The Old Fashioned Connoisseur Club | Choosing Whiskey for Cocktails

A brand new blog series where we’ll be imparting a few tidbits of our hard-earned knowledge, distilled over years of slingin’ bottles and mixing up a storm.

Where to start the series? Well, where better to start than whiskey? A spirit that’s at the heart of many a classic cocktail, a little extra whiskey know-how will take your cocktails a long way.

When it comes to selecting the best whiskey for making cocktails, there’s a very specific set of requirements. We’re looking for liquor that plays well with others rather than a standout solo act. But equally, we don’t want a wallflower whiskey. The best options still bring something unique to the party. And remember: a cocktail will improve cheap hooch, but cheap hooch won’t improve a cocktail. So don’t break the bank, but give moonshine a miss.

Today we’re focusing on the three whiskey types that are most commonly found in cocktails: bourbon, rye and Irish. Peaty scotch whiskies (Islay malts, we’re lookin’ at you) have a stronger flavor that often can overpower cocktails. Plus, there’s so much variance in scotch that it kinda needs its own separate article.

So let’s take a closer look at our chosen categories of fire water:


A US-made worldwide favorite, bourbon is known for being the sweetest member of the whiskey fraternity. Famous for its vanilla and toffee notes, bourbon is aged in new charred oak containers and distilled from a grain mixture that’s at least 51% corn. Perfect for impatient folks, even the best quality bourbon is ready to drink after just a couple of years. But don’t mistake that youth and sweetness for naivety – a good bourbon can conceal a complex character.

Rye Whiskey

The spicier cousin of bourbon, rye whiskey is distilled from at least 51% (you guessed it) rye grain. Rye whiskey is also pretty quick to mature; often ready after a year or two, although it can be aged for longer. Before prohibition, rye was all the rage. Ever since, it’s kept a low profile – although in recent years we’ve seen something of a rye resurgence. It’s a whiskey that should be right at home on the shelf of any old fashioned cocktail connoisseur.

Irish Whiskey

A staple of the Emerald Isle, Irish whiskey is one of the oldest distilled drinks in Europe. It’s also the quintessential old fashioned cocktail ingredient. Typically distilled three times, it often has a smoother finish than scotch whisky. And because the distillation process calls for unmalted barley that isn’t dried with peat smoke, its flavor is more amenable to cocktail mixing. A dash of Ireland’s finest will liven up everything from your cocktail to your coffee.

Choosing a whiskey for cocktails

Obviously you’ll combine your whiskey base with other ingredients to mix your cocktail of choice. But to pick the liquor that suits your personal taste, you’ll need to try it straight first.

How to taste whiskey:

Pop a cork and pour a slug of your whiskey into a rocks glass (or a snifter if you prefer, Mr Fancypants).

Swish the whiskey around your glass a little. This gives it room to breathe and helps to bring out the flavor.

If you’re new to whiskey, you might want to add a drop of water at this point. It’ll prevent the alcohol in the spirit from dominating the aroma and masking other flavors.

Now hold your horses for a second.

Before you take a sip, bring the whiskey to your beezer and sniff. Then take a breath of fresh air and repeat. What does it smell like? Oak? Cherry? Vanilla? Apple? Honey? Pay special attention to any notes that might complement the ingredients in your favorite cocktail – a hint of sweet apricot pairs well with the lemon citrus of a whiskey sour, for example.

You’ve earned it – go ahead and dip your bill. Take a sip of your chosen whiskey, paying attention to how it feels in your mouth as well as the taste. The finish (feeling) also plays into cocktail pairings. A sweet, smooth finish can counterbalance cocktails with ingredients that dry the mouth, and vice versa.


The Old Fashioned choice

Not sure where to start? You can’t go wrong with:

Hudson Baby Bourbon Single Barrel

Best for: Old Fashioned

Our first choice for an Old Fashioned, this classic bourbon is the first legal pot-still whiskey to be produced in New York since prohibition. Matured in miniature two gallon barrels, its bold character and sweet vanilla notes are perfectly complemented by the citrus and smoke of an Old Fashioned.

Widow Jane Rye Mash

Best for: Manhattan

Another of Gotham’s finest, this American Oak-aged Rye Mash is a spicy little firecracker that adds some city grit to your Manhattan. Caramel and black pepper notes blend with the subtle sweetness of vermouth to deliver a refined take on a classic.

The Legendary Silkie Irish Whiskey

Best for: Irish Mule

Distilled in our founder’s hometown of Donegal, this rich blended whiskey offers crisp green apple flavors and (unusually for Irish Whiskey) a hint of peated malt. Paired with a fiery ginger beer and orange garnish, it’s a real Winter warmer. Sláinte!

We really hope you enjoy sampling our recommendations. But there’s one last thing to remember: rules are made to be broken. Becoming a whiskey connoisseur is all about learning what you like. So use these tips as a starting point and take our advice with a dash of whatever you fancy.

Go ahead and make yours a classic! And if you need a hand serving whiskey cocktails at your next event, get in touch.