We Asked 3 Bartenders to Name the Best Bourbon for an Old-Fashioned, and They All Said the Same Thing

published Oct 23, 2023
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Credit: Brittany Conerly

Truth be told, I could enjoy an old-fashioned (and all its many iterations) all-year round. Still, there’s something to be said about how much more delicious the classic cocktail is when the temps dip and I’m ready to sip the alchemical gold that happens when you combine bourbon, bitters, sugar, and water.

As I’m sure you’ve likely noticed, there’s nearly as many bottles of whiskeys out there as there are whiskey drinkers. That’s absolutely the case for bourbon, the whiskey of choice for many when it comes to mixing up a classic old-fashioned. Barrel-aged, oaky bourbon is the backbone of the quintessential cocktail. It’s also the type of liquor you want to opt for a more mid-to-top-shelf bottle; there’s very little hiding room for sub-par liquor in the limited ingredients’ list. 

Smooth, spicy, or just well-balanced, bartenders often stock upwards of thirty bourbons in order to mix up an old-fashioned, depending on the customer’s mood. Though it might sound intimidating when considering which bottle to add to your cart, the good news is old-fashioneds are maybe the easiest of all the cocktails to make. I chatted with a few bartenders who have a few takes on the best bourbons for old-fashioneds, as well as some tips to serve up the best one at home. 

What’s the best bourbon for old-fashioneds?

Despite how well-stocked their bars might be, there is bourbon (nay, a whole distillery!) that particularly shines for many bartenders: Kentucky’s own Buffalo Trace. “I actually love Buffalo Trace,” says Brad Hagman of The Harper in Fort Worth, Texas of the distillery’s eponymous bourbon. “I make more Buffalo Trace old-fashioneds than I do anything.” The budget-friendly bourbon also still has plenty of dimension all its own as a mid-shelf bourbon, alongside other affordable Buffalo Trace options like Eagle Rare, Ancient Age, and Benchmark.

If you’re looking to stock your bar with something higher on the shelf (which a simple cocktail like the old-fashioned can often call for), one particular option won over many of the bartenders I spoke to. “My desert island old-fashioned bourbon would be E.H Taylor, Jr.,” says Chris Cardone, chief mixologist for Via Carota Craft Cocktails and bartender at I Sodi in Manhattan.

You likely know where I’m going with this: E.H. Taylor, Jr. falls, yes, under the same umbrella of iconic distillery, Buffalo Trace, which bought the Old Taylor brand from Jim Beam in 2009 and re-released this smooth bourbon under the E.H. Taylor, Jr. moniker in 2013. 

Nick Hassiotis of Alpharetta, Georgia’s Foundation Social Eatery, also loves breaking out the E.H Taylor Jr. bourbon in the fall; it hits many of the flavor notes associated with the season, such as cinnamon, caramel, black pepper, candied orange, and vanilla. “As we are heading into fall and winter, I like bourbons with a little more of a backbone and a higher alcohol content,” says Hassiotis, who agrees that a higher proof and high-quality bourbon like the E.H. Taylor Jr. is key to nailing the cocktail at home. “The dilution from the ice while stirring the cocktail will help mellow out some of the ‘hotness’ from that higher proof, but it will still be able to stand on its own and have all the delicious bourbon-ness come through.

Cardone also adds that if someone wants a bourbon that is super smooth, easy drinking, and light on heat, that Blantons, also a member of the Buffalo Trace extended universe, is another top-shelf choice.

Credit: Brittany Conerly

How do you make the best old-fashioned?

Overwhelmingly, all the bartenders I chatted with urged me to remind home mixologists to keep it ultra simple when making their old-fashioneds. “I think people try to get too tricky,” says Hagman. “A lot of times people that are new to the business [of making an old-fashioned], they don’t feel complete if they’re not adding a bunch of ingredients to things,” which, more often than not, Hagman says, means adding too much sugar to the cocktail.

If you often go maximalist, don’t fret; The old-fashioned might be called old, but you can still bust out some new tricks. Hagman, for instance, is a big proponent of going 50/50 on his alcohol base when making an old-fashioned, which is what he did with his popular old-fashioned recipe, which uses takes equal parts of the sweeter, more viscous Texas-based Blackland Texas Pecan Brown Sugar Bourbon, along with equal parts of the heat of Blackland rye whiskey to create his own spicy-sweet spin. 

Credit: Lauren Volo

When in doubt, just have fun with your cocktail mixing. Old-fashioneds aren’t always one-size-fits-all even if they seem like it. “Once you find the bourbon you’re into, then have fun with the bitters,” says Hassiotis. “That is an easy way to change the flavor and keep it seasonal while using the same recipe. In summer, try peach bitters and then as you’re getting into fall, use something more aromatic like Angostura or Jerry Thomas bitters.”

Once you have all your components lined up, it’s time to mix. “I personally use two to three dashes of Angostura bitters, 1/4 teaspoon of simple syrup (using demerara sugar), and then two-and-a-half ounces of bourbon,” says Cardone. Then, be sure to opt for serving your drink with a large ice cube, so that it won’t dilute too quickly. 

The finishing touch? A wheel of orange zest and, my personal favorite addition, a plump, semi-candied Fabbri Amarena cherry to literally put the cherry on top of this simple, yet complex, treat of a cocktail. 

What bourbon do you use to make an old-fashioned? Tell us about it in the comments below.