In the eight years that passed between my first and second Kentucky Bourbon Festivals, more has changed than just the scale of the event. Like the drinks, for instance. Where the Great Kentucky Bourbon Tasting & Gala once offered a choice of each distillery’s best Bourbons, served straight up or on the rocks, in 2005 most booths boasted a cocktail option as well, from the classic Manhattan, given a Maker’s Mark twist, to Buffalo Trace’s seasonal celebration, the Fall Buffalo.
The rise of cocktails at an event featuring mostly high-end Bourbons is hardly surprising. Not only has the cocktail as an entity reached a level of popularity unprecedented for this generation, but because of their generally spicy-sweet and vanilla-accented character, Bourbons are particularly well suited to mixing. Substitute an ordinary brand with a more complex, ultrapremium brand and suddenly the flavor of your cocktail is elevated from the sublime to the stratospheric.
General guidelines on how to use Bourbons in cocktails start with the premise that all brands fall into one of three very broad categories: Sweeter, fruity Bourbons with vanilla and toffee notes prominent, such as Knob Creek and Van Winkle Special Reserve; spicy Bourbons with ample rye character, like the Four Roses Single Barrel and 1792 Ridgemont Reserve; and softer, more mellow Bourbons where these two characteristics meet in joyous harmony, as with Woodford Reserve or the 10-year-old Wild Turkey Russell’s Reserve.
When mixing lighter, fruit juice-based cocktails, preference should be given to sweeter Bourbons, since generally speaking such drinks don’t benefit from an overpowering alcohol presence. For leaner cocktails, however, such as a Bourbon Sazerac or an old fashioned, a spicy Bourbon may be preferred, so that the drink’s inherent sharpness might shine through. And finally, when drinking whiskey straight, on the rocks or with just a hint of mix, as in a dry Manhattan, something from the last category of mellower Bourbons would be well suited.
In the end, the choice of how to use a whiskey is as individual as your Bourbon preference itself.
Jim Beam Black Apple Manhattan
2 parts Jim Beam Black Bourbon
1 part Dekuyper Pucker Sour Apple Schnapps
Splash of cranberry juice
1 Maraschino cherry
Combine and stir the Bourbon and schnapps with a splash of cranberry juice. Serve in a rocks glass over ice or strain and pour in a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.
The Maker’s Mark Manhattan
1-1/2 ounces Maker’s Mark Bourbon
1/2 ounce Carpano or Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth
1 teaspoon of Maraschino cherry juice
1 Maraschino cherry
Fill cocktail shaker with ice, Maker’s Mark, vermouth and maraschino cherry juice. Shake for 30 seconds. Strain into chilled Manhattan glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.
3 parts Buffalo Trace Bourbon
2 parts ginger ale
3 parts apple cider
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker over ice and shake vigorously. Strain into a chilled Champagne flute.
This one is from Wild Turkey, served at their "Boots & Bourbon" party:
Sex in the Holler
1 part Wild Turkey Honey Liqueur
1 part Peach Schnapps
1 part Raspberry Liqueur
2 parts Cranberry Juice
2 parts Pineapple Juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker and strain into a lowball glass over ice.