While whiskey is amazing when sipped on its own, there’s nothing quite as smooth or refreshing as a whiskey-based cocktail. Balancing the smoky whiskey flavor with sweet or tart flavors makes for a flavorful, balanced sip. Plus, there are so many amazing whiskey cocktails out there, you could try a different one every night and never run out of options.
We’ll teach you a little bit about how whiskey cocktails came to be and give you some stellar cocktail recipes. Whether you like your cocktails sweet and fruity, or dark and stormy, or simple and classic, we guarantee you’ll find something you love on this list.
Whiskey cocktail history
The Old Fashioned, a cocktail made from whiskey, bitters, and simple syrup, is often considered the bar standard cocktail. It’s commonly thought to be the original whiskey cocktail, but originally, the recipe didn’t even call for whiskey.
Jerry Thomas, a prolific bartender who wrote the first encyclopedia of cocktails, first penned the recipe for the “Old Fashioned Holland Gin Cocktail” in his 1862 book, Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How To Mix Drinks. As the name suggests, this recipe calls for a small lump of sugar, water, bitters, lemon peel, ice, and gin. Basically an Old Fashioned without whiskey. But, it was only a matter of time before another bartender would invent the whiskey Old Fashioned that we know and love today.
James E. Pepper, a bartender and bourbon aristocrat, was said to have invented the whiskey old-fashioned in Louisville, Kentucky, in about 1880. Pepper then brought the recipe to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel bar in New York City, becoming extremely popular. People had gotten a taste for what whiskey could do in a cocktail, and they couldn’t get enough.
While the name “Old Fashioned” might lead you to believe it was the first whiskey cocktail, people already made mixed whiskey drinks long before 1880. The Mint Julep, a cocktail made from bourbon, sugar, and mint, was already popular after being first mentioned in print in 1803. Sailors in the 1700s even drank a primitive version of the Whiskey Sour on long boat trips because alcohol was safe to drink, and the addition of citrus juice prevented scurvy.
While we don’t know who first thought to make a cocktail with whiskey, we do know that whiskey drinks have been around for a long time, and they won’t be going away any time soon.
Best whiskey cocktail recipes
The cocktails on this list range from classic to modern, sweet to smoky, and fruity to herbal. No matter what your taste for whiskey cocktails, you’re guaranteed to find something you like on this list.
The old fashioned
Originally, any cocktail made by muddling sugar and bitters with liquor could be called an Old Fashioned. However, the whiskey version became so popular that the term Old Fashioned is now synonymous with whiskey.
To make an Old Fashioned, you’ll need:
- 2 teaspoons simple syrup
- 1 teaspoon water
- 2 dashes bitters
- 1 cup ice cubes
- 1.5 oz bourbon whiskey
- 1 slice orange
- 1 maraschino cherry
Pour your simple syrup, water, and bitters into a whiskey glass. Stir until combined. Place your ice cubes in the glass, then pour your whiskey over the ice. Garnish with your orange slice and maraschino cherry.
Another essential classic, the Manhattan, is to whiskey what the martini is to gin. It can be made with bourbon, rye, Canadian whisky, or any other whiskey style. When made with scotch, it’s called a Rob Roy.
To make a Manhattan, you’ll need:
- 2 oz. bourbon or rye
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 dash orange bitters
- 1 cherry to garnish
Add your bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth, and both bitters to a mixing glass with ice. Stir until well-chilled. Strain into a coupe glass, and garnish with your cherry.
The whiskey sour
The Whiskey Sour is tart and refreshing, usually made with whiskey, lemon juice, and some kind of sweetener. It also sometimes has an egg white included for more foam, adding creaminess to the cocktail. While some people worry about contracting salmonella from uncooked egg white, if you keep your eggs chilled and are careful not to touch the white to the outside of the shell when cracking, the risk is extremely low. If you like a little fizz, top your Sour with soda, and you have a John Collins.
To make a Whiskey Sour, you’ll need:
- 2 oz. bourbon
- 3/4 oz lemon juice, freshly squeezed
- 1/2 ounce simple syrup
- 1/2 ounce egg white (optional)
- Angostura bitters to garnish
Add your bourbon of choice, lemon juice, simple syrup, and egg white, if using, to a shaker cup. If you include the egg white, dry-shake (without ice) for 30 seconds to break down the egg protein, and get the white nice and frothy.
Next, add ice to the shaker cup, and shake again until well-chilled. Strain into a coupe glass or a rocks glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a few drops of bitters.
The mint julep
The Mint Julep is one of the most refreshing cocktails ever invented. It’s sweet, minty, smooth, and refreshing. While it has become synonymous with the Kentucky Derby and the American South in general, it’s enjoyed by people all over the United States and beyond, all year round.
To make the Mint Julep, you’ll need:
- 2.5 oz. bourbon
- 4 to 5 mint sprigs (leaves only)
- 2 sugar cubes (or 1/2 ounce simple syrup)
- Mint sprig to garnish
- Crushed ice
Begin by placing your mint leaves and sugar or simple syrup into a cocktail glass. Muddle well to dissolve the sugar and release the oil and aroma of the mint. Add your bourbon, then crushed ice.
Stir well until the glass becomes frosty. Garnish with your mint sprig, then serve.
The Algonquin is a delicious, tropical whiskey martini made with pineapple and sweet vermouth. If you love fruity, sweet cocktails, this is definitely the drink for you.
The Algonquin is named after the famous Algonquin Hotel in New York City, although it may or may not have been invented there. Regardless of when or where it was invented, one thing’s for sure: it’s incredibly delicious.
To make the Algonquin, you’ll need:
Pour your rye, dry vermouth, and pineapple juice into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well. Strain into a martini glass.
If you want a cocktail with a little bit of a caffeine kick, you really can’t do better than an Irish Coffee. While the term “Irish coffee” can refer to any type of coffee with whiskey added, the Irish Coffee cocktail is made with Irish whiskey, brown sugar, and some heavy cream. These ingredients combine for a creamy, sweet, warm cocktail that can be enjoyed any time of day.
To make an Irish Coffee, you’ll need:
- 1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1.5 oz. Irish whiskey
- Heavy cream, slightly whipped
Pour your piping hot coffee into a mug or a glass cocktail cup with a handle (make sure to pre-warm your glass mug with warm water, so the coffee won’t cause the glass to crack). Fill up your chosen glass about ¾ full. Add your brown sugar and stir until completely dissolved. Stir in your Irish whiskey. Top with your heavy cream and serve.
The Sazerac originated in New Orleans’ French Quarter and quickly grew popular all around the world. Unlike other cocktails from this era, the Sazerac involves quite a few ingredients and is slightly more complicated to prepare. But once you master it, you’ll want to make them all the time. It’s bitter, herbal, and slightly sweet and is the perfect, sophisticated cocktail for any occasion.
- 1 sugar cube
- 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 2 ounces rye whiskey
- ¼ ounce Herbsaint or absinthe
- 1 lemon peel for garnish
Line up two chilled rocks glasses. First, add your sugar cube, Peychaud’s bitters, and Angostura bitters. Muddle them together. Pour your rye whiskey into this mixture. In the second glass, add your Herbsaint or absinthe. Swirl it around to coat the inside of the glass, then discard the extra. Strain your rye-sugar-bitters mixture into the absinthe coated glass, then garnish with the lemon peel.
Whether you like your cocktails fruity or dry, bitter or sweet, smooth or bubbly, you’re sure to find something you love from our list of the best whiskey cocktails. Whiskey is fabulous in a cocktail because it is complex and smoky and so much fun to balance with other flavors. Even if you’re not a big whiskey fan, one of these cocktails is sure to win you over.
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