Almond and dried fruit. Citrus peel and cloves. Vanilla and caramel. The maligned fruitcake? Actually, we’re talking about bourbon, a spirit whose variety of expressions—especially those associative with the flavors of the winter season—makes it an ideal base for mixing holiday cocktails at home. Bourbon has something else important going for it too—it plays well with others. Whether mixed with juices, ice, or even other spirits, bourbon retains its distinctive character where other spirits can diminish.
Expect a little moxie from America’s native whiskey, which was designated a “distinctive product of the United States” by federal law in 1964. Bourbon should contain a minimum 51-percent of that most patriotic of grains, corn (it doesn’t, however, need to come from Kentucky).
To get some tips on the best ways to use bourbon this holiday, we paid a visit to Flavien Desoblin, proprietor of New York City’s Brandy Library. Desoblin likes bourbon for entertaining because of its ability to easily satisfy a diverse room, whether through punches, in cold weather staples like eggnog, or in classics like the Manhattan and Old-Fashioned. While there are more bourbons than ever to choose from right now, including some fantastic small-batch labels, whichever you go with, Desoblin recommends something in an age range of six to twelve years (all straight bourbons are aged for a minimum of two). If you already have a favorite, feel free to stick with it, just remember that any substitutions will change the cocktail’s profile. “Don’t think that just any other bourbon will do the trick,” Desoblin warns. “If you cannot find the bourbons here, do your own tasting before.”
These three cocktails cover a range of flavors and showcase bourbon’s wonderful versatility.
The winner of a cocktail contest at the Brandy Library, the Russian Caravan combines Russian black tea, which imparts a unique smokiness, and St-Germain elderflower liqueur with Elijah Craig 12-year-old bourbon. “A good tip is to taste your citrus beforehand,” says Desoblin when preparing the drink’s zesty infusion of lemon juice, as he notes that not all citrus is alike. _
Adding a French Caribbean accent to the Old Fashioned’s distinctive citrus notes, former Brandy Library beverage director, Ethan Kelley, introduced Creole Shrubb, an orange liqueur made from blended white and aged rums flavored with bitter orange peels. A bourbon and simple syrup infused cherry (a quick marination can be made at home with one part water to two parts bourbon, with sweetener. Cut the cherries in halves to speed the process.) is first muddled with Angostura bitters and a slice of orange. Be careful with your bitters though; you don’t want to overwhelm the cocktail with too much._
The Seelbach comes with one of the best cocktail party tales: hailing from the Seelbach Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, the drink took a nearly 80-year hiatus. Most likely a consequence of Prohibition, the original 1917 recipe disappeared until 1995, when a Seelbach hotel manager rediscovered it. While carrying the punch of two types of bitters, Angostura and Peychaud, the drink is rounded with fragrant orange flavors, and finished with an effervescent float of Champagne. Toast New Year’s with it, but also keep this one in mind for the spring._