Yes, the Old Fashioned was originally made with rye whiskey (and for Wisconsinites, brandy has long been the spirit of choice). But even if that’s where the Old Fashioned started, ending up in bourbon territory isn’t a terrible shift. If anything, it makes the cocktail a little more widely appealing, since there are some people who are driven off somewhat by rye’s characteristic bite. The success of your bourbon Old Fashioned, however, largely relies on your bottle choice.
What Bourbon Makes the Best Old Fashioned?
Too many whiskey drinkers think there’s some kind of objective hierarchy to bourbon, where people get condemned as having bad taste for drinking one brand and they’re whiskey experts if they’ve ever sniffed a bottle of another. That’s some elitist nonsense. The truth is, If the whiskey was made of high quality grain in a controlled environment by people who know what they’re doing, it’s probably a good whiskey. Assuming those things are true, you’re moving into matters of personal taste. That means the easiest, most honest, and least pretentious answer to the question of what bourbon makes the best Old Fashioned is: your favorite bourbon makes the best Old Fashioned.
That said, there are some variations that you’ll find depending on what you use. For example, a bourbon with a high rye mash bill will lead to an Old Fashioned that’s more similar to the cocktail’s original recipe, while a higher percentage of corn typically results in a sweeter cocktail.
Bulleit isn’t going to revolutionize American bourbon and it’s never going to be the greatest bourbon you ever drink. But that’s all part of what makes it a go-to option for an Old Fashioned. Keep a bottle of Bulleit in your cabinet and you’ll be able to mix perfectly acceptable Old Fashioneds whenever you want.
Also worth noting are the two upscale bourbon offerings from Bulleit: a 10-year-old and a barrel strength. Both have the same utility as the flagship when it comes to an Old Fashioned. Try one of the other two offerings if you’re looking to switch things up a bit and are willing to pay for a a slightly higher (yet still affordable) price point.
Redemption High Rye Bourbon
Redemption is another brand that makes enjoyable whiskeys that are true to style and low in price. The High Rye Bourbon in particular makes for a good Old Fashioned. The rye adds a spicy kick, and choosing a high rye bourbon will give you something closer to the original Old Fashioned recipe. With this option, you’ll avoid a cocktail that’s too sweet even with that muddled brown sugar or simple syrup, as the spicy herbal flavor from the rye really cuts back on the potential for the sweetness to overwhelm the palate. Redemption High Rye also adds a bit more depth of flavor and lends itself to a good nursing.
Larceny Small Batch
Speaking of using different grains to cut a bourbon’s corn sweetness, Larceny Small Batch ditches the rye in favor of wheat, which does wild things to the flavor. I’m not saying wild as a catchy filler word, but as a tasting note. You still end up with a lingering maltiness and it’s bready, but it’s not bready like supermarket sandwich bread. It’s bready like artisan wholemeal brown bread that you bought from a local bakery down an alley. Obviously these are also desirable flavors in an Old Fashioned.
Hudson Whiskey Bright Lights, Big Bourbon
While it’s nice to cut overwhelming corn flavors with rye and wheat sometimes, it can also be nice to lean all in with a bourbon that’s 95 percent corn. Sometimes you want bourbon to taste like it has a capital B, and that’s exactly what Hudson’s Bright Lights, Big Bourbon does. It’s full of that rich caramel flavor that corn and oak aging come together to create, with just enough barley in the mash that the bourbon doesn’t accidentally become a syrup. It’s perfect for anyone who hates cutting their Old Fashioned with anything, even too much ice.
Denning’s Point Distillery Beacon Bourbon
Making an Old Fashioned with cask strength whiskey is both a good idea and fraught with danger. It’s a good idea because it gives you more time to enjoy your drink before it hits the point where enough ice has melted that it tastes watered down. It’s fraught because it means that every Old Fashioned you mix is significantly stronger than if you had used a 40 percent ABV whiskey. Such is the case with Beacon Bourbon, a delicious cask strength bourbon that will absolutely batter you over the head if you don’t keep your eye on it.
Willett Pot Still Reserve
This bottle will have you thinking fancy whiskey from the start. For one, it looks more like a decanter than a simple bottle. More importantly, the whiskey inside is good enough to earn the bottle. Willett’s pot still distillation method definitely makes a difference, as this is a bourbon with an extremely satisfying texture. It’s close to the Irish pot still style, with thick legs down the side of the glass and a complex flavor profile. It’s almost a shame to mix a whiskey like this, though you won’t complain once you take a sip of an Old Fashioned made with Pot Still Reserve.
Widow Jane The Vaults
While there are plenty of solid bourbons under $200, there are whiskeys out there that are worth paying extra for. The Vaults from Widow Jane is one of them. It’s a 15-year-old whiskey finished in casks made of rare oak staves that have been seasoned for almost four years in a process that completely changes the flavors that the whiskey can pull from the wood. In fact, you run a serious risk of buying this whiskey to make ultra-premium Old Fashioneds, then “sampling” the whole bottle before you ever mix anything. But hey, if you’re looking for the ultimate luxury Old Fashioned, don’t say you don’t have options.