Beyond Old Fashioneds: Drink in the New Whiskey Cocktail Revival

From classic cocktails to newfangled concoctions, here’s how to best enjoy whiskey drinks now.

The White Manhattan, made with corn whiskey, and the Vieux Carré, a New Orleans tipple made with Sazerac rye, from ‘Whiskey Cocktails’. © Alex Luck, courtesy Ryland Peters & Small

When Conor McGregor and Justin Bieber recently posed for an Instagram pic hoisting whiskey cocktails in Los Angeles, they were not so much setting a trend as jumping on a bandwagon. Whiskey cocktails are currently enjoying a revival that to many connoisseurs is long overdue.

The latter list includes Jesse Estes, a spirits author and expert who has tended bar all over the world and frequently acts as a judge for awards including Drinks International’s International Spirit Challenge.

The Boulevardier and Remember the Maine cocktails from ‘Whiskey Cocktails’ are both riffs on the iconic Manhattan. © Alex Luck, courtesy Ryland Peters & Small

In 2018 Estes authored From Dram to Manhattan, with photographs by the endlessly talented Alex Luck, which has come to be regarded as one of the definitive books on whiskey cocktails. And top-drawer independent publisher Ryland Peters & Small is now re-issuing it under the title Whiskey Cocktails: 40 Recipes for Old Fashioneds, Sours, Manhattans, Juleps and More, making this the essential season for concoctions featuring brown spirits from around the world.

“Some of the most iconic classic cocktails are whiskey based,” Estes tells us. “When craft cocktails enjoyed their big revival in the early 2000s, these classics came back to the forefront in full force. The impact only became stronger when Mad Men hit the screens, with Don Draper sipping Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Martinis seemingly constantly.”

Batson River Brewing & Distilling, a restaurant, bar and tasting room in Portland, Maine, designed by Krista Stokes, a haven for whiskey lovers. © Erin Little / Batson River

The whiskey cocktails that have stood the test of time are “tried-and-true favorites, and contemporary craft cocktail bars today are full of twists on these classics,” Estes notes. “Whiskey’s versatility in mixing will ensure that it will always be a staple of the modern bar.”

The definition of a whiskey cocktail has also expanded exponentially in recent years, and now you can even find the iconic spirit in tiki drinks, where it is substituted for the traditional rum in some tropical-themed establishments.

Batson River Brewing & Distilling in Portland, Maine, designed by Krista Stokes. © Erin Little / Batson River

In his book, Estes writes that “Today, many popular classic whiskey cocktails tend to be bourbon-based, such as the Old Fashioned, Manhattan, mint julep, whiskey sour, etc), but there are some great Scotch and Irish whisky drinks too,” as well as very tasty options featuring Japanese whiskey. No matter what your preference, make sure you have the best-quality ingredients for you forays into mixology.

“You can use the best whiskey in the world, but mixing it with an inferior liqueur or pasteurized citrus juice will ultimately produce an unsatisfactory drink,” Estes informs us.

An Old Fashioned cocktail made with Dewar’s 15 elevates the drink. Image courtesy Dewar’s

Gabriel Cardarella, North American Brand Ambassador for iconic blended Scotch whisky Dewar’s and one of the industry’s acknowledged experts, is in total agreement. “I like my cocktails like I like my food—simple and delicious but with quality ingredients,” he tells us, naming the Old Fashioned as his favorite way to use whiskey in a drink at home.

“My idea of an Old Fashioned is less fruit salad, but more spirited, letting the sugar, bitters and orange slice complement the whisky, not mask it. Starting with a quality whisky is key in making this one correctly, not the amount of muddling.”

© Alex Luck, courtesy Ryland Peters & Small

Dewar’s, with its rich flavor and aroma from up to 40 different whiskies which go through the brand’s signature double aging process, is particularly well suited to the addition of sugar, bitters and citrus. And no, there isn’t something missing from that list. “Personally, I like to skip the cherry,” Cardarella says. ”The whisky should do most of the talking.”

Brandon Clements, of San Francisco’s beloved whiskey-centric bar The Saratoga, who now heads the beverage program at Boise’s The Lively from Eat & Co., poised to be one of the country’s new hotspots, waxes even more lyrical on the subject. “Whiskey, in particular rye and bourbon, are spirits that are ingrained in the American experience,” he tells us.

A classic Manhattan cocktail made with Vermont distillery WhistlePig’s PiggyBack rye. Courtesy WhistlePig

“The Old Fashioned, perhaps one of the very first cocktails ever made, is as popular today as ever, and highlights a trend toward simpler, spirit-forward cocktails. This serves as a bit of a departure from much of the craft cocktail alchemy from the prior decade, where obscure ingredients and fantastical techniques often stole the show.”

Clements favors brands like Maker’s Mark, Wild Turkey, and WhistlePig when crafting his Old Fashioneds and other whisky based concoctions. With their PiggyBack 6-year-old rye, crafted by the late whiskey legend Dave Pickerell, the Vermont-based distillery “really hit it out of the park in crafting a cocktail-friendly premium product,” Clements notes.

Brandon Clements of Boise’s The Lively from Eat & Co. Courtesy Ed Anderson

A further caveat: “When making classic whiskey cocktails at home, find a recipe from a reputable source and follow it,” he counsels. “Crafting these cocktails is more akin to baking than cooking, wherein the slightest variation can sink your soufflé”. For those not accustomed to bartending, “you are best served following the pros.”

As for the onset of cooler weather, “There is just something about whiskey and winter that is a match made in heaven,” Clements enthuses. “Perhaps it is the notes of vanilla and baking spice imparted from the requisite aging in oak barrels, or the fruity and often buttery flavors” that the whiskey-making process imparts.

The Sweet Manhattan from ‘Whiskey Cocktails,’ made with Jefferson’s Reserve bourbon, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters. © Alex Luck, courtesy Ryland Peters & Small

“Or, it might just be the sight of that warm brown liquid and the memories of your grandfather sipping on a glass of Wild Turkey at Christmastime; regardless, whiskey is as American as apple pie.”