Prior to the “Bourbon Boom” of the 2010s, America’s Native Spirit far-too-often took a backseat in the world of cocktail development. And while there isn’t always a singular reason behind spirits trends, there’s long been a perception that rye whiskey’s stereotypically “spicier” flavors held up better in a cocktail than bourbon. But as many whiskey aficionados discover, bourbon can more than hold its own in a mixed drink. Bourbon’s natural sweetness — along with immense taste variations among brands, proofs, and ages — makes it a natural fit for flavor tinkerers.
Today, bourbon cocktails are a cornerstone in some of the most innovative menus around. (Sometimes, that’s not even counting the countless reimaginations of an Old Fashioned.) And as with many aspects of modern mixology, women are often leading the charge with both innovative takes on classics and brand new flavors.
We spoke with four mixologists — some of the most celebrated women in the business — with a penchant for bourbon cocktails. They shared original recipes for their favorite creations, along with tips for home bartenders looking to break a bit out of the ordinary.
Title: Head Bartender at Death & Co
Location: New York, New York
(Image courtesy of Eric Medsker)
For Shannon Tebay, bourbon is a versatile spirit that pairs well with a range of flavors. But she’s a firm believer in leaning toward higher-proof bottles.
“The trick is to use an assertive, overproof bourbon while mixing to prevent the nuance from getting lost amidst the other components of the drink,” says Tebay, a veteran head bartender and one of NYC’s most in-demand cocktail crafters.
“Compared to many other styles of whiskey, bourbon is actually quite delicate, so a deft handling of it helps to really showcase what any particular bourbon has to offer. That said, as far as high-proof distillates are concerned, bourbon is remarkably user-friendly, so don’t be afraid to be adventurous and see what you come up with.”
Shannon Tebay’s Recipe: The Arrowhead
“This Old Fashioned variation is reminiscent of sipping whiskey by a campfire near a lake in the mountains,” says Tebay.
1.5 oz Buffalo Trace Bourbon
0.5 oz Clear Creek Douglas Fir Eau de Vie
0.5 tsp Caol Ila Single Malt Scotch
1 tsp Mathilde Poire
1 tsp maple syrup
2 dash Angostura Bitters
Stir with ice and strain into a Sazerac glass over a glock of ice. Garnish with a lemon twist.
Title: Cocktail Editor and Senior Contributor at Bourbon & Banter
Location: Washington, D.C.
Erin Petrey believes the best tool for mixing is an open mind, especially when it comes to bourbon cocktails. It’s a mindset she works to carry over into her own cocktail mixing and spirits writing as she crafts new recipes for a variety of publications.
“Never make assumptions about what you may or may not like and constantly keep an open mind and try new things. Who knows? You may find something you love that you didn’t think you would!”
Petrey is also a proponent of getting to know a bourbon’s natural expressions before you start combining with other flavors.
“You also need to take into account the different dominant flavor notes of each bourbon. For example, Old Forester has a consistent cherry note which plays really well in cocktails like Manhattans, but some other brands may yield a banana flavor, which doesn’t jive as well.”
For widely accessible bourbons to mix with, Petrey counts Jim Beam Bonded, Elijah Craig 94 Proof, and Evan Williams Bottled in Bond among her favorites.
Erin Petrey’s Recipe: Honey Za’atar Sour
“This Honey Za’atar Sour I make, which includes Zaatar (wild thyme) and Sumac, plays very well with the citrus notes of a sour and the caramel flavors of bourbon,” says Petrey.
2 oz 100 proof bourbon (Erin uses Old Tub)
0.75 oz fresh lemon juice
0.75 oz honey za’atar syrup*
1 egg white
Shake, strain out ice, and shake again (dry shake). Double strain into coupe glass, garnish with sumac and a honey drizzle.
To make the Honey Za’atar syrup: bring 1/3 cup water to a boil, dissolve in 1/3 cup honey. Add 1 tablespoon Z&Z za’atar. Simmer on low heat for 2 minutes, let steep for 15 minutes. Strain syrup through fine mesh strainer, then strain twice through cheesecloth.
Title: Podcaster, Mixologist, and Author
Location: Stuart, Florida
Sailor Guevara, who teaches a number of virtual cocktails and spirits experiences, cautions against getting too hung up on traditional ways of mixing with bourbon.
“I don’t believe there is a wrong way to mix with bourbon. I use bourbon and all types of whiskey in Blood Marys and margaritas even,” says Guevara.
“One of my favorite ways to use bourbon creatively in cocktails and push the boundaries is with Tiki cocktails. If you see a recipe that calls for an aged rum, well, bang, switch that out for a bourbon, or use half the amount of rum that recipe calls for and fill in the rest with bourbon.”
Guevara also points to the growth of online spirits education and reviews as great tools to boost your bourbon acumen.
“With so many virtual events and tastings and online reviews, it’s easier than ever to learn about the profiles of different brands. Don’t be afraid to be creative and try new expressions, if you like it, it’s the right bourbon for you!” she says.
Sailor Guevara’s Recipe: Bessie Coleman
When it comes to the right sake in the recipe below, Guevara recommends Hakutsuru Sayuri Junmai Nigori. “It’s a great option, easy to find, well priced and delicious.”
2 oz Uncle Nearest 1884
0.5 oz rose syrup
0.5 oz unfiltered sake
1 oz yuzu juice
Shake all with a handful of ice, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with a lemon slice and rose petals.
To make the rose syrup: Steep a handful of organic roses in 1 cup of water until the rose petals are almost clear, then with a slotted spoon strain out the rose petals and add 1 cup of demerara sugar and a tsp of pomegranate juice or grenadine for color.
Title: Whiskey Mixologist, Chair of the Bourbon Women Board of Directors
Location: Louisville, Kentucky
It’s impossible to talk about bourbon without mentioning Kentucky. And while there’s a lot of great bourbon made outside The Bluegrass State, Kentucky is still smack dab in the center of the bourbon universe. As a Louisville-based mixologist, Heather Wibbels is immersed in bourbon culture. She recommends treating any bourbon experience as a multi-sensory affair.
“I started as a bourbon drinker rather than a cocktail drinker, so I approach cocktails as a whiskey drinker might, evaluating flavor, nose, mouthfeel and thinking about all the individual hints of flavor that combine to make a great spirit, just as in a great bourbon cocktail.”
For Wibbels, that carries over to mixing bourbon with other spirits and ingredients, too.
“I nose the bourbon along with my other ingredients to make sure they’ll play nice before I put them in a mixing glass together. If the bourbon has complementary notes or flavors connecting to the other ingredients, you’ll build a great cocktail that highlights the bourbon rather than overtakes it.”
Heather Wibbels’ Recipe: Hot Jammed Old Fashioned
Wibbels says this take on an Old Fashioned is something great for experimental home bartenders looking to push their boundaries.
2 oz high rye, high proof bourbon, like Old Grandad BIB or 114
1.5 tsp hot pepper jelly
0.5 oz Giffard’s Peach liqueur
2 dashes Greenbar Barkeep Chinese 5 spice bitters
2 pinches Bourbon Barrel Foods bourbon smoked sugar
1 barspoon simple syrup
Combine rye, jelly, liqueur, bitters, smoked sugar and a bar spoon of simple to a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake for 10-12 seconds and strain into a rocks glass with one large cube. Garnish with orange peel or dehydrated five spice-infused orange wheel.