The Basics Tips & Tricks

6 Things You Should Know About the Paper Plane

Everything you need to know about your new favorite shaken bourbon cocktail.

The orange-hued Paper Plane cocktail in a modern coupe glass with a blue mini paper airplane garnish
Image: / Tim Nusog

The Paper Plane—a straightforward box-step of a drink recipe made with equal proportion of four ingredients—may just be be the best bourbon cocktail that you’re not yet drinking. This cocktail is both easy to make and easy to down, thanks to its bright acid and refreshing nature (not to mention lower base spirit content than most other cocktails),

So stock up on bourbon, Aperol, Amaro Nonino and lemons, because the Last Word’s whiskey-based cousin is about to become a staple on your house menu.

1. It’s Easy to Make and Light on the Booze but Complex in Flavor

Though it’s easy to put together and it’s plenty easy-drinking, it offers a complex flavor profile: still bright and fresh but with enough heft to make it autumn-appropriate.

Bonus: If you’re not quite ready for a full-on bourbon bomb of a drink (like an Old Fashioned or a bourbon-based Manhattan), this drink involves only a moderate amount of whiskey.

A person in a white short-sleeve buttoned shirt holding a Paper Plane cocktail in warm sunlight / Tim Nusog

2. It Was Born in Chicago

There’s some confusion about the drink’s origins, being that it involves a now dearly-departed drinking institution. Was it created at New York’s now-shuttered Milk & Honey or Chicago’s Violet Hour? Sam Ross, now partner at Attaboy in New York City, explains: It was a drink he created for the Violet Hour in 2008, at the request of then-proprietor Toby Maloney.

“He wanted me to riff on a summer drink,” says Ross. “Usually, drink creation is pretty organic for me, I’m inspired by something or riff on something. This time I sat down and thought of some combinations and worked on it. It’s a riff on a Last Word cocktail,” a classic drink also made with equal parts. Further confusing the issue, the Paper Plane was also made at Milk & Honey, then Ross’ home base, “but we never had any menus,” so the first recorded instance of the Paper Plane would be on the Violet Hour’s summer 2008 drink menu.

3. It Started with Campari but Ended with Aperol

Another common point of contention: Is the Paper Plane made with Campari or Aperol?

“The original was Campari rather than Aperol,” Ross admits, and it likely first appeared on the Violet Hour menu as such. But it was later revised to Aperol, and that’s now officially the right ingredient for the drink. Bourbon, Amaro Nonino and lemon, however, were always non-negotiable components.

A bartender fine-straining a deep orange Paper Plane cocktail into a coupe glass / Tim Nusog

“That .75-ounce of bourbon,” says Ross. “To be sure, I tried it with every type of spirit—rye, applejack, brandy—to really make sure that bourbon was the right fit. And it was.”

4. Its Name Comes from a Popular British Song

Meanwhile, the drink was named for a song by M.I.A., “Paper Planes,” then newly released (“a spectacular track,” says Ross. “I was listening to it all the time when I was creating the drink.”). But the name of the cocktail only nods to one lone aircraft–unless you make a double, of course.

Several Paper Plane cocktails lined up with small blue paper airplane garnishes scattered around / Tim Nusog

5. The Secret Is Slightly High-Proof Bourbon

Although this drink is almost impossible to screw up, Ross offers a couple of tips for making an Attaboy-worthy Paper Plane. Although he doesn’t have a preferred bourbon for the drink, he does suggest using a slightly higher-proof bourbon—43% to 46% ABV—to “add a bit of body.”

6. It Only Needs a Light Shake

Another tip: Don’t overshake the drink. “You don’t want to overdilute it or make it watery, but you still want it very cold,” he says. Other than that, “as long as your lemon juice is fresh and all proportions are equal, there’s no secret to making it right.”