Ahh, whiskey. This broad umbrella of spirits – affectionately known by some as ‘brown’ – is rich, full, strong, and definitely an acquired taste. It is a classic spirit that is as well-suited to being enjoyed neat on its own or also combined with other ingredients as a cocktail base. Every home bartender should own some whiskey and know what to do with it, whether that means knowing the right time to serve it (after dinner with some dessert is a personal favorite of mine) and the nuances among its varied forms (I don’t want an Old Fashioned with peaty Islay scotch!).
Making cocktails with whiskey is a bit of an art: the spirit itself tends to have a very strong flavor and as such, it can often risk overpowering other ingredients if you treat it like you would a neutral spirit, like gin or vodka. Instead, my humble advice is to let the whiskey be the centerpiece of your cocktail and build your drink around the unique flavors of the specific distillation you have chosen to work with. This is the fun part, as there is an involved and drawn-out process of discovery that – if you don’t want it to – never truly ends.
It is your responsibility, dear reader, to get out there and drink as much whiskey as you absolutely can. This pilgrimage of alcoholism will allow you to learn your tastes and find out what specific elements you like about this spirit, which in turn will let you hone in on what specific ways you may enjoy it in a cocktail. Whether you are a fan of the peppery ryes, the honey-mellow bourbons, the peaty scotches, or the new-world blends of Japan, there is a vast universe of delicious whiskey ready for you to uncover.
20 Whiskey Cocktail Recipes
Here are our whiskey cocktail recipes for 20 whiskey cocktails. Enjoy.
1. Whiskey Buck Cocktail
Ginger beer or a homemade ginger syrup can elevate your cocktail game to new dimensions – the Whiskey Buck is a perfect example of this.
2. Pickleback Shot Cocktail
Everyone who hears about it seems initially disgusted – then I force them to taste it and they freak out because of how good it is. The pickle juice just works. Try this shot – I love it with Jameson.
3. Rattlesnake Cocktail
Another beautiful take on the inimitable Whiskey Sour. This one makes use of either absinthe or Pernod (pastis) for a rinse beforehand, giving the cocktail an underlying structure of anise flavor that props up the rest of the ingredients.
4. Rob Roy Cocktail
An interesting take on the classic Manhattan but made with scotch instead of rye or bourbon.
5. Boulevardier Cocktail Recipe
The Boulevardier is built almost the exact same with equal proportions of ingredients and in the same type of glass with the same ice.
6. Brown Derby Cocktail Recipe
A delicious and classic cocktail that traces its roots to the prohibition era.
7. Gold Rush Cocktail Recipe
A delicious, simple cocktail. You’ll want to make the honey syrup for this, which makes all the difference.
8. Manhattan Cocktail Recipe
This is a cocktail to be drank in the fall-time, on late nights, or when you need a bit of pep in your step.
9. Mint Julep Cocktail Recipe
A classic southern drink that is extremely easy to make and easier to toss back.
10. New York Sour Cocktail Recipe
Another modern cocktail classic that is undeniably good. It shares a similar structure to other sours but with the addition of a red wine float, giving the sweet, citric drink a unique and delicious tannic undertone.
11. Old Fashioned Cocktail Recipe
This is about as classic of a drink as it gets and every drinker has their own preference as to how they like it made. Drink plenty of these and see what works for you.
12. Old Pal Cocktail Recipe
Swapping out the sweet red vermouth for dry white – as well as serving this straight up in a cocktail glass – gives the drink a bit more of an elegant and lighter feel.
13. Paper Plane Cocktail Recipe
It’s a hard recipe to forget, considering it’s made up of equal parts of each ingredient. The bitterness of the amaro is complemented by a bright acidic profile from the lemon, cut through by the Aperol and framed by your bourbon.
14. Perfect Manhattan Cocktail Recipe
It’s a delicious drink and any lover of the Manhattan must try this one (if they haven’t made it already by accident).
15. Sazerac Cocktail Recipe
This is a booze-forward drink served straight up that is not for everyone but, once-accustomed, possesses a balance and aroma that is hard to resist.
16. Whiskey Coffee Cocktail Recipe
Simple and effective – this whiskey ‘cocktail’ is perfect for a holiday morning or a Sunday morning that doesn’t need to go anywhere.
17. Whiskey Highball Cocktail Recipe
Highball is a very broad term in the world of cocktails. It has come to be the general term by which we designate any mixed drink that is composed of two ingredients: one alcoholic base and one ‘chaser’.
18. Whiskey Hot Toddy Cocktail Recipe
Whether with rum or whiskey, this warm winter drink is comforting and perfectly suited to a boozy Saturday in the snow.
19. Whiskey Sour Cocktail Recipe
If food limitations allow, please make it with egg whites. The texture is such an important part of the drink and there is no real imitation for the merengue.
20. Whiskey Tonic Cocktail Recipe
Another ‘highball’ cocktail but with a mixture that is not often seen with whiskey.
What is Whiskey? How is it Made?
Whiskey is the name for a broad group of spirits usually distilled and fermented from grain mash. Each distillery has its own specific methods of making whiskey – often shrouded in secrecy and protected for centuries – but there are a few key common elements that we can briefly explore.
For one, according to The Scotch Whiskey Experience, the name ‘whiskey’ has its origins in the ancient Gaelic term uisge beatha, which was a Gaelic term for the Latin aqua vitae. For those of us needing to brush up on our Latin aqua vitae means ‘water of life’, a term long-used for the earliest archaic distillations of spirits. Alchemists as far back as the 13th and 14th century –likely much further back – would study the medicinal properties of these distilled solutions, believing it to have life-giving properties that were deeply intertwined with the mystical and ethereal.
While the spiritual effects of the brew are debatable, it is obvious that the medicinal and recreational effects of aqua vitae were well-known from the earliest written records. The term began to be used for geographically and culturally-unique spirits that were being brewed, including those in the ancient Celtic world that would eventually come to be known as whiskey.
As a short note, if you’d ever seen whiskey spelt ‘whisky’ and wondered what was up, allow me to explain: it barely matters. Traditionally, the word is spelt without the ‘e’ in Canada and Scotland, which is why you’ll see Canadian Club Rye or Johnny Walker spirits branded as ‘whisky’. However, in the States and Ireland, where lots of high-quality whiskey is made, you’ll see bourbons and Eire blends spelt with the ‘e’.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll tend toward the use of ‘whiskey’ with an e. That’s my disclaimer so the whiskey nerds don’t get upset when they see me refer to an Islay Scotch as a ‘whiskey’, not a ‘whisky’. Nerds are already enough to deal with, and when they’re full of whiskey? Best to let sleeping dogs lie.
What are the Different Kinds of Whiskey?
There are many different whiskeys out there, given that the general characteristics of whiskey are not extremely exclusive. It starts getting a little more specific as we approach the unique variations of aqua vitae.
Let’s start by briefly explaining the difference between single malt whiskeys, grain whiskeys, and blended whiskeys.
Single Malt Whiskeys
Single malt is a term used to denote a distillation made from one single distillery. It’s a common misconception that single malt means the whiskey has not been blended and is the product of a single batch – this is incorrect. Most whiskey is blended in a process of combining whiskeys from different casks in order to achieve a specific flavor desired by the distiller and single malts are no different.
What makes a single malt a ‘single’ malt is that the final product of whiskey was created by a single distillery, blended only with in-house spirits – usually other single malts that have been aging for different periods of time or have a unique flavor to them. What makes a single malt a single ‘malt’ is equally simple: the grain used is exclusively barley. No corn, no rye – just barley.
We’ll get into the process of whiskey-making later and what malting is, a process quite central to barley spirits.
Grain whiskeys are a little bit broader in their scope. The main ingredient in these spirits is corn (maize) or wheat, sometimes even a combination of the two. In this sense, grain whiskey is simply whiskey made with any kind of grain other than malted barley. Broadly, most American and Canadian whiskey is considered under this umbrella.
The last general subgroup for whiskeys is the blended whiskey. As the name implies and with what we now know about single malt, the blended whiskey is made by combining grain and malted brown, creating a flavor with more depth and one that can be marketed at a lower price while not completely sacrificing quality. It is thus able to be sourced from different distilleries or composed of grain whiskeys and single malts together.
The flavor and quality can be ensured in this process, giving consumers a spirit that they love and know well throughout the years. This is among the most common of whiskeys and you’ll be able to find many different kinds.
To start, Scotch whiskey needs to come from Scotland. Bar none, no exceptions, if you see ‘Scotch Whiskey’ on the label you know where it’s from. It’s arguably the original place where the whiskey we now know and love emerged from, and the Celtic tradition to this specific type of spirit has been retained for many years.
Scotch whiskey must be made from malted barley and must be aged in oak casks for no less than three years. It can be single malt, grain, or blended, as long as it abides by these specific characteristics. It has a number of unique features that can often differentiate it from other whiskeys: peat is one that comes to mind immediately.
Peaty-ness in your scotch is what gives it that smoky flavor and odour, the central ‘acquired taste’ that makes many turn their noses at the intensity. To me, a peaty scotch is an absolute treat, and anyone wanting to learn a bit about the world of scotch should look into some Laphroiag (pronounced luh-froyg) and prepare to have their minds blown. Peat is a unique type of organic matter that exists in Scotland, essentially “decomposed plant matter that has been compressed in the ground for thousands of years”, burned as a part of the malting process.
It is commonly found in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, where some believe that it initially became a part of the distillation process as an alternative to wood fuel, which is harder to find in certain parts of Scotland.
As you can imagine by the name, Irish whiskey comes from the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland. It does not abide by the same classifications as its Scottish cousins however and is not restricted to barley. Instead, as long as the grains are malted and the spirit is distilled in Ireland, this can be considered an Irish whiskey.
Similarly to the Scotches, Irish whiskey must also be aged in a wooden cask for a minimum of three years to ensure quality. It doesn’t need to be oak however, opening up lots of possibilities for interesting flavors when you start using different kinds of wood like maple and hickory.
My personal favorite type of whiskey. I could go into its long American history and influence from the Bourbon Dynasty of France, but I think instead that you should just go to your nearest liquor store, buy a bottle of Woodford Reserve, pour a tall glass, put on some Loretta Lynn, and enjoy it for what it is. In order to be called bourbon it traditionally should come from Kentucky, be made mostly with corn mash (>51%), and then aged in charred oak barrels.
Similar spirits like Tennessee whiskey (Jack Daniel’s, anyone?) are made in the same way as bourbon but entirely localized to that state in a stricter way than bourbon is. The relationship of this type of spirit to their geographic provenance cannot be understated: bourbon and Tennessee whiskey are some of Kentucky and Tennessee’s central exports and a critical industry. Whiskey is a piece of the culture and history of the American South and has been since the 18th century.
Every sip has some history, so pour yourself a glass and get learnin’.
Rye is a bit broader of a category with some specific nuance. As the name suggests, American rye whiskey is made using mostly rye grain mash, a way for the northeastern states to differentiate their spirits from their southern bourbon-drinking neighbours who’d use corn mash. In places like Pennsylvania and Maryland, rye whiskey is made using charred oak barrels like in the south, often aged for at least two years.
Interestingly, rye is also used to denote Canadian whiskey of any kind, which does not have to be made from rye mash. In fact, a lot of Canadian whiskey is made with corn mash and is still referred to as rye. In this way, Canadian rye and Canadian whiskey are relatively interchangeable as terms.
There is plenty of delicious whiskey out of Canada however, including the affordable and delicious Canadian Club Rye, which kills in a Manhattan.
First, the process of malting takes the grain – either barley, corn, rye, or wheat – and heats it while spread it on ‘malting floors’ after being steeped in water in order to encourage the germination process. Malting is not universal to all whiskeys, but it is central to the flavors present in scotch. The Scotch Whiskey Experience explains that this process serves to activate enzymes in the grain that will later convert starch to sugars in the mashing process.
The malted grain is then dried in large ovens – called kilns – which controls the germination process. The peat we read about earlier would be incorporated and burned in this stage to give the malted grains a specific odor and flavor.
After the grain has dried sufficiently in the kiln, it is coarsely ground and mixed with hot water in stages, with the temperature of the water increasing per stage in order to not blast the grain and destroy all the enzymes. The starches that were being prepared to convert sugar in the malting process now get to work, turning the final liquid product into a relatively sweet solution called ‘wort’. Every ingredient added and modification done at this stage has important consequences for the final product.
As such, there is great care put into the mashing process: the purity and flavor of the water, controlling the heat, the frequency of stirring, and the separation of the ‘spent grains’ and the post-mash ‘wort’ are all key elements to consider when making a fine whiskey.
Now we get a little boozy. The wort is now full of fuel for fermenting: all that sugar, when in a controlled state and introduced to yeast, will convert to alcohol and other chemical compounds that give the spirit its flavor. It is cooled and put into ‘washbacks’ where it will sit for a few days while the yeast eats up all the sugar and poops out CO2 and ethanol.
Our large volume of semi-alcoholic brew is now ready to be heated and distilled, where the alcohol will separate from the water.
This changes from distillery to distillery and all of these processes tend to be shrouded in secrecy. In essence, however, after the wort has been fermented the distillers need to separate as much water from the alcohol as they can. Heating the liquid to just below boiling, alcohol vapors pass through a thin part of the still and recondense into liquid droplets of pure boozy gold.
This liquid will drip into a separate chamber in a highly alcoholic form. This happens in two stages, once in the washback still, where it has an ABV of around 20%, and then it is transferred and distilled in a spirit still, where it comes out above 65% ABV.
The Spirit Safe
This is a really cool and mystical part of the whiskey-making process. Because of the sensitivity of the spirit after its second distillation (it’s pretty much moonshine and will absorb nuanced flavors from the air around it) the spirit is placed into a closed-off container called the Spirit Safe. One of the most important human elements of the process is introduced here and a ‘stillman’ will inspect the pure distillate only by eye to make sure its ready for maturation.
Now the distillate is added to casks, usually made of oak, to impart specific flavors into what will be whiskey in three years or more. There is plenty of variation in the casks: some are charred, some used to hold a different spirit (like bourbon or sherry), some are virgin wood. The brown-gold color of whiskey is taken directly from the wood it is aged in, and over the years the alcohol will combine with chemicals in the wood and convert into ‘esters’, unique flavor and odor compounds that give each whiskey a distinctive flavor.
Importantly, once taken out of the cask and bottled, whiskey does not mature anymore (unlike other spirits like wine).
Blending is probably the last stage of the whiskey-making process. The aged distillates are tasted by the blender and then combined in another cask for the flavors to meld together. This is a delicate process by which an expert nose and tongue is critical.
After married in the cask for long enough, the whiskey is bottled and exported for us to enjoy. This long process with a deep tradition is imperative for every decent whiskey, reminding us not to take this great spirit for granted.
How Do We Taste Whiskey?
We should briefly go over the way to taste a delicious whiskey, just to ensure that when you go looking for your perfect bottle of brown you know how to look for it.
For one, make sure you’re using the right glass. I personally like something with a bit of a bowl, like a snifter or Glencairn. Something that tapers off at the top helps keep the vapors in the glass for easy sniffing. You want something transparent so that you can look at the color.
Usually, a darker whiskey is going to be a bit stronger and more concentrated in terms of flavor, but this isn’t always the case (especially with Japanese blends). Give it a gentle sniff (a waft, even?) as the alcohol vapors are a lot more intense than wine. I learned years ago that a sniff through the nose and an exhale through the mouth can help with the smelling process.
I look for notes of caramel, ripe fruits, and smoke in my favorite whiskeys.
Now the fun part: we taste. We don’t want the alcohol flavor to totally mask the rest of the flavors, so take a really small sip and let it sit on your tongue for a little. Take multiple baby sips and allow your palate to get used to the alcohol.
Once you start pulling out some of the flavors and can start to identify them, don’t forget to pay attention to the finish of the spirit. Try and think about length: does the flavor stick around for a while, or does it melt away? Then think about evolution: do the flavors change at all after they’ve been in your mouth?
Does vanilla turn to nuttiness? Furthermore, think about it in the context of how you’ll be drinking it: is this a sipping whiskey, or will you be wanting it in an old fashioned? If it’s in a cocktail, maybe you want something with a bit less personality that can play a little better with the other ingredients.
Alternatively, if you see your whiskey as something to be busted out as a stiff nightcap all on its own, maybe you’ll be interested in something peaty with lots to say. All of these little nuances will be good to keep in mind as you develop your perfect cocktail whiskey and perfect sipping whiskey, which are often (for me) two different products.
The perfect Old Fashioned – to me
DISCLAIMER: taste is obviously relative and I’m obviously a snob. You’re not reading this article because I am an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent whiskey god, you’re reading it because I have an opinion founded on years of drinking well and you want to balance getting twisted with delicious cocktails. I’m not your friend – I’m your drinking buddy.
And thus, it’s time for me to sound like a snob: I’m dead serious about bourbon. As such, I’m dead serious about the Old Fashioned. The beauty of cocktails is that – especially with classics like the Old Fashioned – every bartender likely makes theirs a bit different.
This isn’t to say that every bartender except me makes a bad Old Fashioned, but more so to say that I know what I like and I’m getting less open-minded as I get older. To be completely honest I’ve had a lot of bad Old Fashioneds. I think the only time I’ve ever sent a drink back was with an Old Fashioned.
Seriously, in the scope of all the nasty oversweet Manhattans and over-stirred Martinis I’ve happily choked back the only time I’ve sent something back is with an Old Fashioned. In this sense, I rarely order one when I go to bars because my snobby self is often disappointed. Unless I’m in a high-quality cocktail bar where the whiskey is the central feature and the star, I keep the Old Fashioned for when I know it’ll be good – like if I’m making it.
I am a strong believer that knowing how to make an Old Fashioned at home is an absolutely king move. It’s a baller cocktail to make well: it’ll impress dates, in-laws, and business clients alike. You’ll probably never want to make another drink after you’ve nailed this one – I know I don’t.
Ideally, the Old Fashioned is four ingredients: a decent bourbon or rye (to me it has to be bourbon, no exceptions), brown demerara sugar cubes, Angostura bitters, and orange zest. Nothing more. For the love of God don’t desecrate this drink with simple syrup, maraschino liqueur, or orange juice (WTF?).
Please, please, please, don’t shake this drink. If you’re in a club where the bartender needs to make drinks quickly and efficiently, don’t order an Old Fashioned. If you’re trying to get twisted and chug something quickly, don’t order an Old Fashioned. If you don’t like the flavor of whiskey, don’t order an Old Fashioned (should go without saying but I’ve had a few returned because the client ‘doesn’t like whiskey’).
The Old Fashioned is a drink you sip slower than other cocktails. A good one takes time to make and a good one should take a bit of time to drink. The perfect Old Fashioned evolves as it melts the ice, revealing new notes of unfolding citrus, honey, and caramel that give you new insight to what the whiskey you’re drinking actually is like.
It has a sweetness to it, yes, but the sweetness is a complement to the base spirit you’re drinking, not the central feature. And for my last snobby hot take: no maraschino cherry in my Old Fashioned – the syrup from the jar can sit on top of the oils and takes away from the bourbon for me (even writing this out I’m like, ‘wow I’m the worst’). Just the orange zest and a big ice cube for me. Simplicity is key.
Let me break down how I make mine. I should note however, that there is a bit of an art to knowing when it’s properly diluted and as such, don’t expect a perfect one off the bat. Instead, keep making them with different ingredients, stir them for differing amounts of time, and find what works for you. What I hope, dear reader, is that by finding your perfect Old Fashioned you become as much of a snob as me, and thus validate the snobby claims that I hold so dearly and deeply to myself.
In a mixing glass, drop a brown sugar cube and add two or three dashes of Angostura bitters directly on top. Peel some orange zest and delicately scrape off all the white stuff (the pith) until the ‘pores’ of the orange peel are exposed. Drop your scraped zest into the glass and with a muddler, crush the sugar cube into the orange peel with the help of the few drops of bitters you added. It should turn into a course paste.
Now add 1.25oz of a decent-quality bourbon. Jim Beam is fine if it’s what you have but if you can spare something less mass-produced, your cocktail (and hangover) will thank you. Once our beautiful bourbon is in the mixing glass, add about ¾ of the ice you would usually use to mix.
Dilute the bourbon and sugar paste together, watching the mixing glass carefully to not over-dilute (pay attention to the color). Once well-mixed, add the last .75oz of bourbon and some fresh ice. Mix quickly and briefly to incorporate the last bit of bourbon, which will help give the early stages of the cocktail a strong whiskey kick.
Try not to dilute it too much more and when the color looks golden-amber, strain the drink into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Cut an orange zest, whose oils you’ll then spray over the ice and corners of the glass. Place the zest into the drink and serve. If you don’t love it, give it to me – I’ll happily drink it.
I notice making the Old Fashioned like this allows you to experience it in levels. The first couple of sips, characterized by the fresh bourbon we just added, are strong and stiff. The whiskey cuts through the sugar and pairs with the orange aroma.
As the drink melts in the glass a little more, we begin to notice the bitters and brown sugar. By the bottom of the glass, it has a lovely syrupy flavor and texture, pulling notes of honey and caramel out of the sugar and bourbon in a lovely, dynamic way. The bourbon shows multiple sides to you, unveiling layers as long as you give it time.
To me, the ideal cocktail shows you nuance in the base spirit and highlights it instead of covering it up with the flavors of other ingredients. The Old Fashioned is by far the best cocktail by which to directly experience this. And while it may only be 3PM, I can’t help but honor my old friend the Old Fashioned by making one with care and sipping it while I write. You should do the same.
- https://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/about-whisky/making ↑
- https://www.johnniewalker.com/en-ca/whisky-guide/types-of-whisky/ ↑
- https://www.mensjournal.com/food-drink/wait-what-the-hell-is-peat-and-what-is-it-doing-in-my-whisky-w443949/ ↑
- https://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/about-whisky/making ↑