There are some who think it’s sacrilege to mix anything with good bourbon. They’ll maybe make an exception for a few careful drops of water from an eyedropper, or one or two cubes of ice if they’re feeling really frisky. There’s no doubting this is valid thinking: bourbon that spent 12 years in a barrel shouldn’t spend its final moments drowning in 12 ounces of soda. And if distillers wanted their bourbon sweeter, they’d have made the mashbill reflect that, right? But the truth is, many of bourbon’s biggest fans grew up mixing the stuff, especially in Kentucky. Old Grand-Dad and coke, Makers and Ale-8-One. That was high school. Now, they’ve grown up and graduated to cask-strength antique collections; but even Doug Wade, the miller at Maker’s Mark who inspects the grain going into every batch of their bourbon, still takes his with coke.
Bourbon snobs who hate cocktails, ironically, have cocktails to thank for many great bourbons. The popularity of cask strength came along in large part due to bartenders — distilleries’ biggest customers — needing higher proof spirits so they could do more behind the bar while still delivering a stiff drink. Remember the backlash from Maker’s Mark stating they’d be dropping their proof? Bartenders were the loudest voices against it, and caused Maker’s to go in the completely opposite direction: Maker’s Mark Cask Strength is now showing up at bars and the distillery’s gift shop.
That’s not to say there aren’t extremely shitty cocktails out there wasting good bourbon. So, in an effort to find the best cocktails made with some great, high-proof bourbon, we headed to Harrison Smith House so that Chef Newman Miller could give us a firsthand look at the cocktails he serves to his patrons in his restaurant in Bardstown, Kentucky — literally five minutes from Heaven Hill Distillery and the Willett Distillery — that he owns and operates with his wife Rachel and business partner Justin Hughes. While Newman, who makes all the restaurant’s cocktails, admits that “sometimes out of the bottle with a beer is the best way to have a bourbon”, the three bourbon cocktails he showed us are truly made to meet the expectations of the local Kentuckians.
The Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned: The Old Fashioned, as the name would imply, is one of the oldest standard drinks you could order by name. Traditionally, it consists of whiskey, bitters, water and a sugar cube, mixed and then garnished with a cherry and orange slice. It’s one of the first drinks to come to mind when you think bourbon, and Newman’s take only slightly deviates.
HSH Take: All about the spirit. Just like in cooking, when you start with the best ingredients, the goal is to just not mess it up – keep it simple. Perfect for any day, at any time.
2 ounce Elijah Craig Barrel Proof
1/2 – 1 bar spoon turbinado simple syrup
1 dash (he likes 2) Angostura bitters
Strip of fresh orange
Strip of fresh lemon
The Josh Sour
Josh Sour: Sours are another from the original family of cocktails. While a more basic sour includes only alcohol, lemon or lime juice and a sweetener, Newman dresses his up with a variety of liquors and egg whites, which add a frothy head to the drink when shaken.
HSH Take: This cocktail was inspired by long “research” sessions at the Violet Hour, in Chicago. We modified it to include high proof bourbon, to fit Bardstown, the Bourbon Capital of the World and is a favorite of our Chef de Cuisine, Josh Smouse.
3/4 ounce Willet Family Estate Small Batch 2 Year Rye
3/4 ounce Campari
3/4 ounce Rabarbaro Zucca
1/2 ounce lemon juice
strip of fresh orange (expressed)
Harrison Smith House Fall Sour
Harrison Smith House Fall Sour: This is your more basic sour, and a great starter drink if you’re taking your first sloppy steps away from an Old-Fashioned. As we came to expect from our time with Newman, even his easiest drinks are carefully crafted.
HSH Take: This is a great introduction to bourbon for those on the trail that may need a friendly way to enjoy the spirit.
1 1/2 ounce Heaven Hill 6 Year Bottled-in-Bond
4 dash Angostura bitters
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1/4 spice syrup (star anise, cinnamon, allspice, clove, turbinado sugar)
juuuust below 1 1/2 ounces cider