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We Asked 19 Bartenders: What’s Your Go-To Bourbon? (2024)

There are some bourbons people may reserve for specific occasions. Those moments could include unwinding after a hard day at work, toasting a surprising burst of good news, basking in the afterglow of a life event, or even just enjoying some unexpected good weather. Whatever the reason, they compel the imbiber to reach for a singular bottle to match the moment’s zeitgeist.

But then, there’s the bourbon that we find perfect for any occasion. The aromatics, palate entry, and flavor profile deliver enough satisfaction and comfort to transcend any context. It’s a go-to bourbon simply because it’s a damn good dram, and no other reason needs to exist. There are no wrong answers when it comes to choosing yours, but given the bourbon market’s broad selection, people are bound to have different favorites that work for them.

To explore this variance, we asked 18 bartenders what they choose when they simply want a bourbon that brings joy to the palate every time, any time.

The best go-to bourbon, according to bartenders:

Elijah Craig Small Batch
Garrison Brothers Small Batch
Chattanooga 111
Wyoming Whiskey Double Cask Bourbon Whiskey
Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon
Wild Turkey 101
Buffalo Trace
Heaven Hill 7-Year Bottled in Bond
Laws Four-Grain Bourbon
George Dickel 8 year
FEW Bottled-in-Bond Straight Bourbon
Old Tub Bourbon
The Family Jones’ Elia Jones Bourbon
Larceny Bourbon
Kentucky Gentleman
Four Roses

Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon has long been a go-to of mine for making cocktails, especially a classic Old Fashioned. Its delightful aromatics and its wonderful balance of brown sugar, stone fruit, and oak influence makes it a versatile home run every time, be it for cocktail-making or just sipping neat. It’s also hard to beat its price-to-age value.” —George Wright, beverage director, sap sua, Denver

“I’ve been in love with Garrison Brothers Small Batch for a few years now. It’s an easy crowd-pleaser both at work and with friends, and I love that they do things their own way. The distillery is in Hye, Texas, and the climate is amazing for aging whiskey. They use locally grown white corn in their wheated mash bill that creates a pleasant uniqueness you couldn’t get with yellow dent. If you visit their distillery, you can volunteer to help hand-dip the bottles in their iconic wax tops. They also advertise free distillery tours for anyone that shows up on a horse.” —Patrick Gibson, bartender, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, Washington, D.C.

“One of my favorite bottles of bourbon to reach for has consistently been Chattanooga Cask 111. A high-proof, straight bourbon whiskey, Chattanooga 111 sits at — you guessed it — 111 proof. In our world, that translates to a robust spirit that can stand out amongst strong flavors like citrus, amari, and bitters to name a few common cocktail bullies. In contradiction to many Tennessee-style whiskeys, Chattanooga 111 is unfiltered, so it maintains all the notes of oak and spice imparted in the maturation process. In conjunction with its high proof, Chattanooga 111’s notes of toffee, orchard fruit, and baking spices make it one of my favorite back-bar pulls for deep, rich Old Fashioneds, but it shines just as bright on a cold chunk of ice.” —Evan Flynn, head bartender, Death & Co, Denver

Wyoming Whiskey’s Double Cask Bourbon. I really love what Wyoming Whiskey is doing [with this bottle]. They age the whiskey for five years in new charred oak, then it’s aged once again in decades-old Pedro Ximenez casks from Jerez. The result is a complex yet rich bourbon with hints of candied orange, vanilla cake, and sticky buns. Wyoming Whiskey works with local farmers for their raw material and uses no rye in their mash bill, which really lets that cask finish shine. It comes in at 50 percent ABV to highlight the complexity of the whiskey.” —Gabriel Urrutia, professor of spirits, FIU Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, Miami

“My favorite bourbon has changed so much over the years, from the quantity-over-quality that my adolescent years provided to the new heightened sense of palatability that [I’ve grown] accustomed to in recent years. One thing that I’ve carried between those timelines is Old Grand-Dad Bonded Bourbon. Its smooth, round finish — which is accompanied by a stout 100-proof kick — has always made this a great go-to for me and my friends. The affordability that goes alongside its rich complexity makes this a cocktail-savvy bourbon with the framework of a neat or iced sipper.” —Henry Ottix, beverage director, Lucina Eatery & Bar, Denver

Wild Turkey 101! It’s described by the brand as a ‘true American classic,’ and I couldn’t have said it better myself. The proof makes it a standout for implementation in a wide range of cocktails from sours to Manhattans. And its flavor is well balanced with notes of vanilla and orange, but it doesn’t go all out on the baking spice characteristics that you can sometimes find in bourbons.” —Alex Jump, co-founder, Focus on Health

“After working at Ward III with over 300 bottles of whiskey, I came to really like Buffalo Trace Bourbon as a great value, everyday-drinking bourbon. Although it has become a little harder to find, it’s definitely worth it. This is the same distillery that makes some of the top names in bourbon (Pappy, Weller, Blanton’s) and has been doing so for over 200 years. The namesake Buffalo Trace uses a high percentage [of corn in its] mash bill, making it slightly sweeter and very smooth. [It has] a complex aroma of vanilla and molasses leading into tasting notes of brown sugar, toffee, oak, and a little spice from the rye in the mash bill.’” —Nick Jackson, head bartender, The Rum House, NYC

“My current go-to bourbon all around is Heaven Hill 7 Year Bottled in Bond. It’s kind of my platonic ideal of a bourbon. It’s 100 proof, so it stands up well in cocktails but doesn’t blow people’s heads off if they want to drink it neat. There’s a good amount of age, but it’s not aged so long that the cereal notes from the corn and the rye are missing. The bottle’s reasonable cost and constant availability make it the perfect bourbon; it’s in about the same place that Buffalo Trace was 10 years ago. This would be the bourbon I pull out for the person who is just being introduced to the category, but also for the experienced collector who might have missed it. This should be a staple of your bar, full stop.” —Karl Goranowski, beverage director, barbata, Tucson, Ariz.

“When it comes to a go-to spirit, I think of its availability, price point, and versatility. Considering those factors, only one bourbon comes to mind: Old Grand-Dad Bonded. It is a 4- to 5-year aged bourbon that has enough character to be enjoyed neat, enough proof to stand up in a cocktail, and at $26.99, it’s a no-brainer when it comes to the budget. We all know that a proper cocktail needs balance to ignite your taste buds, and so does the drink’s base spirit. With Old Grand-Dad at the helm, you can count on the perfect balancing act.” —Teddy Martinez, bartender, Melrose Umbrella Co., Los Angeles

Laws’ Four Grain Bourbon is not only complex but versatile. It has the proof needed to stand up well and showcase itself in cocktails, but there is also enough flavor that it can easily be enjoyed neat. I love the notes of cocoa and coffee it has for making cocktails, and I’ve found this so easy to pair with richer flavors like dark cherry while using the citrus aromatics of an orange peel to brighten drinks and bring them to life. In Colorado, everyone loves supporting local brands and it really doesn’t get more local than Laws. I appreciate that they support the local economy by sourcing their heirloom grains from Colorado farmers.” —Aiden Wren, beverage director, the L, Denver

“The George Dickel 8 Year is such a good, classic bourbon. It has notes of vanilla, cherry, and orange, and is great in both stirred and shaken cocktails as well as just on its own over a big rock. What Nicole Austin has done with the entire Dickel portfolio is pretty miraculous, and this bourbon is such a good affordable addition to the bourbon market.” —Sammi Katz, bartender, The Rockwell Place, NYC

“I recently stumbled upon FEW spirits. The distillery roots its production in the history of the town it’s in: Evanston, Ill., which would become the seat of Prohibition and the headquarters of the temperance movement. I was able to get my hands on FEW’s Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon, [which celebrates] the 125th anniversary of the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897. Following the laws of the act, this straight bourbon is produced in the same season the grains are harvested and is aged in American oak barrels in a federally bonded warehouse for four years. This long aging process produces a bourbon that is smooth and aromatic with notes of cherry, toasted vanilla, and caramel. Great for sipping neat or with a large cube!” —Bruce Polack, beverage director, The Regular, Denver

“When developing menus, or simply crafting a cocktail for guests in my home, I always reach for Old Grand-Dad Bottled In Bond Bourbon. It’s high-proof, but its structured flavor notes make for a resplendent yet approachable pour. At 100 proof, it’s a standout in stirred classics alongside sugar, bitters, or vermouths, but doesn’t punch out softer mixers like citrus or bubbles in highballs or sours.” —Josh Gandee, partner, Focus on Health/host, no proof podcast

“Once I came across Old Tub, I was impressed that the spirit predated Jim Beam and was one of the original expressions from the historic distillery. I was also impressed with the proof and taste: it’s super versatile when mixing cocktails, and it’s a great team shot after a long service. Stirring Old Tub down with an amaro blend over a big cube is something I’m particularly fond of doing. Lastly, the price point that the bottle comes in at is magnificent, even in Ontario. Not overspending for quality is something I always consider.” —Rob Granicolo, owner, Cry Baby Gallery, Toronto

“My go-to bourbon is Elijah Craig Small Batch. It checks every mark I look for whether at home or working. It is proofed high enough to stand up in cocktails and nuanced enough with malted barley and rye to make it a sipper on its own or perfect for enjoying a cigar with friends. Elijah Craig is a bourbon you aren’t afraid to pull off the shelf with your whiskey buddies, and budget-friendly enough to bring two bottles to the tailgate. If you want a bourbon to bridge the snob-to-newbie gap, Elijah Craig Small Batch is what you’re looking for.” —Gabe Sanchez, cocktail expert, Midnight Rambler at The Joule, Dallas

The Family Jones’ Ella Jones Bourbon is a carefully crafted bourbon with an array of notable flavors that shine through and elevate every cocktail! Old Fashioneds and Manhattans are just two simple classics that I choose Ella Jones for. The fruity aromas and vanilla taste come through at first followed by a nice cherry and oak finish, making this bourbon perfect for a neat or rocks pour. Almost every liquor store and restaurant in Colorado carries Ella for a respectable reason. It’s transparent, memorable, and delicious. As simple as that!” —Mondo Hernandez, lead bartender, Root Down, Denver

“My go-to bourbon is Larceny, with its aromas of caramel, toffee, toast, crème brûlée, and butterscotch. The proof is definitely present on the palate, but the secondary wheat bill really shines through, offering notes of baking spice, brown sugar, charred oak, butter, and freshly cracked black pepper. It’s an exceptionally approachable bourbon, both in taste and in price point. It has the complexity to savor as a neat pour and the backbone to use in cocktails. Plus, it’s friendly enough to shine even in a split base without overpowering.” —Ally O’Keefe, bar lead, King Brasserie & Bar, New Orleans

“My go-to bourbon for an Old Fashioned right now has to be Pinhook. It checks the boxes with it being higher-proof and a little dry on the palate, and for how it plays well with bitters in a cocktail. The brown sugar in the nose really seals it for me, and it always leaves me wanting a second pour.” —Jon McConnell, bar manager, Sacred Junk Bar, Anaheim, Calif.

“The best go-to bourbon can vary depending on the occasion and how it’s being enjoyed. Growing up in Tennessee, a Whiskey and Coke was an easy drink. Kentucky Gentleman is my go-to if I’m drinking that. It’s a staple in dive bars and a reliable choice for mixing. But when it comes to sipping bourbon neat, in shots, or in cocktails, Four Roses Yellow Label is the go-to choice. Its smooth taste and affordable price make it a favorite. Whether you’re looking for a budget-friendly option or just seeking a reliable bourbon for any occasion, these work!” —Jamie White, co-owner, Pearl Diver and Tiger Bar, Nashville

*Image retrieved from 5ph via stock.adobe.com

The article We Asked 19 Bartenders: What’s Your Go-To Bourbon? (2024) appeared first on VinePair.

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