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Best whiskies for cocktails

Decanter recommends top bourbon, Scotch and rye whiskeys for mixing in a range of classic cocktails – from Manhattans and Mint Juleps to a Rob Roy 

The canon of cocktails made using whisky is vast and varied, running from ice-cold, short, stirred-down and brown to warm, long and comforting, with all sorts of fruity and refreshing options in between.

When considering the best whiskies to be used in cocktails, a useful starting place is to consider where in the world that whisky cocktail originated, and to look for products from the corresponding country.

And so it is that Manhattans, Sazeracs, Mint Juleps, Vieux Carre and Boulevardiers work best with whiskeys hailing from America, namely bourbons and ryes.

But what is the difference between bourbon and rye? It’s all in the mix of grains used to make the whiskey. Both bourbon and rye are made using a ‘mash bill’, or recipe of different grains. For a whiskey to legally be called bourbon, at least 51% of its mash bill must be comprised of corn, with other grains such as barley and rye making up the rest of the bill. As for rye whiskey, a minimum of 51% of the mash bill must be rye.

The flavour profile of these whiskeys is consequently very different, with bourbons often boasting notes of vanilla and caramel, while rye is often spicy, bready and has hints of chocolate.

As for whether to use bourbon or rye in your cocktail, it depends what you’re mixing. Strictly speaking, a Sazerac should only be made with rye whiskey (unless it’s made with Cognac, but that’s another story), as should a Vieux Carre. Bourbon’s ties with the Mint Julep run deep. As for the others, feel free to experiment.

Hopping across the Atlantic, the list of cocktails that call for Scotch whisky include the Hot Toddy, Penicillin, Morning Glory Fizz and Rob Roy.

In order to make these drinks, it’s best to ensure you have an unpeated single malt, a peated (or smoky) single malt and a blended whisky in your drinks cabinet so that all bases can be covered. As a general rule, only reach for the peated malt if the drink specifically calls for it, such as the float of Islay whisky in a Penicillin.

Finally, it pays to keep an Irish whiskey on hand for those cold, drab days when only an Irish Coffee will do. We’ll have extra cream on ours, please.

The best whiskies for cocktails


Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Made at the Jim Beam distillery, this small-batch bourbon has a high proportion of rye in its ‘mash bill’, or recipe of the different cereals. A nose of orange and lemon peel, pine boards, sawdust and eucalyptus leads onto an elegant yet spicy palate, with black pepper, chilli flake, 70% dark chocolate and rye bread. This makes a particularly mean Manhattan. Alc 40%


Old Forester 86 Proof

A bourbon with a high proportion of rye in its recipe, Old Forester boasts an impressive historical legacy. Created in 1870, it was the first bourbon to be sold in sealed glass bottles, and it continued to be distilled during and after Prohibition. A buttery, sweet and spicy nose leads onto a palate boasting maple syrup, pecans, vanilla pod, cocoa powder and orange oils. Alc 43%


Knob Creek Rye

With an abv of 50%, this rye packs plenty of flavour to stand up to any ingredients thrown at it in a cocktail. Made in small batches at the Jim Beam distillery, the nose boasts rye bread, vanilla, charcoal and maple syrup. The rye and vanilla continue onto the palate, and are joined by citrus peels, salted caramel, pepper and pine. Alc 50%


Sazerac Rye

Bearing the same name as the classic cocktail that hails from New Orleans, Sazerac Rye is made at the Buffalo Trace distillery. A serious whiskey, there’s no mistaking the rye influence, with its bread, bitter chocolate, spicy pepper, ginger and anise mixing with orange peel and vanilla. Perfect for a Sazerac, unsurprisingly. Alc 45%


Monkey Shoulder

A blended Scotch malt whisky, Monkey Shoulder’s name comes from the physical impact that manually turning the malted barley would have on malt men’s arms, occasionally causing it to hang down like a monkey’s. There’s plenty of American oak influence on this dram, leading to flavours of vanilla, crème brûlée, Werther’s Originals, marmalade and apricot, with a smattering of white pepper. Alc 40%


Glenfiddich 12 Year Old

An easy-drinking malt from the Speyside region of Scotland, Glenfiddich 12 Year Old is one of the biggest-selling malt whiskies in the world. Aged in both American and European oak barrels, flavours of poached pear are drizzled with butterscotch and vanilla cream, with lemon zest and a smattering of pencil shavings. Alc 40%


Ardbeg 10 Year Old

Hailing from Islay in the Hebrides, Ardbeg 10 Year Old is a peaty single malt, which means that it boasts a smoky flavour profile. Aromas of coal smoke, iodine, chilli and caramel lead onto a sweet and smoky palate: sea salt, honey, bonfire smoke, dried chilli flakes, lemon and cream soda all mingle to create a satisfying whole. Alc 46%


Teeling Small Batch

This blended Irish whiskey comprises grain and malt whiskeys that have initially been aged in ex-bourbon barrels, before being blended and further aged in rum casks from Central America. Spicy, floral and rich, the palate also boasts plenty of vanilla custard, lemon, rum n raisin fudge and orchard fruits. Alc 46%


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