Knowing the classics

Ryan Chetiyawardana looks at Bourbon cocktails
By Ryan Chetiyawardana
With whisky cocktails, Scotch has often played second fiddle to their American cousins. The balance is changing a bit with blended Scotch finding its feet again, especially in the hi-balls it dominated for so long, but on a whole, many bars will feature a higher volume of American whiskey cocktails.

There’s a couple of reasons for this. To many, cocktails are the iconic classics: Manhattans, Martinis, Sazeracs... This, coupled with the recent revival of the classic cocktail through cultural prompts such as Boardwalk Empire and Madmen has meant that increasingly people know these drinks. In the last two years I’ve had more people order Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Sazeracs than ever before. It would simply take a hint of the Southern hitting popular culture before we saw Mint Juleps on more menus.

However, it’s not just popular culture that has influenced this boom. The embrace of the American classics by the drinks professionals has meant that demand for ‘old style’ products is higher than ever. If you needed proof, you simply needed to watch the scramble for Ryes as supply dried up, and the wealth of new American whiskies being imported into the country.

There is this historical influence encouraging consumers to whiskey, particularly in the Classics, but there is also the fact that the inherent sweetness in American whiskies lend themselves to make some cracking cocktails.

In every drink there is an element of sweetness. Few people are fans of truly dry drinks: bone dry fino, naked martinis; and an element of sweetness brings balance, structure and helps carry the flavours. The definitions of Bourbon lend them two very handy characteristics. The first is the aforementioned sweetness. New charred barrels and a high corn mash bill imbue the whiskey with a wonderful sweetness that shines through drinks. This doesn't mean that all the drinks need to be sweet, just that, much like in the neat whiskey, these popcorn, butterscotch notes give a honeyed edge to a mixed drink. The other advantage is the rich vanilla notes that come from the newly charred oak. Vanilla has a wonderful ability to conjure up a comforting drink and gives hints towards thickness and creaminess.

So, generalising across all Bourbons, there is this inherent sweetness (coupled with a nice dose of vanilla) that lends itself to cocktails. However, the interesting twist to Bourbon cocktails for me is the mash bill. When I used to give whisky trainings, I’d discuss beer as bread and the distilled product as toast and would ask people to imagine how the grain bills related to the type of bread.

As with many cocktails, the best starting point is to analyse the base spirit. Find if there’s a particular note to the whiskey that you like and perhaps try to bolster or compliment this. Grain bills are a good indicator here. Again, to make a generalisation, Bourbons with a higher rye bill will have an element of spice, wheated Bourbons will have a creamy softness while a bigger corn bill will have that popcorn sweetness. This can be great when trying to decide the direction you want to take the drink.

When you start to look at your Bourbon in this way, you begin to move your enjoyment of your favourite whiskey outside of purely sipping it, or the obvious choice as an after dinner serve. Lighter, fruitier bourbons can be mixed so they can be enjoyed as an aperitif, or as a refreshing style drink. It doesn't stop them being sipped neat, it offers more opportunities where they can be enjoyed.

The price point on many Bourbons means you can play around with them and have a bit of fun too. Maybe keep your prized bottles for a serve you’re sure of, but the nature of American whiskeys lend themselves to a bit of fun and experimentation.

The cocktails

Ryan’s Manhattan


  • 50ml Hibiki 12 Year Old

  • 20ml fresh lemon juice

  • 15ml Pomegranate syrup (or good quality grenadine)

  • 1 fresh egg white

  • 2 slices orange bell pepper

Stir gently over cubed ice and strain into a small, chilled glass.

A cherry and an orange twist.

The drink is perfect for showcasing the rye; it brings out the spice, but also the red fruit notes in a luxurious easy sipping wonder.

Peanut Butter Cup


  • 60ml Bulleit Bourbon

  • 20ml Celery juice

  • 15ml Lustau Pedro Ximénez 15ml Peanut Butter Syrup*

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled rocks glass filled with pebble ice.

A stalk of celery.

A perfect example of the aforementioned fun and experimentation from Jeff Bell of the world famous PDT, New York.

Peanut Butter Syrup

  • 150ml Jif Reduced Fat Peanut Butter

  • 300ml Clover honey

  • 150ml Water

Simmer on med/low heat, stirring frequently until incorporated – about 10 mins.

Beard to Tail Julep


  • 40ml Woodford Reserve

  • 10ml Southern Comfort 100

  • 10ml Apricot Liqueur

  • 12 Fresh mint leaves

  • 1 bar spoon peach and cinnamon jam

Add all ingredients to a julep cup and gently churn over crushed ice (don’t tear the mint!), add more crushed ice.

Garnish with a straw and a big bunch of mint.

A wonderful re-imagining of the classic Kentucky classic with a nod to the Georgia Mint Julep. Lifting fruit from the whiskey, it creates a light and bright cocktail perfect for a sunny day.