5 Myths (and 1 Truth) About Bourbon Cocktails
In her new book, Bourbon Is My Comfort Food: The Bourbon Women™ Guide to Fantastic Cocktails at Home (University Press of Kentucky 2022), Heather Wibbels demystifies bourbon for those of us who are just beginning our great bourbon journey. Follow Heather at cocktailcontessa.com
Loving bourbon doesn’t relegate you to neat pours for the rest of your life. In fact, one of the most fun ways to enjoy bourbon is in a delicious, balanced cocktail. But cocktails get a bad rap among bourbon enthusiasts. When picturing a typical bourbon drinker, you may think of older men in leather chairs with a glass of whiskey in hand with a cigar, but there’s more to bourbon than that. As a spirit, bourbon’s varied flavor profiles intrigue whiskey enthusiasts and cocktail drinkers alike.
Whiskey drinkers are uniquely poised to develop an appreciation for bourbon cocktails and to use them to grow the bourbon community. Let’s look at 5 myths about bourbon cocktails, and one truth you need to know to turn your understanding of the bourbon culture (and cocktails) on its head.
Myth #1: You have to drink bourbon neat to call yourself a bourbon drinker
I’ve heard it all before – a true bourbon drinker would never put a bourbon they loved in a cocktail. This is usually followed by a statement that if you can’t drink your bourbon neat you shouldn’t call yourself a bourbon drinker.
If someone identifies as a gin drinker or a vodka drinker, do you assume they only drink that spirit neat? No! You probably think they love martinis, gin and tonics, or cocktails with those spirits. Why is bourbon any different? One thing I know about bourbon culture from the mouths of people who make it, age it and bottle it is that bourbon culture is meant to be welcoming and inclusive. Every master distiller I’ve talked to has said something similar to “as long as you’re enjoying the bourbon, drink it any way you like.”
You do not have to sit in leather chairs in a dimly lit interior of a dusty bar filled with old men and hipster dudes with a glass of neat bourbon to call yourself a bourbon drinker.
As chair of Bourbon Women (https://www.bourbonwomen.org), an organization dedicated to bringing bourbon culture, education, and experiences to women throughout the US, I see us gathering women together over bourbon cocktails, food pairings, and fun events. This broadens the definition of a “bourbon drinker” to include anyone who loves bourbon, however they love it.
Bourbon culture has hospitality at its heart, and redefining the notion of a bourbon drinker to include bourbon cocktail lovers is critical.
Myth #2: Use your bad bourbon to make cocktails
I see this statement frequently in whiskey reviews: “I’ll save this for cocktails.” A professional whiskey reviewer is likely to be sensitive enough to taste those same off notes in a cocktail as in a neat pour. I know I can. Don’t save the “bad bourbon” for cocktails. Give it to someone who loves it.
Your daily drinker, your good bourbon, the bourbon that’s a go-to for sharing with friends and family is the perfect whiskey for cocktails. You’re intimately familiar with the aromas, the flavors, the finish, and the mouthfeel of that bourbon – you know what flavors taste good in combination with it.
Bourbon that you love is the only kind of bourbon you should be using for your cocktails. Your familiarity with its smell and taste will allow you to match it with great cocktail ingredients and remain aware of it even when added to a cocktail. You’ll also be able to pull out secondary notes from the bourbon as it melds with the other ingredients.
Don’t use your $50 or $60 bourbon to make your cocktails (unless you want to). Use value bourbons. Ones that you love, but don’t break the bank. And for a special occasion cocktail – to really dress up your Old Fashioned or Manhattan – break out the good stuff. Mix a cocktail withthe expensive whiskey every once in a while, and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.
Myth #3: Cocktails hide the flavor of bourbon
A great bourbon cocktail doesn’t hide the flavor of bourbon – it makes the bourbon shine. It pulls out specific flavors and notes and adds them to the experience of the drink. If you don’t believe me, make the same cocktail with vodka. Bourbon adds depth, complexity, and layers of flavor and aroma to a cocktail.
A bourbon enthusiast might argue that they can’t taste the bourbon in a cocktail. But they’re accustomed to sipping bourbon neat, with no distractions to pull awareness away from the bourbon. In a cocktail, sweet, sour, and bitter elements play with the bourbon, making bourbon harder to detect overall, but pulling out and highlighting specific flavors that may be more muted in a neatpour. When put together thoughtfully, all those elements create a cocktail that’s a coherent, balanced flavor experience.
All bourbon cocktails change dramatically when a different bourbon is selected. Swapping out the specific bourbon in a cocktail to create a cocktail flight is an enormously fun exercise for bourbon lovers used to whiskey flights.
Myth# 4: Bourbon drinkers shouldn’t waste their time with cocktails.
Have you watched whiskey drinkers at an event? Before they take a sip of anything they note its aroma. There are times it’s so involuntary I’ll see them take a sniff of a glass of soda or water before they taste it. Bourbon enthusiasts love to parse out aromas in a pour – caramel, vanilla, oak, tobacco, citrus, dried fruit, etc. They love to talk mouthfeel and finish. Each of these sensations is critical in the evaluation of a cocktail.
Bourbon drinkers are the perfect people to create and evaluate cocktails. They are primed to evaluate the very things that make a cocktail stellar – flavor, balance, mouthfeel, and finish. They are often able to pull out very specific flavors from a drink – specific nuts, fruits, spices, and sugars. They are able to taste a cocktail that’s too thin, or overly textured. Or one that’s not balanced.
In short, whiskey drinkers can be as nuanced in evaluating cocktails as they are at bourbon. Cocktails are a flavor puzzle that challenges whiskey drinkers perfectly. They need to consider flavors and aromas of potential ingredients to create a cocktail that’s balanced, delicious, and intriguing to the drinker.
Myth #5: Cocktails take too much time for bourbon drinkers
We choose every day what we’ll spend time on. I have seen bourbon lovers spend 20 minutes perusing a bourbon list to create a flight, or even try a single pour. I have watched friends debate bottles for an event via messaging for an entire day. Part of the fun is taking the time to select the right one.
It’s Easy to Do
A cocktail can be made in a few minutes. Add bourbon, bitters, sugar, and ice to a glass and you can build an old fashioned in a minute. Add vermouth and bitters to bourbon and you have a Manhattan.
Part of the fun of creating a bourbon drink is choosing the whiskey to use. Bourbon fanatics and newbies alike love to find flavors, and adding cocktail ingredients to bourbon does the same thing.
While putting a great cocktail may seem intimidating, classic bourbon cocktails are easy and fast to make at home – even to batch for parties. Bourbon drinkers can use these fast cocktails to do something they love – get others to drink more bourbon. Nothing’s better than sharing a bourbon with a friend.
The Truth: Bourbon cocktails are the gateway to bourbon
Bourbon is better with friends. Bourbon cocktails are the way most people start their bourbon journey. Typically, a delicious and approachable cocktail draws a bourbon newbie in. Suddenly, they start to see what all the fuss is about. And over time they learn to love bourbon in a cocktail, on the rocks, and neat. Bottles accumulate on the home bar, bourbon books collect on the shelf, and swag piles up from bourbon events.
Learning to make great bourbon cocktails expands a bourbon lover’s palate and lets them grow their bourbon circle to include friends and family who have never had a positive, fun experience with bourbon. Knowing the basics of bourbon cocktails can start a lifelong passion with bourbon.
Bourbon hospitality should be generous and welcoming. And nothing’s more welcoming than a bourbon cocktail from a friend and future bourbon buddy.
About the Author
Heather Wibbels, an award-winning mixologist, chair of the Bourbon Women Board of Directors, photographer, and digital content creator, works with brands and companies to develop cocktails and deliver cocktail education for both the home mixologist and cocktail enthusiast, turning cocktail lovers into whiskey drinkers one drink at a time. She develops, writes, and photographs content for her own website as well: www.CocktailContessa.com.
The following recipes are courtesy of Heather Wibbels.
This cider-based toddy with a splash of maple syrup combines all the flavors of fall. Fresh pressed appe cider from a local orchard makes this toddy exceptional.
- 4-6 ounces apple cider
- ½ ounce maple syrup
- ½ ounce lemon juice
- 16 drops Old Forester’s smoked cinnamon bitters (or 2 dashes of your favorite fall-flavored aromatic bitters)
- 1 dash ginger bitters
- 1½ ounces bourbon or whiskey
- Garnish: apple slice, cinnamon stick
Fill a mug with hot water and set it aside. Combine apple cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, and bitters in a small saucepan and heat until steaming but not simmering (or heat in a microwave-safe container in the microwave). Add bourbon and stir to combine. Discard the water in the mug and pour the toddy into it. Garnish.
If a Sazerac and a Manhattan had a love child, this would be their firstborn. Rich and complex, this cocktail dials up the spice with a licorice liqueur, a peppery rye whiskey, and amaro’s earthy coffee and chocolate notes. A touch of maple syrup sweetens and balances the cocktail and results in a thicker mouthfeel.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey (or high-rye bourbon)
- ¼ ounce barrel-aged maple syrup
- ¾ ounce Foro amaro
- ¼ ounce Herbsaint or absinthe
- Garnish: star anise and candied ginger
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and add ice. Stir for 30 seconds or until well chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish.
The Kentucky Smolder
Creating a great Old-Fashioned for serious whiskey drinkers requires finesse. You need to highlight the whiskey above everything else, balance it with great bitters, and make sure it contains a hint of intrigue to keep them interested. The smoked chili bitters add both smoke and heat from the capsaicin found in chili peppers. And through it all, the bourbon still shines. I created this high-proof Old-Fashioned for a Bourbon Women “He Sips, She Sips” event featuring a blind tasting of Heaven Hill bourbons and ryes.
- 2 ounces Old Forester Whiskey Row 1920, high-proof (110 or higher) bourbon, or Pikesville rye
- ½ ounce demerara sugar simple syrup
- 3 dashes Hella Bitters smoked chili bitters
- Garnish: charred cinnamon stick
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir for about 20 seconds, then strain into a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a charred cinnamon stick (be careful not to set your fingers on fire).
The King’s Julep
The King’s Julep
Here, the King refers to the King of Rock and Roll: Elvis Presley. This julep is an homage to those peanut butter and banana sandwiches Elvis used to make. It’s a great julep for someone who is new to bourbon and wants to try a wildly creative take on a classic.
- 1½ ounces bourbon
- ¾ ounce peanut butter whiskey
- ¾ ounce Giffard’s Banane du Brésil banana liqueur (substitute chocolate liqueur for Reese’s julep)
- 2 dashes Bittercube cherry bark vanilla bitters
- Garnish: peanut butter and banana skewer and fresh mint sprig
In a mixing glass, add bourbon, peanut butter whiskey, banana liqueur, and bitters. Add ice. Stir until chilled, 10–15 seconds. Strain into a julep cup filled with crushed ice. Add a straw, mint sprig, and skewer of banana and peanut butter.