FOOD & DRINK
10/29/2014 12:26 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2014

Taste Test: The Best (And Worst) Kinds Of Bourbon To Use In An Old-Fashioned Cocktail

Old-fashioned cocktails, from sidecars to negronis, have been popular for over a decade. But until recently, the Old-Fashioned Cocktail proper was an all-but-forgotten artifact outside a few excellent bars in New York and San Francisco.

Its major obstacle to success was that many bartenders -- both professional and amateur -- had taken to bastardizing the classic recipe with all manners of strange additions, from muddled oranges to splashes of Coca-Cola. While some of those tweaks may make for delicious drinks, they made it hard for a drinker to know what they would get when ordering an Old-Fashioned.

In the past couple years, though, good bars have started to embrace the simple virtues of the original Old-Fashioned recipe, the one that was just called a "cocktail" for much for the 19th century: a little bit of sugar, a few dashes of bitters, a big cube of ice and a couple ounces of distilled spirits. Maybe a lemon twist or nice maraschino cherry. It provides a refreshingly direct alternative to overwrought mixtures of four or five obscure amaros with unpronounceable names.

You can make a delicious Old-Fashioned using almost any kind of liquor; I've had wonderful versions with dark rum and jenever, an aged, sweet type of gin. But the classic spirit for an Old-Fashioned is American whiskey. Some people swear by rye, but for my Old-Fashioneds, I prefer the easy-sipping sweetness and aromatic complexity of bourbon. Indeed, it's one of very few mixed drinks that I think work better with bourbon than rye. (A bourbon Manhattan, for example, is treacly compared to one made with rye.)

But which bourbon should you use? To answer that question, HuffPost Taste decided to hold one of our beloved Cocktail Taste Tests.

We assembled 21 brands of bourbon from companies big and small across the country, mixed up classic Old-Fashioneds using one consistent recipe, then invited a panel of about 20 tasters to tell us what they thought. Most of them were HuffPost and AOL employees at our office in Beverly Hills, with varying degrees of bourbon experience, but we also invited two outside experts to give their thoughts: Andrew Abrahamson, the director of operations at acclaimed LA whiskey bar Seven Grand, and Lesley Balla, a Zagat editor who has written about whiskey for years. Each taster tried about half the different kinds of bourbon, in an attempt to stay reasonably sober, though afterwards, Balla and I tasted the four whiskeys that had received the highest scores in the initial round to confirm the quality of the winners.

Zagat's video team filmed the proceedings, so if you want to see what it was like to taste 10-plus cocktails in one evening, watch the wonderful video embedded at the top of this post. But if all you care about is the results, scroll down to see which of the 21 bourbon brands we tried worked the best in an Old-Fashioned cocktail -- and which ones fared worst. One quick note about our findings: our tasters honestly liked almost all the bourbons we tried, so if your favorite ended up outside the top few, don't be discouraged. It's probably still great!

One last note: Andrew Abrahamson was the biggest bourbon expert of all the tasters, so we highlighted his comments separately, but he, like everyone else, only tried about half the bourbons. So that's why his erudite judgments don't appear underneath every bourbon.

As always, the brands included did not in any way sponsor or influence the outcome of this taste test.

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Old-Fashioned Taste Test

Here's the recipe we used for the taste test; it's my own amalgamation of a bunch of different sources, and comes close to the original from the early 19th century.

Ingredients
2 oz. bourbon
2/3 tsp rich simple syrup
Angostura bitters
Large ice cube
Lemon twist or maraschino cherry (optional)

Process
Pour the simple syrup in the bottom of an Old-Fashioned glass, add 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters and stir. Add the bourbon and stir, then add the ice cube and stir until the drink is cold. If desired, add the lemon twist or maraschino cherry as a garnish. (We did not use any garnishes in this taste test.)

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