maple syrup, banana, nutmeg, mint, vanilla

Finish – pepper, clove, oak

Great in: Any Cocktail

Richly sweet and well-rounded, Old Forester 100 proof is a one-size-fits-all pick for any mixed drink. For bourbon bartending, this one is your good ol’ trusted pal who’s always there for you and ready for anything.

Early Times Bottled In Bond Bourbon
2. Early Times Bottled-in-Bond 

Price Range: $25-$30

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes:

Nose – honey, orange peel, banana, sweet tobacco, baking spice, ethanol

Palate – caramel, vanilla, candied orange peel, sweet tobacco, oak

Finish – pepper, vanilla, toffee, char, walnuts

Great in: Whiskey Sours

Notable flavor contrasts, from ripe fruits to a gentle char finish, mingle niceley in well-balanced sweetness that keeps this selection a great go-to for bourbon cocktails. It is not overly sweet though, making it ideal for a whiskey sour wanting some wow-factor. The flavors here won’t fight with a healthy serving of simple syrup, while complementing lemon juice in that simple yet crowd-pleasing drink.

Knob Creek Bourbon 9 Year 100 Proof
3. Knob Creek Small Batch 9 Year 

Price Range: $30-$40

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes:

Nose – vanilla, caramel, oak, char, nuts, marshmallow, maple syrup, cinnamon

Palate – oak, vanilla, caramel, spice, grain, char, fruit, nuts, marshmallows

Finish – oak, black pepper, grain, leather, vanilla, cherry

Great in: Manhattans

The nutty notes and heavy char stand out beautifully on their own, when sipping this neat, or when mixed in a drink. For a Manhattan, this will give it a robust leg-up into the dark side of taste, for a notably strong but balanced cocktail. 

Elijah Craig Bourbon
4. Elijah Craig Small Batch

Price Range: $25-$30

Proof: 94

Tasting Notes:

Nose – ripe fruit, vanilla, fresh herb, caramel, oak, cardamom

Palate – wood, smoke, baked apple, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla, honey

Finish – charred oak, cinnamon, nutmeg, leather tobacco

Great in: Any Cocktail

Elijah Craig still maintains its place as the standard bar by which all other bourbons are judged. It has earned its spot there with a flawless balance of caramel, vanilla and oak. A sprinkle of other beloved notes give it interest without so much dominance that it wouldn’t work in any particular drink. Plus it’s the preferred bourbon for mixing at the Death & Co. bar in New York City, according to their self-titled book, and they’re Death & Co. and they can do whatever they want and that’s the rules in life.

New Riff Bottled In Bond Bourbon
5. New Riff Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey Bottled-in-Bond

Price Range: $35-$45

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes:

Nose – butterscotch, fresh oak, vanilla, rye spice, cinnamon, fresh baked bread, brown sugar, toasted oak, hay, baked apple, caramel

Palate – vanilla, clove, cinnamon, mint, berry, caramel, marshmallow, oak, candied ginger, crackerJacks

Finish – berries, pepper, clove, vanilla, dry leather, oak, menthol

Great in: Manhattans

Now we introduce to this list more delicate flavors of berries and mint that absolutely have their place in a bourbon bar set-up. The full-bodied nature of New Riff whiskies embodying complex flavor profiles make this and the rest of their line-up ideal for sipping neat or on ice. However, the bottled-in-bond straight bourbon does wonders, especially for the Manhattan, giving what’s essentially a simple recipe an ultra-flavorful result.

Stellum Bourbon
6. Stellum Bourbon

Price Range: $50-$60

Proof: 114.98

Tasting Notes:

Nose – clove, allspice, macadamia nut, tobacco, honeysuckle, green apple, dried apricot, fruit cake, raisin, wood

Palate – vanilla, burnt marshmallow, cotton candy, black pepper, cinnamon, baked apple, dried apricot, blackberry, cardamom, oak, mint

Finish – candied ginger, black pepper, honey, red grape peel, raisin, fruit cake

Great in: Mint Juleps

Stellum Bourbon goes a bit above the average recommended proof for bourbon cocktails but, if you are indeed hoping for a more powerful drink, then the flavor here is an excellent match. For Mint Juleps, the candy sweet notes will backdrop fresh mint while complementing the classic cocktail with dark fruit and strong spices.

Five & 20 Bourbon
7. Five & 20 Straight Bourbon Whiskey 

Price Range: $40

Proof: 90

Tasting Notes:

Nose – caramel, vanilla, sweet corn, granny smith apple, berries, maple syrup

Palate – caramel chews, smoked barrel, ginger, vanilla, young oak, malt, pumpernickel, cigar smoke

Finish – smoke, corn, ginger beer, rye spice, graham cracker, summer fruit

Great in: Kentucky Mules

The Mule is a demanding drink, being dominated by the spicy, tangy ginger beer, so a bourbon that can still shine through is a must have for home bars mixing up that drink. This one carries ginger-heavy notes in the flavor profile first which serve as a match for the mixer and thereby bring forward the other yummy notes of grain, fruits and rich sweets. The lower proof is a plus here too, avoiding a bitterness-overload with the ginger beer and lime. 

Penelope Four Grain Bourbon
8. Penelope Four Grain Bourbon 

Price Range: $30-$40

Proof: 80

Tasting Notes:

Nose – honey, sweet corn, wheat, vanilla, butterscotch, floral, spice, sweet corn, orange zest

Palate – wheat, mint, toasted oak, pepper, vanilla cream, orange zest, raisin

Finish – pepper, vanilla, oak, candied orange peel

Great in: Manhattans and Mint Juleps

Allow yourself at least one lower proof bourbon to stock the bar and let it be one like Penelope Four Grain that still gives an array of flavors. In a Manhattan, the herbal and floral notes will pop while a Mint Julep can showcase some toasty oak and spice. Then when you have that guest who claims to not care for bourbon, a cocktail with this as your base will be a gentle and pleasant palate pleaser to lure them kindly to the dark side (of spirits).

Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
9. Wild Turkey 101 

Price Range: $20-$30

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes:

Nose – vanilla, cinnamon, toasted oak, rye grain, toffee, citrus, butterscotch

Palate – vanilla, caramel, oak, baking spices, pepper, cigar box

Finish – orange peel, rye spice, vanilla, dry oak, spice, toast

Great in: Old Fashioned and Mint Juleps

Good or bad, most of us have history with Wild Turkey 101, and let’s build a future together by keeping it on hand for our bourbon home bar. Yes, let’s admit it, early experiences with this one may not have been the best, simply because it’s a bottle found easily in gas stations and other convenient outlets in less-informed years of drinking, like college parties. But why should Wild Turkey get a bad rap just because they did a great job of making their product widely available, especially when it’s fantastic for cocktails. Give an Old Fashioned an extra classy twist with rye spice that will stand out, or make an unexpected Mint Julep that brings forward dryness and wood character.

Pure Kentucky Bourbon
10. Pure Kentucky Small Batch Bourbon

Price Range: $30-$40

Proof: 107

Tasting Notes:

Nose – toffee, dried apricot, eucalyptus, oak, leather, tobacco, mint, allspice, honey, cinnamon, maple syrup

Palate – toffee, cinnamon, caramel, pepper, oak, leather, burnt sugar, clove, toasted corn

Finish – pepper, vanilla, sweet corn

Great in: Any cocktail

Interesting flavors with a beautiful minimalism that won’t fight with other cocktail ingredients, Pure Kentucky Small Batch also heats things up at a slightly higher proof. This one is an oft-overlooked bottle by Willett Distillery that truly has a place in any bar. This bourbon will make drinks go down easily, so watch out when you start mixing things up here. 

So, That’s My Top 10 Bourbons for Cocktails List!

I’ll let you know when I make it through tasting all of the 1000+ plus bourbons and may be able to pick a few different ones to add to this list. Until then, you can’t go wrong with any of these solid choices. If you venture to something completely different, go for it with gusto! Simply remember to do your cocktails justice by tasting the base bourbon neat, to assess flavor, make sure it is proofed enough for power, and if it is an out-of-reach bottle in price or availability then consider saving it for savoring. Most of all, when it comes to home bartending, be safe and have fun!

We hope you have enjoyed Aften’s Top 10 Bourbons For Cocktails! If you would like to learn more about a few of the bourbons and ryes on this list, then you should read our Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Review and our Early Times Bottled in Bond Review! Also, check out our Home Bartending Guide; it’s the complete resource for the home bourbon bartender!

Aften Locken

Aften Locken is a bourbon nerd and a cocktail geek, mixing the two together in ways that will make partakers say “wow” and stay thirsty for more. She has worked in the beverage alcohol industry for six years as a bourbon educator, presenter, tour guide and experience designer. Her mixology endeavors include the design and execution of showcased cocktails for the 6th Floor Millionaire’s Row at the Kentucky Derby, premium bar management for VIP attendees of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival, regular cocktail class series for bourbon enthusiast groups and promotional videos for premium brands. In the bourbon realm, she creates and executes premium bourbon experiences and education offered through
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Aften Locken
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