Ever find yourself in a whisky cocktail rut or too settled into the comfort zone of the familiar Old Fashioned and Manhattan? There’s an easy way to break free: substitute a different spirit in place of whisky and see how it tastes. It may seem sacrilegious, but many bartenders are experimenting this way—and the results are delicious.
“We stand in front of walls of liquor every day with some bottles that hardly get touched. It’s a matter of time before a bartender wonders what something would taste like with another ingredient,” says Michael Toscano, head bartender at Dante in New York City. “Sometimes you’re just curious. It can also be a fun challenge to work with ingredients you don’t use very often.” While not every experiment is a hit, many times the mad scientist approach of mixing and matching leads to cocktails that rival the original.
To mix it up at home, there aren’t many hard and fast rules. Robert Freeman, bartender at Husk Restaurant in Savannah, Georgia suggests dipping your toe in with classic recipes, while Allen Lancaster, master cocktail craftsman at The Bar at The Spectator Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina recommends starting with drinks you typically enjoy.
Think about what you plan to mix with your spirit. “Deeper, richer flavors go best with darker spirits, and lighter, brighter flavors go best with similar liquors,” Lancaster explains. Remember that there are many styles of gin, tequila, rum, and mezcal, so have fun, be creative, and experiment.
If your cocktail doesn’t turn out as you’d hoped, don’t toss it right away. “You can always adjust the sweetener or ratio, or add bitters,” Toscano says. “I would encourage all the trial and error you can afford. You never know what crazy combinations of flavor could work out.”
As you go along, be sure to write down what you’re mixing. This way you can recall favorite combinations, things that didn’t turn out so well, and what you want to keep tinkering with. Lancaster recommends creating a grid and filling in liqueurs, cordials, and mixers that work well with each base, but do what works for you.
If you need some liquid courage to swap spirits, start with these six recipes.
Tequila Brown Derby
Put a spin on this classic bourbon cocktail by using a tequila with similar barrel-aged structure.
Rum Paper Plane
A few tweaks to the Paper Plane produces a cocktail that is at once sweet, bitter, and acidic.
Mezcal Old Fashioned
Replacing whisky with mezcal allows the cinnamon and baking spice notes here to fully thrive.
Gin Mint Julep
Using gin in your julep will allow the spirit’s botanical complexity to mix with the mint.
Campari and Rum Toddy
Swap out bourbon for Campari and rum for a buttery remix to a classic.
Using tequila will make your next Manhattan well-rounded and more complex.