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Food & Drink

Taste Test: The Best (And Worst) Kinds Of Bourbon To Use In An Old-Fashioned Cocktail

The winner is surprisingly affordable.

Old-fashioned cocktails, from sidecars to negronis, have been popular for over a decade. But until recently, the Old-Fashioned Cocktail proper was an all-but-forgotten artifact outside a few excellent bars in New York and San Francisco.

Its major obstacle to success was that many bartenders -- both professional and amateur -- had taken to bastardizing the classic recipe with all manners of strange additions, from muddled oranges to splashes of Coca-Cola. While some of those tweaks may make for delicious drinks, they made it hard for a drinker to know what they would get when ordering an Old-Fashioned.

In the past couple years, though, good bars have started to embrace the simple virtues of the original Old-Fashioned recipe, the one that was just called a "cocktail" for much for the 19th century: a little bit of sugar, a few dashes of bitters, a big cube of ice and a couple ounces of distilled spirits. Maybe a lemon twist or nice maraschino cherry. It provides a refreshingly direct alternative to overwrought mixtures of four or five obscure amaros with unpronounceable names.

You can make a delicious Old-Fashioned using almost any kind of liquor; I've had wonderful versions with dark rum and jenever, an aged, sweet type of gin. But the classic spirit for an Old-Fashioned is American whiskey. Some people swear by rye, but for my Old-Fashioneds, I prefer the easy-sipping sweetness and aromatic complexity of bourbon. Indeed, it's one of very few mixed drinks that I think work better with bourbon than rye. (A bourbon Manhattan, for example, is treacly compared to one made with rye.)

But which bourbon should you use? To answer that question, HuffPost Taste decided to hold one of our beloved Cocktail Taste Tests.

We assembled 21 brands of bourbon from companies big and small across the country, mixed up classic Old-Fashioneds using one consistent recipe, then invited a panel of about 20 tasters to tell us what they thought. Most of them were HuffPost and AOL employees at our office in Beverly Hills, with varying degrees of bourbon experience, but we also invited two outside experts to give their thoughts: Andrew Abrahamson, the director of operations at acclaimed LA whiskey bar Seven Grand, and Lesley Balla, a Zagat editor who has written about whiskey for years. Each taster tried about half the different kinds of bourbon, in an attempt to stay reasonably sober, though afterwards, Balla and I tasted the four whiskeys that had received the highest scores in the initial round to confirm the quality of the winners.

Zagat's video team filmed the proceedings, so if you want to see what it was like to taste 10-plus cocktails in one evening, watch the wonderful video embedded at the top of this post. But if all you care about is the results, scroll down to see which of the 21 bourbon brands we tried worked the best in an Old-Fashioned cocktail -- and which ones fared worst. One quick note about our findings: our tasters honestly liked almost all the bourbons we tried, so if your favorite ended up outside the top few, don't be discouraged. It's probably still great!

One last note: Andrew Abrahamson was the biggest bourbon expert of all the tasters, so we highlighted his comments separately, but he, like everyone else, only tried about half the bourbons. So that's why his erudite judgments don't appear underneath every bourbon.

As always, the brands included did not in any way sponsor or influence the outcome of this taste test.

The Contenders
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Back row, from left to right: Eagle Rare, Basil Hayden's, Angel's Envy, Michter's, Wild Turkey 101, High West Son of Bourye Front row, from left to right: Four Roses Small Batch, Four Roses Yellow Label, Blanton's, John J. Bowman, Maker's Mark
More Contenders
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Back row, from left to right: Jim Beam, Larceny, Maker's 46, Knob Creek, Bulleit Front row, from left to right: Buffalo Trace, Henry McKenna, Woodford Reserve, Breckenridge, Jack Daniel's
1. Buffalo Trace: Best In Show, Great Value
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 8.2 Price: $25 Tasters Said: "Smooth. My favorite." "Slightly harsh, but still well-balanced." "Very drinkable, a crowd-pleaser." "Spicy with an underlining of citrus and freshness, plus light maple sweetness." Andrew Said: "Red wine fruitness. Port like. I like the cocktail, this whiskey, but I need to better understand the fruit. Raspberry syrup. Gummy bears."
2. Four Roses Small Batch: Runner-Up
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 7.4 Price: $35 Tasters Said: "This is completely pleasant and comfortable, like sitting in an expensive chair in front of a roaring fire in winter." "Smoky and sweet." "Very tasty." Andrew Said: "Fruity. Blackberry, honey… boy that's good. Just enough spice/dryness, but on the finish, the grain comes through. A touch syrupy."
3. Basil Hayden's: Highly Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 7.1 Price: $37 Tasters Said: "Caramel in your face on the nose, very well balanced, exactly what you want after a long day at work." "Very smooth! Delicious flavor that's not too sweet." "Not much burn." "Great but complex. Like an intense relationship that you can't walk away from."
4. Larceny: Highly Recommended, Great Value
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.9 Price: $23 Tasters Said: "Delishhh." "Easy to drink." "Floral aroma? Subtle, vanilla." "Smooth and delicious. Maybe my fave. Ready to parttyyyy!"
5. Eagle Rare: Highly Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.3 Price: $30 Tasters Said: "Burnt caramel, in a good way." "A lot of flavor. Big! Almost like gingerbread, in a good way." "Sweet, spicy with a leather undertone. And a hint of clove & leather." "Clean." Andrew Said: "Maple. Very sweet up front, but then big spice. Finishes with a long lingering Angostura."
6. Blanton's: Highly Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.3 Price: $50 Tasters Said: "Smells almost nutty or cocoa-like." "More savory, leather notes." "Well balanced. Not too sweet but still strong enough." "Finishes better than it begins."
7. Woodford Reserve: Highly Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.2 Price: $39 Tasters Said: "Cinnamon? Woody? Very smooth." "Big bourbon flavor. Aged." "Pretty smooth. But a little too intense for me. Too strong." "Oaky scent, a bit of honey smell too."
8. Henry McKenna: Highly Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.1 Price: $26 Tasters Said: "This is CRAZY. Wild. Like a roller coaster. Big spice, not too much sweetness." "Lots of pine." "Sweet aroma with a sharp taste." "Smoky and bitter." Andrew Said: "Nice nose. Lavender. But musty & earthy too. Exotic fruit. Palate spicy. High proof. I love how dry and gritty the mouthfeel is, but feel deceived by the proof. Tootsie Roll and fudge notes."
9. Jim Beam: Recommended, Great Value
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 6.0 Price: $16 Tasters Said: "Light, mild, not too alcoholic. Doesn't burn when it goes down." "Great balance of bitter and sweet." "Tastes like medicine. Strange."
10. Breckenridge: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.7 Price: $43 Tasters Said: "Very strong. Really spicy. Kinda like my college girlfriend." "Packs a punch." "Strong and sweet but I like it. A little spice, but in a cinnamon way -- not a chili way."
11. Angel's Envy: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.5 Price: $47 Tasters Said: "Yes. Smooth. Right." "Gasoline-like flavor." "Not too sweet but perfectly balanced. Perfect one for a girl. Aromatic." "Strange aftertaste." "By far the sweetest."
12. Bulleit: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.4 Price: $24 Tasters Said: "Middle of the road whiskey." "Light, malty, but nothing spectacular. Long finish." "All there: sweet, leather, savory." "Tastes a little syrupy."
13. Knob Creek: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.4 Price: $26 Tasters Said: "A little harsh -- kinda spicy. Meh." "Alcohol forward -- let's you know you've been somewhere." "Oaky taste." "Warm, spicy, light pecan, easy to drink." Andrew Said: "Very balanced. A very front palate, rye forward cocktail. Just a hint of bitters, but fine woody, spicy and caramel finish."
14. Maker's Mark: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.4 Price: $26 Tasters Said: "Smooth, subtle leather, vanilla, lots of vanilla." "Very neutral." "Very light, sweet. Easy to sip." "Nothing to write home about." "Strong aftertaste."
15. Four Roses Yellow Label: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.3 Price: $20 Tasters Said: "Hard to figure the flavors -- it's an overwhelming initial taste of alcohol." "Kerosene & plastic flavors." "Dry, slightly spicy -- almost harsh. Vague licorice taste?" "Pretty good, if a bit sweet. Caramel notes." Andrew Said: "Cinnamon & honey. Full mouthfeel. Licorice. Oolong tea. Jasmine. Walnut."
16. Michter's: Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 5.3 Price: $40 Tasters Said: "Some nice fruit at first, but a treacly aftertaste." "Very smooth -- less smoky. Taste simple." "Solid, but uninspiring." "Flowery aroma and a deep, complex flavor -- light, oak and warm." Andrew Said: "Dry, woody, nutty. Round silky mouthfeel. Balanced, whiskey comes through, but doesn't overwhelm."
17. High West Son Of Bourye: Not Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 4.2 Price: $45 Tasters Said: "Neutral and unprepossessing." "A little boring." "Bland with awful aftertaste." "A woodsy flavor." Andrew Said: "Mint. Sweet in the middle palate, and dry and gritty on the finish. Then spice. Intense jalapeno spice."
18. Wild Turkey 101: Not Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 4.0 Price: $21 Tasters Said: "Sugar on top of sugar. Honey Boo Boo's favorite." "Vanilla, bitter aftertaste, not a huge fan." "A little rough." "Smells like honey, tastes like rubbing alcohol."
19. John J. Bowman: Not Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 3.9 Price: $50 Tasters Said: "Hard to enjoy." "Yucky. Weird licorice notes." "Harsh and alcohol forward." "Licorice flavor." Andrew Said: "Bitters heavy. Bubble gum? Cloyingly sweet, and perhaps acetone. Just doesn't seem to balance. Needs a thick zest."
20. Maker's 46: Not Recommended
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 3.7 Price: $32 Tasters Said: "Smells arid & dry, stings going down." "Bitter aftertaste, but not bad." "No, just no." "Strong leather." "Very harsh taste. Overwhelms the palate."
21. Jack Daniel's: Worst In Show
Tiara Chiaramonte/The Huffington Post
Score: 3.6 Price: $23 Tasters Said: "Oof. Rough!" "Some off flavors. Weirdly reminds me of prawn crackers." "Neither sweet nor smooth." "Tastes like cheap amaretto." Andrew Said: "Banana. This is banana flavored whisky. Taffy. Artificial sweetener."

Here's the recipe we used for the taste test; it's my own amalgamation of a bunch of different sources, and comes close to the original from the early 19th century.

Ingredients
2 oz. bourbon
2/3 tsp rich simple syrup
Angostura bitters
Large ice cube
Lemon twist or maraschino cherry (optional)

Process
Pour the simple syrup in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass, add 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters and stir. Add the bourbon and stir, then add the ice cube and stir until the drink is cold. If desired, add the lemon twist or maraschino cherry as a garnish. (We did not use any garnishes in this taste test.)

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