13 Bourbon Drinks That Highlight The Flavor Of The Spirit

Some of the best cocktails are bourbon-based, and it's no surprise; flavorful and complex, bourbon is known for its light flavor and subtle sweetness, making it one of the more versatile spirits within the whiskey category. Whether it's an old fashioned, a Manhattan, or a simple bourbon and soda, this spirit knows no bounds.

Unlike many of its across-the-pond brethren, bourbon production comes with some strict rules. However, it's these regulations that make bourbon as adaptable as it is. First and foremost, to get the bourbon name, it must be made in the United States — think of bourbon as the Champagne of America. Bourbon was even designated "America's Native Spirit" by a Congressional resolution in 1964. Additionally, bourbon must have 51% corn in the mash bill, aged in new charred oak barrels, distilled to a maximum of 160 proof, and have no added flavorings or colorings. 

As a result, you're getting a spirit that plays well with others. It's light and spiced, with notes of vanilla and caramel, is soft without too much bite, and truly shines when mixed up in the right cocktail. With that in mind, we compiled a list of the best cocktails that highlight bourbon so you can experience the beauty of bourbon for yourself.

Vieux carré

If you couldn't tell by the name, the vieux carré is deeply rooted in French history. French Quarter, that is, in New Orleans. According to Chilled Magazine, initially created by Walter Bergeron, the head bartender at the Hotel Monteleone, home to the famed rotating Carousel bar, the drink is said to have first appeared in print in 1937 in the cocktail book "Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em," by Stanley Clisby Arthur.

This is quite a boozy cocktail, with the star spirit traditionally being rye and the supporting roles filled by Punt e Mes vermouth, Cognac, benedictine, Angostura and Peychaud's bitters, and lemon zest. However, if you don't have rye available or simply want to highlight your favorite bourbon in the drink instead, it's an excellent stand-in. 

The Alcohol Professor notes that in his Vieux Carré, he'll have his with a good bourbon over an only-decent rye anytime, even a decent bourbon over a good rye if he's got the right bitters to accompany it. If you go through each ingredient in the Vieux Carré, it's easy to see why bourbon works so perfectly. The sweetness from the bourbon, cognac, and benedictine and the bitterness from the Punt e Mes and bitters is a beautiful balance, making you eager to go back sip after sip.

Bourbon sweet tea

Iced sweet tea is somewhat synonymous with the South, and it makes sense, since, according to What's Cooking America, the history of sweet tea goes back to the 1700s, when it's said that the first tea plants arrived in South Carolina. In an 1839 cookbook, "The Kentucky Housewife", author Mrs. Lettice Bryanon gives a recipe for tea punch, essentially a sweetened-up iced tea, with 2 ½ cups of sugar, a ½ pint of sweet cream, and a bottle of Champagne.

Boozy sweet tea has been around for centuries, and while the recipe provided by Byranon is one way to do it, we like the idea of using bourbon here instead of Champagne. To still pay homage to the Kentucky housewife herself, go with a Kentucky bourbon, like Four Roses or Old Forester. To keep things genuinely southern, make your sweet tea syrup and add it to an unsweetened tea to make sure you get just the right level of sugar. 

The addition of the bourbon will only work to enhance that sweet flavor, with subtle notes of fruit and spice. You can also make this drink in large-batch form, so for your big get-together, mix up your perfectly sweetened tea and bourbon in a large pitcher or bowl and consider your bartending duties done for the day. Don't forget to provide lemon wedges for garnish.

Whiskey sour

The combination of sweet and sour flavors, when done well, can be like an absolute symphony in your mouth. The whiskey sour is the embodiment of that musical number in a cocktail; the beautiful balance of sweetness from the bourbon and the simple syrup, with the sour lemon juice, is perfection in a glass. Plus, the history of this drink goes back to the 1800s, when sailors on board their ships were throwing back whiskey, rum, and other spirits to get through the rough days at sea and found themselves squeezing that lemon into their drink to combat scurvy. So, the whiskey sour is essentially medicine. The history speaks for itself.

According to Eight Oaks Distillery, while the whiskey sour continued to be the preferred drink on board ships during this time, it didn't make its official debut until 1862, when it was included in "The Bartenders Guide" by Jerry Thomas. The simplicity of this drink is what makes it such a beautiful choice to highlight the flavor of bourbon. For the classic whiskey sour, combine your bourbon of choice, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, and shaken egg white, and garnish with a cherry on top for added glamour.

John Collins

If you're up to speed on your classic cocktails, then you're certainly familiar with the Tom Collins, a gin-based tipple made with lemon juice, simple syrup, and soda water garnished with a lemon twist and a cherry. And while we love the Tom Collins in its original form, we think there's room for change, primarily when it comes to swapping out the gin for bourbon. Enter the John Collins. 

In its classic form, a Tom Collins is herbaceous and floral from the gin — a delightful treat for poolside lounging. However, in the John Collins, you get something with a little more depth of flavor and spice, turning something light and refreshing into something equally as thirst-quenching but with a little more warmth and complexity. Paul Kim, American Whiskey Ambassador for Woodford Reserve, uses honey syrup instead of traditional sugar syrup in his twist on a Tom Collins to bring forward all the sweet aromatics, fruit, spice, grain, and wood flavors in the bourbon.

Kentucky mule

You're probably familiar with the classic Moscow mule, a combination of vodka, ginger beer or ginger ale, and lime juice. It's a great way to highlight the spice of that ginger, plus it's incredibly refreshing on a hot day, especially when served up in that spiffy copper mug. However, we like a cocktail that highlights the spirit instead of the mixers, so if you want all the pomp of the mule (including the mug) with a more flavor-forward spirit, swap in bourbon.

Also known as a Kentucky mule, this simple spin on the classic mule with bourbon instead of vodka offers a delicious twist on the classic that highlights the spirit itself. The sweet tones of maple, sweet oak, and nutmeg in the bourbon are a really nice balance to the spice of the ginger, making for a beautifully balanced sip. From here, the cocktail construction is simple: Grab your favorite bourbon, mix it with your ginger beverage of choice and a squeeze of fresh lime juice, and garnish with a lime wedge.

Blackberry bourbon smash

Maple syrup: It's not just for pancakes and waffles anymore. Rather than let it sit in your refrigerator to only be brought out during breakfast, make it a regular ingredient in what we think will soon be one of your favorite bourbon cocktails on this list, the blackberry bourbon smash. Fresh berries, like blackberries in this case, and bourbon, can be a beautiful match in a glass, offering a great way to use fresh fruit in a cocktail that you can drink year-round.

The rich, tantalizing sweetness in good maple syrup is the perfect compliment to bourbon, which is filled with notes of brown sugar, honey, and maple. We love the addition of blackberries in this cocktail, too, adding an extra layer of earthy sweetness to the glass. Mix your bourbon, maple syrup, muddled blackberries, a dash of bitters, and a squeeze of lemon juice, and shake, shake, shake. Pour into a rocks glass and top with sparkling water for some extra zhuzh.

Bourbon sidecar

Like many cocktails on this list, the classic sidecar cocktail recipe is a drink with a muddled (sorry) origin story. Some scholars claim it was invented in Paris, while others say London. Some say the sugared rim is absolute, while others insist this is blasphemy. What has remained a constant throughout is the ingredient list, which is delightful in its simplicity. Cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. Shake with ice, strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with an orange peel. And while we find the classic to be delightful as is, we do like the idea of swapping in bourbon for the cognac for a twist with just a bit of American flare.

The subtle sweetness from bourbon with the orange liqueur is a beautiful flavor combination, which is why we love this take on the classic so much. The balance of vanilla and spice with the sweet liqueur takes this drink to another level while keeping it light and simple. For an extra hit of freshness, garnish this with a lemon peel instead of an orange peel.

Bourbon mulled cider

Mulled cider is a great way to make the chill of a cold day melt away, and the deep, earthy, spicy aroma of a cider that has been slowly simmering away all day long is something we look forward to every year. And while you can certainly enjoy it as is, we suggest boozing it up with your favorite bourbon and turning the fall favorite into a party.

While there are a few options you could add to a mulled cider to give it just the right boozy kick, bourbon is our top choice. The sweetness from the apple cider and the depth of spice from the allspice and cinnamon will only enhance the subtle notes of spice and vanilla in a good bourbon. Pour your bourbon into a mug, top with the warm cider and spices, and sip to your heart's content. If you do decide to make this as a large-batch cocktail instead of a single serving, be sure to go light on the bourbon at first, taste it, and then adjust it as necessary to get that balance just right without making it too boozy. To zip everything up, garnish your cider-filled mug with a cinnamon stick and a lemon slice.

Hot toddy

The hot, boozy cocktails continue on the list with the hot toddy, a drink that not only tastes incredible but was once thought to have been a cure for the common cold. If you've ever had a case of the sniffles and enjoyed a hot toddy on a cold night, we think you'll agree with its medicinal qualities, too. And because we are all about health and safety, no matter the time of year, we recommend adding this vital concoction to your regular cocktail rotation.

There are many ways to make a hot toddy, but for the most enjoyable interpretation, we recommend using a good, flavorful bourbon as your base spirit to build upon. Paired with honey, lemon juice, cinnamon, and clove, the bourbon will stand out with sweet and spicy notes to make this cozy drink the warm, boozy blanket you're looking for. Don't forget to add a lemon wheel dotted with whole cloves as the garnish.

Whiskey highball

The highball is one of the simplest cocktails to prepare, which is why it's one of the best to highlight the flavor of the base spirit being used, which, for the purposes of this list, is bourbon. A highball isn't so much an exact cocktail but a cocktail concept; it combines a spirit with a non-alcoholic mixer like sparkling water or tonic and served over ice. Perfect in its simplicity, we believe the beauty of this drink is in the execution. If there was ever a time to highlight the flavor of bourbon, this is the highball glass to do it in.

This is where the opportunity to try different bourbons and find your favorite comes into play. Bourbon can have a lot of different flavor profiles, from light and sweet to rich and smoky. The notes of vanilla, caramel, fruit, and wood all play nicely together, and if you're still getting used to the idea of drinking bourbon in a cocktail, mixing it with some bubbles is the perfect way to lighten up the spirit without overdoing it.


If this is your first time hearing of the boulevardier cocktail, we're here to tell you that this is a classic cocktail not to be forgotten. Most closely associated with its gin-based sibling, the negroni, a boulevardier uses bourbon as its base spirit, adding flavor and depth to an already complex mixture. Despite swapping in a spirit with an entirely different flavor profile, the other ingredients come together in a different but somehow still balanced way to deliver a wonderful concoction that still sets the bourbon up as the star in the glass.

To make this bar classic, combine equal parts bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth in a cocktail shaker with ice and stir. Strain into a coupe glass, top with Champagne, and garnish with an orange twist that's been run around the rim of the glass first. For a twist on this, you can also use Aperol instead of Campari, and in a lower ratio than the spirit, to highlight the lighter, spicier notes of the bourbon.


Ah, the Manhattan cocktail recipe. A classic in every sense of the word, the sign of a good bartender is if they can make an excellent Manhattan. While the history of the Manhattan is a bit foggy, what we do know is that whoever did mix it up, made a drink with serious staying power. No frills or fuss, this most prestigious of tipples requires just a handful of ingredients but somehow manages to have so much depth and flavor that you would think it took hours to mix up.

Traditionally, a Manhattan is made with rye whiskey, dry vermouth, Angostura bitters, and an orange peel for garnish. And while we love the use of rye in just about any classic whiskey cocktail, swapping it out for a good bourbon harkens back to the Vieux Carré — sometimes even a decent bourbon can be better than a good rye in the right cocktail. The subtle sweetness and floral notes play nicely with the herbaceousness of the dry vermouth, making for a more flavor-forward cocktail. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry for added sweetness and allure.

Old fashioned

Like so many of the classic cocktails on this list, the old fashioned has a backstory that isn't exactly, well, exact. According to Whiskey Rebellion Trail, the drink originated in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880 at the Pendennis Club by bartender James E. Pepper, who later brought it to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel bar in New York City. Some cocktail historians claim Louisville is the drink's home, while others swear it's New York City. Louisville, however, has claimed the cocktail as its own and hosts a yearly two-week festival in the summer dedicated to it. You can subscribe to whichever story you wish, but the original recipe has remained intact, and its perfection is why it's one of our favorite drinks on this list.

Made with whiskey, sugar, water, bitters, and an orange peel for garnish, bourbon is the ideal whiskey to star in an old fashioned. As we said, the beauty is in its simplicity; the sugar works to hold up the subtle sweetness in the bourbon, and the orange peel, which is expressed into the drink for its citrusy oils before being placed on top, adds just the right acidic note to balance it all out. For some added flare, garnish with a cherry.