Bartenders' Favorite Cocktail Whiskeys - The Whiskey Wash

Bartenders’ Favorite Cocktail Whiskeys

Having a single bottle of “cocktail whiskey” is a lovely idea, but much like picking a spouse or the perfect pair of jeans, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing the right mixing companion. (Although, thankfully, the process of honing in on a good one is much less painful.)

The right cocktail whiskey depends on several factors: the style of the cocktail you’re making, your budget, and plain old personal preference. Because of that last one, it’s easy to get into a rut, and even when it’s a comfortable rut (hello, Rittenhouse Rye), it can be fun to see what’s on the other side of the furrow every once in a while.

For help broadening our horizons, we talked to a few of the nation’s top bartenders to find out which brands they love behind the bar and how they think about matching the right whiskey with the right cocktail.

Whiskey cocktails at Proof on Main, photo courtesy of Proof on Main.

Consider Style First

“If it’s going into a cocktail, the first thing we think is always: What’s the style?” says Chea Beckley, area beverage manager for 21c Museum Hotels, a chain of boutique hotels known for its exceptional restaurant and bar programs. “That will give us an indication of what proof, what mash bill we’re looking for, any finish, or certain spice profiles.”

For instance, “I’m sure somebody likes something woody with their sours, but we tend to lean a little towards wheaters that are a little bit sweeter,” says Chea. He says Maker’s Mark and Weller 90 proof are two favorite options for the bartenders at Proof on Main, the award-winning bar and restaurant on the ground floor of the 21c hotel in Louisville, Kentucky. “But when we get to richer cocktails like a Manhattan or something of that nature, we start to experiment more with woody flavors and high rye mash bills.”

For old fashioneds, Christian Madsen, head bartender at Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., recommends Woodford Double Oak, which sees a second maturation in a heavily toasted, lightly charred barrel. “It gives the cocktail a spice-rack-bludgeoned-with-a-maple-dipped-hatchet feel,” says Christian. (Isn’t that what we’re all looking for in an old fashioned?)

Aim for Quality-Price Balance

“As far as bourbon goes, Henry McKenna is hands down my favorite of all time,” says Christian. “The time in barrel and the fact that it is bonded makes you wonder how they can charge such little money when so many other super premium bottles have fewer years and a lower proof.”

“Johnny Drum 101 is definitely a bartender favorite in our crew,” says Chea. “And Old Granddad Bonded is a super bar favorite.” Christian seconds that choice, calling Old Granddad BiB a “beat the system’ cocktail bourbon. While it’s only available in Kentucky, Heaven Hill’s Six Year White Label bonded bourbon is also a super-versatile cocktail bourbon at a startlingly affordable price point.

When it comes to Scotch whisky—a notoriously spendy category—Christian says you don’t have to break the bank. “If I want a honeyed, floral, grassy flavor I would probably reach for either Monkey Shoulder or Glenmorangie 10 Year,” says Christian. “Glenmorangie has some great citrus and honey flavors that pair well with lighter cocktails, refreshing coolers, or slings and sours at a very accessible price range.”

For a smokier Scotch, Christian says the Black Grouse by Famous Grouse offers a classic coastal malt flavor profile in an affordable bottle, although spending a little more might be worth it. “If you feel like ponying up and spending a few more dollars, Ardbeg Ten Year is my go-to within Islays,” says Christian. “I always add a little to float on a Penicillin.”

Think Outside the Box

There’s no rule that says you have to choose just one whiskey per cocktail. Portland-based bartender Mindy Kucan, formerly of Hale Pele and Bit House Saloon, now at Bible Club, likes to use Rittenhouse Rye as a cocktail rye, but she also suggests adding a touch of a softer whiskey containing wheat or oats to round out the flavor profile.

While most whiskey cocktails call for a specific style of whiskey, it’s not a crime to experiment with other styles for crossover riffs “Deanston Virgin Oak works great for an Old Fashioned with its vanilla, woody flavors,” says Christian. “It’s an easy transition single malt that can provide some of those bourbon barrel notes while still giving you your honeyed and floral Highland Scotch flavors.”

Happy mixing!

About the author

    Margarett Waterbury

    Margarett Waterbury is a food and drinks writer based in Portland, Oregon. She's the managing editor of The Whiskey Wash, the managing editor of Edible Portland, and a regular contributor to local and national publications.