Newsflash: Bourbon Makes Really Great Summer Cocktails

I’m all about lighter spirits like gin and tequila during the summer — but just because the weather’s warmer doesn’t mean you need to stash away the bourbon. When properly mixed, the whiskey can be a great foundation for summer cocktails. 

And for these lighter drinks, we’re using an old-fashioned sweetening method: oleo saccharum. While the name sounds complicated, it’s really just a syrup made with sugar and the oils from citrus peels (in this case, lemon). These oils are intensely flavored and aromatic, and by suspending them in a sugar syrup, you can add bright citrus flavor and complexity to a cocktail. 

As far as bourbon goes, we’re using Old Forester. One of the classic American brands, they’re still keeping up with the times; they’re a favorite of modern-day mixologists and recently opened a brand-new distillery right in downtown Louisville, the only working distillery on the historical “Whiskey Row.” Beyond the history, it’s simply great bourbon. While I think both their 86- and 100-proof bourbons are excellent in cocktails, today I’m opting for the higher-octane 100-proof. 

Making your own oleo saccharum is a reasonably simple process: Cover lemon peels with sugar, let sit until the citrus oils emerge and start to form a syrup with the sugar. (Read this piece if you’re curious about going the DIY route.)  But you can also buy great bottled versions, like this Old Forester oleo saccharum.  

Either way, you’ll end up with complex, multi-faceted citrus flavor in your cocktails — perfect for summer.

Easy: Lemon-Basil Buck 

Ginger beer is one of our go-tos for easy-drinking summer cocktails. Pair it with bourbon and then kick in some bright citrus with lemon; basil adds another fresh dimension. Thanks to the oleo saccharum, the lemon flavor is complex and vivid, not just a background element.  

Instructions: In a cocktail shaker with ice, combine an ounce and a half of Old Forester 100 Proof, half an ounce of lemon oleo saccharum, half an ounce of fresh lemon juice, and three basil leaves. Shake all that up until well-chilled,then double-strain (through the shaker’s own strainer and a fine mesh strainer) into a tall glass with fresh ice. Top with two ounces of ginger beer and stir briefly. Garnish with a lemon wheel and a basil leaf, lightly clapped between your palms before adding to the drink. 

Intermediate: Peach Iced Tea 

Who can resist a juicy summer peach? Muddle up fresh peaches with bourbon, brighten it all up with the vivid citrus flavor of lemon oleo saccharum, and then add black tea for a cocktail that’s as comforting as it is refreshing. A “back porch before dinner” drink if ever there were one. 

Instructions: In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle (that is, smash up) a quarter of a fresh peach. Add ice, plus an ounce and a half of Old Forester 100 Proof, 3/4 ounce of lemon oleo saccharum, 1/4 ounce of fresh lemon juice, and two ounces of black tea (chilled or at room temperature). Shake all that up until well-chilled, then double-strain (through the shaker’s own strainer and a fine mesh strainer) into a tall glass with fresh ice. Garnish with a few lemon wheels and a thin slice of peach. 

Advanced: Lemon Julep 

A classic mint julep is essentially a perfect cocktail, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tweak it a little. Rather than using simple syrup in the drink, try the lemon oleo saccharum. It brings a little sweetness along with that distinctive lemon flavor and the richness of the lemon oils. Only a slight variation on the original, but one well worth trying. (See this article for more julep tips.)  

Instructions: Add 15 mint leaves and half an ounce of lemon oleo saccharum to a julep cup (or rocks glass). Gently press (not smash) the mint with a muddler, or with the end of a wooden spoon.  Add 2 ounces of Old Forester 100 Proof. Fill the glass with crushed ice, forming a mound on top. Garnish with three mint sprigs, tapped against your hand to release their aromatic oils, and a short straw or two. 

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