“When I’m picking a whiskey for an Old-Fashioned, there are three main things I’m looking at,” says Jake Powell, bar manager at Death & Co. Denver and one of the Best New Bartenders of 2023. He considers the mash bill (looking for corn, to bring natural sweetness to the drink), the proof (preferably at least 90, to stand up to dilution “without being too hot”) and age in the barrel (ideally at least four years, for caramel and wood spice flavors).
Resa Mueller, bartender at Philadelphia’s R&D, makes a similar calculation: “Not only do I want to taste everything from the grain to the barrel, I also want a high enough ABV so that it doesn’t fall flat once you consider dilution and a hint of sweetness,” she says.
To simplify the process of finding a bottle that does it all, we asked Powell, Mueller and a handful of other bartenders for the best bourbons for an Old-Fashioned, at every price. While these bourbons represent a starting point, don’t forget the most important consideration: pleasure.
“I’m going to let everyone in on a dirty little secret,” says Jamie Boudreau, owner of Canon in Seattle. “The trick to making a good Old-Fashioned is simply to use whatever bourbon you enjoy. Really. It’s not much more complicated than that.”
The Best Bourbons for an Old-Fashioned
Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond Bourbon
For Sean Umstead, owner of Kingfisher in Durham, North Carolina, the best flavor profile for a bourbon Old-Fashioned is determined by personal preference. But the ability of a whiskey to hold itself up against a “good stir” and serving over a large rock is not up for debate. “I’d almost always defer to an overproof bourbon so that the cocktail can hold its bite, texture and flavor throughout the cocktail,” he explains. Evan Williams Bottled-in-Bond, with its “wonderful notes of caramel, corn and baking spices,” is Umstead’s go-to affordable option.
- Price: $28
- ABV: 50%
Yellowstone Select Bourbon
At home and at the bar, Powell has lately been favoring Yellowstone Select Bourbon for Old-Fashioneds. “It’s a pretty high corn mash bill, with both rye and malt to round it out,” he says. Because it’s a blend of bourbon of two different ages (four- and seven-year-old expressions), “it has plenty of great character from the barrel.” At 93 proof and an affordable price of around $30, the whiskey is a great value pick.
- Price: $30
- ABV: 46.5%
Isaac Bowman Port Barrel Finished Bourbon
“I enjoy bourbons with tasting notes of caramel, honey, spice and slight nuttiness; not too hot, with a smooth finish,” explains Alicia Perry, beverage director for San Diego’s Consortium Holdings. One of these bourbons is Isaac Bowman Port Barrel Finished Bourbon, a whiskey that, as the name suggests, is finished in port barrels for a minimum of six months to impart subtle, jammy sweetness.
- Price: $41
- ABV: 46%
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve Bourbon
Knob Creek Single Barrel Reserve “offers killer depth and complexity from the barrel,” according to Mueller. While the bourbon has a natural sweetness, its higher proof “offers some bite” to offset that, she says. In addition to its honey and vanilla tones, the bottling has a subtle smokiness that adds another dimension to the pared-back Old-Fashioned format.
- Price: $63
- ABV: 60%
Barrell Craft Spirits Vantage Bourbon
For a higher-end pick, whiskey from the experimental distillery Barrel Craft Spirits is worth the splurge, according to Powell. The distillery’s Vantage bottling combines three bourbons finished in three types of cask: mizunara (an oak from Hokkaido, Japan), French oak and toasted American oak. Each oak used also has a different level of char and toastedness, resulting in a layered, complex bourbon. Vantage is a cask-strength whiskey, but the finish is “so cool that it never feels like the drink is too hot,” according to Powell.
- Price: $84
- ABV: 57%