Although we’ve already covered the best bourbon to buy online, the right whiskey to use in an Old Fashioned cocktail merits its own guide. Indeed, it’s probably one of the most popular cocktails and people often wonder what bourbon they should add.
In this guide, we will present you with the top 10 best bourbon whiskey for an Old Fashioned cocktail:
- Woodford Reserve Double Oaked Bourbon Whiskey
- Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
- Maker’s Mark Bourbon Whiskey
- Buffalo Trace Bourbon Whiskey
- Bulleit Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Knob Creek Straight Bourbon Whiskey
- Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon Whiskey
- Jim Beam Black Bourbon Whiskey
- Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon Whiskey
- Larceny Small Batch Bourbon Whiskey
Best Bourbon Whiskey For Old Fashioned Cocktails
See The Best Bourbon To Buy Online
While Woodford Reserve may not be our favourite bourbon, it ranks highly as our primary Old Fashioned cocktail ingredient. As we commented in our main top 10 guide linked in the previous sentence, this Brown-Forman creation’s is mild, light, and subtle.
In some cases, this characteristic can be perceived as a weakness. Yet, it’s also Woodford Reserve’s greatest strength, especially if you’re not a big whiskey drinker. When mixed into an Old Fashioned, it seamlessly integrates the aromatic bitters and orange peel oils.
Meanwhile, it imparts its oil subtle vanilla and honey flavours into the concoction. Of course, if you like an Old Fashioned with a kick, it’s not the bourbon for you. However, if like them smooth and easy to drink, it’s a fantastic choice.
"A smooth and subtle bourbon that takes on the flavours of other ingredients while effortlessly imparting its own."
Originally a 12-year old expression, Elijah Craig’s small-batch bottling now incorporates 8-year bourbon due to stock shortages. However, it’s still a great bourbon that offers a pleasant harmony of flavour.
Like Woodford Reserve, it’s somewhat subtle and light. Since it’s particularly sweet, it results in a succulent Old Fashioned cocktail. Thanks to an oak-forward flavour profile, Elijah Craig also produces a very woody experience with subtle notes of connamon spice.
In the guide already linked above, our favourite overall bourbon is Maker’s Mark Cask Strength. While it would indeed be fantastic in an Old Fashioned, you don’t necessarily need such a premium option. In fact, the standard Maker’s Mark bourbon is just as good.
Identifiable thanks to its cognac-inspired bottle and hand-dipped wax neck, the classic Maker’s Mark is a popular bourbon – and for good reason, too. Often available at a very attractive price point, Maker’s Mark is quite sweet and subtle thanks to the heavy use of wheat in the mash bill.
Another affordable and easy-to-find bourbon whiskey, Buffalo Trace is produced at the historical George T. Stagg Distillery in Frankfort, Kentucky. Although it can often be picked up for less than $30, the bourbon has officially been aged for at least 8 years. However, it doesn’t come with an age statement.
Thanks to its distinctive notes of honey, caramel, and orange, it expresses a character that can only be enhanced in an Old Fashioned. Its citrus notes are heightened while there are hints of brown sugar that extend the cocktail’s sweetness.
If you’d like an Old Fashioned with a bit of a kick, consider a spicy high-rye bourbon. For this experience, we’d suggest Bulleit, which doesn’t market itself as a high-rye bourbon but 28% of the grain is used in its mash bill.
Since he revived the brand in 1987, Tom Bulleit continues to use his great-great-grandfather’s century-old recipe. Its distinctive sourdough piquancy adds character to an Old Fashioned while its prickly hints of zesty citrus can be highlighted by sparing use of orange peel. Meanwhile, its caramelised flavour profile reminds you that you are indeed enjoying a bourbon whiskey.
Produced at the Jim Beam distillery in Clermont, Kentucky, Knob Creek’s flagship expression that was first released in 1992 has undergone multiple changes in the last few years. Its 9-year age statement was briefly removed between 2016 and 2020 due to inventory shortages.
During this time, it was marketed as the “Original 100”, which referred to its 50% ABV in American proof. It has since been relaunched as both a 9-year and small-batch expression. It can be somewhat confusing as some stocks remain of the NAS version as well as the “Original 100” that was advertised as just a small batch production.
Affordable and rich in flavour, it’s an excellent bourbon for producing a potent Old Fashioned cocktail. Its heady oak and vanilla notes contrast nicely against the aromatic bitters while a hint of leather imparts a lingering muskiness.
Four Roses’ standard bourbon is often referred to as the “yellow label” in order to distinguish it from the brand’s more premium offerings. Despite its low cost, this light and floral bourbon ticks all the boxes and offers a very pleasant experience both neat and in an Old Fashioned.
Furthermore, Four Roses is quite transparent to the use of its mash bills and they’re blended. Therefore, if you’re fond of learning about what quantities of grain were used as well as the yeast strains for fermentation, all of this information is freely available to find online.
Once sporting an 8-year age statement, Jim Beam’s Black Extra Aged is said to have matured for around 6 years before being bottled. While not as refined as its own Double-Oak or the small-batch Knob Creek expressions it owns, it’s a step above the classic white label.
Generally speaking, it’s quite inexpensive and a great choice as your primary Old Fashioned ingredient. It’s a classic bourbon with a straightforward oak essence that’s supported by glimmering hints of vanilla and caramel.
Wild Turkey was launched shortly after Prohibition after the Ripy family renovated the Old Hickory distillery that it had originally built in 1891. The brand was purchased by Pernod Ricard in 1980 before it was then acquired by the Campari Group in 2009. Today, it is produced at a nearby facility that was launched in 2011.
The name “101” refers to its proof and the mash bill consists of 75% corn, which results in a very sweet bourbon. Its flavours are dominated by toffee and maple with faint hints of cinnamon spice. If you like a particularly sweet Old Fashioned, you won’t be disappointed when using Wild Turkey.
Voted “whisky of the year” by Whisky Advocate in 2020, Larceny followed Heaven Hill’s acquisition of Old Fitzgerald in 1999. Released in 2012, Larceny has a high level of wheat in its mash bill, which results in a light and subtle flavour profile.
Its mouthfeel is delicate and delivers notes of baking spices and honey with a delightfully stone fruit quality. Few bourbons use wheat in such a quantity so it’s an interesting alternative to more renowned expressions. That being said, Maker’s Mark is known for its wheaty mash bill so it does have some heavy-hitting competition!
The Old Fashioned & Its History
Of all the bourbon cocktails that we have covered, the Old Fashioned is by far the most popular. A veritable classic cocktail, it has enjoyed centuries of popularity but has also evolved significantly throughout its history. Indeed, it was originally a gin cocktail!
It first emerged in the early-19th century and was then referred to as a “bittered sling” that consisted of just spirits, bitters, water, and sugar. When more complex cocktails became in vogue during the mid-19th century, it then earned its reputation as the old-fashioned cocktail.
Indeed, it was considered old school even in the 1860s! However, it was primarily made with rye rather than bourbon whiskey until the mid-20th century. In fact, it was equally common with either gin or brandy depending on where you ordered it.
The Old Fashioned resurged in popularity thanks to the 2007 AMC television series Mad Men. In fact, Don Draper’s preferred libation is often referenced as the prime example of the “Mad Men Effect” where a renewed interest in classic cocktails coincided with the series release and cult following.
Today, a “true” Old Fashioned is almost exclusively made with bourbon. Any other primary spirit ingredient like gin or brandy is often considered a variant even if its recipe may have historically predated it. Yet, which is the best bourbon to use in an Old Fashioned?
What Is The Best Bourbon For Old Fashioneds?
Bourbon and Old Fashioned enthusiasts may regularly debate and argue over the best one to use. However, we believe that the short answer simply is that there isn’t one.
We ourselves may have curated the above list of suggested whiskeys, and indeed they’re all great. Nevertheless, there is no single bourbon that is objectively the best in an Old Fashioned.
What we would instead argue is that every bourbon will likely offer a subtly different experience. Due to the nature of their individual characters, they will each react differently with the other ingredients.
Overall, we’ve generally opted for mid-range bourbon as ideal Old Fashioned ingredients. These tend to offer the best value for money when taking into account their quality and the experience that they offer in the cocktail.
That said, we disagree with both the mantra that you want the highest-quality ingredients in a cocktail as well as the philosophy that you ideally want the cheapest.
The former argues that a premium whiskey will only heighten the experience. Meanwhile, the latter suggests that when mixed together, they lose all their character and it would be a waste of money.
Both are correct in their own way, but it depends on both your budget and personal preferences. A higher-quality bourbon will indeed improve a cocktail’s experience and offer additional nuance. Still, the benefits might be in relatively subtle, understated, and even limited ways.
If your budget allows it, experiment with premium ingredients. Otherwise, you won’t be disappointed by the bourbons we suggested above. Discover our personal favourite Old Fashioned recipe with our guide to the best bourbon cocktails.
Now that you have read about the best bourbon brands for Old Fashioned cocktails, why don’t you check out more of our resources?