"A higher-proof bourbon simply delivers more potent flavor."
Over the past decade or so, as craft bartenders and home mixologists have dug deep into the back catalog of classic cocktails, the demand for rye whiskey has gone through the roof. Whiskies such as Rittenhouse 100-proof rye are in short supply across the country, and even ryes with larger production and wider distribution can be hard to find in some markets.
Bourbon, however, is everywhere, and as Derby Day approaches it's worth raising the question: what are the best drinks to mix with bourbon?
The reason many bartenders prefer rye to bourbon as a cocktail ingredient is simple: an overwhelming majority of whiskey-based cocktail recipes written before the mid-20th century intended then-widely available rye whiskey to be used as the base of the drink. Rye tends to be drier and spicier than bourbon—typically sweeter and mellower—which makes it a more suitable match to robust-flavored ingredients such as vermouth. In a classic Manhattan, the sweetness of vermouth tames the spark of rye, which makes for an intriguing combination, but bourbon's sweetness results in a drink that, while still undeniably tasty, doesn't have quite the same spark.
But bourbon is delicious! And it's easy to find. Used judiciously, bourbon can offer an excellent cocktail experience. Here are a few suggestions:
Choose a Bourbon with a Spicy Character
Amplify bourbon's flavor in a cocktail by choosing one with a spicy character. While I usually make my Manhattans (and its relatives) with rye, if you use a robust bourbon with a spicy bite, you have a real contender on your hands. Basil Hayden's is an excellent choice, and Knob Creek ain't too bad, either; Old Granddad and Wild Turkey are also good choices in this department.
Drinks Where Bourbon Really Shines
The Old Fashioned, Mint Julep and Whiskey Smash are good places to start (though to be fair, each is also good with a number of different spirits, including rye). With no other full-flavored ingredients to compete against, the flavor of the bourbon can really shine in these drinks. I prefer the softer flavor of wheated bourbons here, but that's a matter of personal preference. Maker's Mark is always a good choice, as is W.L. Weller (especially the 12-year-old). And since the full flavor of bourbon comes through, you can even splurge on a higher-end whiskey such as Black Maple Hill or George T. Stagg.
The Simplicity of the Whiskey Sour
Rediscover the simple beauty of the whiskey sour. Rye and bourbon are interchangeable in this drink, and I even prefer bourbon's softer flavor when matched with the bite of fresh lemon juice. Jim Beam Black label is a solid choice for a sour, as is Elijah Craig.
A higher-proof bourbon simply delivers more potent flavor, and if you've got an ingredient in the drink such as an amaro or a vibrant liqueur that tends to speak loudly, the higher proof can help balance out the flavor equation. Start with something over 90 proof, and you can go all the way to cask strength as long as you keep an eye on the overall alcoholic output of the drink.
Or, do what I do, and simply enjoy your bourbon on its own. Cocktails are great, but so is a simple glass of good whiskey. How do you like to use bourbon?