There’s no arguing that bourbon is a national treasure—a mix of corn and grains that, when made right, marries smooth sweetness with robust spice and depth from oak aging. Bartenders are mixing it with everything from simple ginger beer and tonka bean “fog” to peanut butter and Concord grapes. From the the Valley of the Sun to the American whiskey heartland, we visited the country’s top bars and restaurants to bring you the 11 bourbon cocktails to drink right now.
Can't make it to any of the bars serving these great bourbon drinks? Try making the Midnight Special from this list at home.
Rusted Mule has been one of our new S.F. favorites since opening in February, with its dramatic brick-walled 1908 space and nautical themes set to top-notch cocktails and bites. From an all-star bartending and management team, drinks nod to childhood cravings, as with the PB&J, a peanut-butter-washed Jack Daniel’s mixed with fruity Merlet Crème de Framboise raspberry liqueur and balanced by celery salt and a splash of San Diego’s Saint Archer white ale. It’s dry, peanut buttery, salty, fruity and fun.
Atop the 20th floor of the sleek Conrad Chicago hotel, Baptiste & Bottle offers dramatic views of Chicago to go with its wagyu tartare and ricotta cavatelli. Beverage director Michael Fawthrop ensures the drinks are a draw in their own right. The Rootbeer Fizz will make you feel like a kid again with the subtle bitter and herbal joys of Averna amaro. But A Curtsy and a Bow, made tableside, is worth the $28 splurge for those wanting a little show with their whiskey cocktail. The base is Basil Hayden’s eight-year-old bourbon, layered with nutty orgeat and aromatic absinthe. Then comes the tonka fog, a liquid nitrogen cloud of tonka bean goodness, delivering a smoky show.
Hidden upstairs next to popular Butchertown Grocery, Lola is as magical brick-walled space lined with couches and a wrap-around bar. Beverage director Nic Christiansen’s cocktails are some of the most integrated and balanced in town. With Louisville’s deep bourbon connection, brown booze cocktails are a must. Christiansen’s Lady Midnight shines with a base of Old Forester Signature 100-proof bourbon and bone marrow-washed PX sherry given spice and complexity from Becherovka liqueur and mole bitters.
At elevated sandwich shop Stacked, Jeanette Conner (of Multnomah Whiskey Library) compiles a playful drink list including quality cocktails that pair with meat-and-bread bombs like a Smoked Turkey Reuben made with Granny Smith apples. Going boozy and spicy, the Darkwing Duck is a savory mix of W.L. Weller Special Reserve bourbon washed with duck fat and lively with Thai chilis, carbonized ramps, apple cider vinegar, orange oil, bitters and a splash of pommeau (French apple brandy with fresh apple juice).
Oakland’s Duchess is a charming Rockridge space with warm walnut woods, teal and orange/white tiles and food from chef Andrew Greene. A new upstairs bar provides more space to imbibe Luis Ramos’ (formerly of Bourbon & Branch) drinks, the highlight often being creative cocktail specials, like a recent, layered beauty of Barr Hill gin, Strega liqueur, shiso, wild plum tincture, crystallized ginger tincture, lemon, drops of sesame oil and a splash of sparkling wine. On the simpler side, Four Roses bourbon is featured in the Where Are We? cocktail with Sonoma County’s Spirit Works sloe gin, sweet vermouth, walnut tincture and a touch of Duchess co-founder Chris Strieter’s Senses chardonnay wine.
A couple of doors down from OKC’s Lyric Theatre in the thriving arts district, The Pritchard is a wine bar turning out quality food set to white walls and dark green banquettes. Yes, there are plenty of wines (on tap and by bottle) but general manager Mindy Magers crafts some thoughtful cocktails, including low-proof drinks, in the mix with the vino. The Keepin’ It Currant is a Four Roses–bourbon-based cocktail that goes down easy, made with lemon, black currant and baked apple bitters.
Alexander’s Steakhouse is an elegant feast of chef Mark Zimmerman‘s inspired tasting and a la carte menus, including a one-of-a-kind range of beef cuts (all A5 grade) from Japan. On the drink side, bar manager Raymundo Guzman plays with the robust spirits collection, including an extensive Japanese whisky selection. Alexander’s Milk Punch is a silky, clarified Milk Punch that showcases bourbon alongside cognac, Batavia arrack and a touch of absinthe and Smith & Cross rum for elegant funk. Sencha tea, pineapple, anise, coriander, clove and nutmeg add intriguing spiced layers to this beauty.
Open since fall 2016 in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood, Spilt Milk has that 1920s pharmacy/classic-cocktail-den look set to dim lighting and floral wallpaper. The laid-back vibe makes it an ideal late-night stop for conversation and a nightcap. Bourbon gets a fine treatment across the board here, including in the Sarsaparilla Sazerac (Old Forester 1897 bottled-in-bond bourbon, sarsaparilla, roasted grain, almond and absinthe). The Concord Grape Julep has been a crowd favorite from the beginning, featuring both Ancient Age bourbon and Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula cognac, audacious with Concord grape juice and fresh mint.
Follow the neon sign to Meta for a cocktail respite in downtown Louisville from Jeremy Johnson. Helmed by bar manager Amy Fisher, this is the kind of place where you might find refreshing house verdita shots, tequila washed with avocado or a fab house shio kōji spirit (a blend of salt, water and rice koji) with pickled blackberry that drinks like a savory, oxidized sherry or Madeira. One of Johnson’s longtime menu fixtures is the bracing, layered Normandy Invasion. This Sazerac-like sipper actually features equal parts calvados and Evan Williams bottled-in-bond bourbon, a touch of Pernod absinthe and a generous 20 dashes of Peychaud’s, Angostura and Fee Brothers Old Fashion aromatic bitters.
Quaintrelle is an airy haven in Portland’s Boise ’hood known for its outstanding Pacific Northwest cuisine from chef Bill Wallender (think seasonal dishes like lamb with baby carrots, frikeh, yogurt, aleppo pepper and mint). Bar manager Camille Cavan ensures the restaurant’s bar is equally a draw, with a range of cocktails and her warm welcome. The Midnight Special recalls the tart sweetness of a Whiskey Sour with the subtle bitter of a Boulevardier or Old Pal. With a bourbon base, sherry provides structure, and Tempus Fugit Gran Classico bitter brings a bitter touch. In the end, this is a citrus-forward drink, rounded out with drops of lemon oil and silky egg white.
Open at the end of 2016, CRUjiente Tacos is a hipster Mexican-street-food newcomer in Phoenix. The bar shows off plenty of bourbon and tequila along with some pisco and mezcal. In the Blackberry Bourbon Smash, co-owner Jason Morris uses Maker’s Mark 46 bourbon as the base and enlivens it with hibiscus simple syrup, lemon juice, blackberry serrano shrub and lightly pressed blackberries, garnished with a cucumber-blackberry skewer. A deep-purple–crimson, the drink is acidic and sweet, going down easy with tacos.
Mixing your cocktail