5 Essential Bourbon Cocktails

Cocktail 101

All the basics of the bar.


[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

There are endless cocktails in the world, and new ones invented every day, but how many of these drinks are true essentials? In this series, we're discussing drinks everyone should know—five essential drinks for every major category of spirits. My choices may seem somewhat arbitrary and even capricious. I'll probably even leave out one of your favorites. But that's the beauty of conversation, so please let me know what I'm missing!

This week in Five Essentials, we'll talk about yummy yummy bourbon whiskey. In future weeks, I'll explore other whiskies—rye, scotch, and Irish—but for now, I'm focusing on the king of American whiskey, bourbon.

Old Fashioned

If bourbon is the king of American whiskey, surely the Old Fashioned is the king of bourbon cocktails. The first known definition of the word cocktail describes it so:

Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters

What else is an Old Fashioned in its classic form but spirits, sugar, water, and bitters? Put sugar in a glass, and dissolve it in a solution of water and bitters. (Or start with simple syrup, which is itself merely already a solution of sugar and water.) Add a spirit and some ice and stir.

One can argue then that not only is the Old Fashioned the king of bourbon cocktails, but it may very well be the ur-cocktail, or perhaps the loins from which all other cocktails sprang. This, indeed, points the way to the name "Old Fashioned." Hey barkeep, gimme a whiskey cocktail, in the old-fashioned way my granny taught me!

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Now, the recipe I've linked to is nearly perfect as is. Anyone who hands me an Old Fashioned made in this way is a friend for life. But there's another method I've grown to like very much recently. This method was suggested by the Seattle bartender Andrew Bohrer. To paraphrase (and add my own spin), my new favorite Old Fashioned is made this way:

  1. Chill a mixing glass and an Old Fashioned glass.
  2. Fill the mixing glass with ice.
  3. Add simple syrup, bitters, and bourbon to the mixing glass.
  4. Stir.
  5. Add one very large, fresh ice cube or several smaller fresh cubes to the chilled Old Fashioned glass. Strain the cocktail into the glass, over the fresh ice.
  6. Garnish with a twist of citrus—lemon or orange, depending on your preference.

What I like about that method is this: first, it chills and dilutes the drink in the mixing glass. What this means is that the ice you place into your serving glass serves mainly to keep the drink cold. Your drink enters the serving glass at its proper chill and dilution, and because it's already cold, it doesn't melt the ice in the serving glass nearly as quickly.

Cocktail scholars will note that this method sounds very similar to traditional Sazerac service. Yes, it's so. The only difference in technique is that the Sazerac is served sans ice in a chilled glass.

Whiskey Sour


[Photograph: scaredy_kat on Flickr]

Paul Clarke calls this the "comfortable T-shirt of drinks" and I agree. Not only is this an easy-drinking beverage, but it's also an easy make. The technique is simple, and the ingredient ratios are easy to remember without consulting a manual. This one's not quite as simple as cracking open a beer, but it's not really much more difficult.

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Mint Julep

A thousand words:


[Photograph: Jennifer Hess]

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Negroni lovers! This is your next step. The Boulevardier is, for all purposes, a bourbon Negroni. And yet, it only sort of tastes like a bourbon Negroni. The drink is recognizably a member of the same family, but the bourbon brings unique qualities into its union with Campari and vermouth. Alchemy.

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(I prefer mine, like my Negronis, on the rocks.)



[Photograph: MIchael Dietsch]

Last week I chose the Jasmine as an essential cocktail, edging out such favorites as the Pegu Club and the French 75. This week, I'm bringing in another oddball choice. A cocktail in the sour family, the Derby calls for bourbon, lime juice, sweet vermouth, and Grand Marnier.

Wait. Bourbon and lime juice? Yes. How often do you see this? The combination is rare enough to be worth trying just for fun. But this is no simple novelty. The resulting drink is complex, delicious, and utterly satisfying. Peppery, dry but fruity, tart, and very mildly herbal. This, for a bourbon lover, is an essential cocktail.

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But wait, but wait! What about the Manhattan? Oh my friends, be patient. The Manhattan is a rye drink. Just wait.