18 May 2024
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The best bourbons for four classic serves

The patron spirit of pioneers, daredevils, frontiersmen and frontierswomen, bourbon’s varied flavours and storied heritage make it a drink worth exploring. Join us as we pay tribute to the American ambrosia.

Words: Malcolm Triggs  Pictures: David Anderson
First published in the America Issue of Hot Rum Cow magazine.

Bourbon started out as plain corn spirit, distilled by Kentucky’s first white settlers as a way of preventing grain spoilage. Later, it was sent down the Mississippi in oak barrels (charred clean), its destination New Orleans. What arrived some weeks later, although still rough at the edges, delighted. Neat or mixed, the liquor fast became the drink of the masses – as good for General Ulysses S. Grant as Bourbon Street’s lewdest ladies, and every gun-slinging, ivory-tinkling, private-eyeing caricature in-between.

In tribute, then, to the enduring mark bourbon has made on the world of drinking, we’ve picked four classic serves and designated two bourbons to each – an affordable, ‘bang-for-your-buck’ number, and a more premium, ‘ace-high’ recommendation. Shoot the liquor to us, barkeep.

  1. Which bourbon to use for a bourbon soda
  2. Which bourbon to use in an old fashioned
  3. Which bourbon to drink on the rocks
  4. Which bourbon to have with a beer (a boilermaker)

1. Which bourbon to use for a bourbon soda

{ bourbon / club soda / ice / lime slice }

Makers Mark and Larceny Bourbon

One of the first and most underrated cocktails out there; an honest, clean and tall libation that lets the right bourbons truly sing.

What to shoot for:

Given the inherent tartness of club soda, this serve yearns for something sweet. We’ve picked two classic ‘wheaters’ here, for the simple fact that in the world of bourbon more wheat equals more sweet.

Bang for your buck:

Maker’s Mark is perhaps the most famous in the wheater stable. Met with soda water, it comes over all grassy and earthy – but also a little tame. That said, of a balmy evening we could drink this ’til the cattle come home.

Ace high:

A smooth, caramel-forward wheater is Larceny, with sweetness in spades. There’s something of the cream soda about this combination. The bourbon stays firmly in the saddle against the tartness of the soda water.


Mix one part bourbon to four parts soda over ice. Garnish with a lime slice and serve.

2. Which bourbon to use for an old fashioned

{ bourbon / bitters / water / sugar / ice / orange peel }

Four Rosees and Bulleit Bourbon

So called because this was considered the original mixed drink. A potent, feisty and aromatic number with charisma aplenty.

What to shoot for:

Rye is the traditional call here, so reach for a bourbon with plenty of that to the fore – and make sure it’s got enough gusto to rival the unforgivingly potent aromatics it’s being partnered up with.

Bang for your buck:

Bulleit is a readily available and revered bourbon with a trademark high rye content. It’s a straight-up winner in Old Fashioned situ: spicy, sweet, smooth, creamy, amber, wonderful. Quickest draw in this showdown.

Ace high:

Another high-rye bourbon is Four Roses Single Barrel. Seriously potent and flavoursome liquor with more than enough buck to stand out when mixed. Next time we’ll garnish with a toasted marshmallow.


Combine ½ teaspoon sugar with a double measure of bourbon. Add one large ice cube, a dash of water and a few drops of bitters. Garnish with an orange twist.

3. Which bourbon to have on the rocks

{ bourbon / ice }

Buffalo Trace and Ballantynes Bourbon

Way back when, the classic bourbon serve was up as a shooter against the bar. Now, though, the best way is to meet it neat and sip it slow.

What to shoot for:

Quality is everything when it comes to neat bourbon; there’s no hiding any blemishes, not even over ice. The good news is that there’s no shortage of such offerings out there – and you needn’t reach deep.

Bang for your buck:

Buffalo Trace ranks among the very best in its price bracket for an everyday, on-the-rocks sipper. Consistent, not overly strong, and brimming with butterscotch and maple syrup. Real purty stuff.

Ace high:

Another single barrel bourbon, Blanton’s is the Southern belle of the posse. It looks the part, smells as good and tastes beautiful. It’s a touch too meek to get its knees properly dirty, but a fine bourbon no less.


Add ice (if using) to glass, and fill with bourbon.

4. Which bourbon to have with a beer (AKA boilermaker)

{ bourbon / beer }

Jim Beam and Elijah Craig

A DIY cocktail, whether that’s in the stomach or the glass. Get the right hop juice and this is one of the surest ways to enjoy bourbon.

What to shoot for:

Once a humble workman staple, the ‘shot-and-a-beer’ is opening up a world of opportunity to the bourbon fan. You want a classic ‘well whiskey’ or a mouth-coatingly viscous bourbon – and beers to complement.

Bang for your buck:

Jim Beam and Pabst Blue Ribbon represent the high (or low, depending on the colour of your collar) watermark in consumable Americana. There’s nothing poncey about this union, nor should there be.

Ace high:

An immensely mouth-coating bourbon with corn oiliness in abundance and a gorgeous rose-gold glow. Follow with a bittersweet, palate-cleansing sip of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and you’ve got quite the showdown.


Sip both, or sip the bourbon and ‘rip’ the beer, or down both in tandem, or combine both. If you want more, try our whisky and beer pairing suggestions here.


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