10 Best Bourbons For Hot Chocolate

When the weather turns cold, there's nothing better than a nice hot cup of cocoa. It's sweet, warms you up inside and out, and always brings a smile to your face. But the hot chocolate we enjoy today wasn't the drink's original form. According to the Institute of Culinary Education, the beverage was originally consumed by Aztecs and Mayans when they took cocoa beans and turned them into a cold drink that was made with water and spices. It wasn't until the 1500s, when the Spanish conquered Mexico and Central America, that the hot chocolate we now know and love started to appear. 

These days it's a rich, sweet elixir that's often made with chocolate and milk along with various other accompaniments. As a matter of fact, there are several ways you can upgrade your hot chocolate. While we enjoy adding a little cinnamon and a homemade marshmallow to our cups, one of our favorite ways to enjoy the hot beverage is by adding an ounce or two of booze. The only question is: Which spirit to choose? While you go festive with peppermint schnapps or spice up your beverage with rum, it's hard to top adding some bourbon. But with so many bottles to choose from, which one is the best? We asked five experts to give us their top choices. Below are the bourbons (and bourbon-adjacent bottles) they insist will take a hot chocolate from ho-hum to the best thing you've ever sipped on a snowy winter's eve.

Old Forester 1910

Old Forester is a Kentucky-based booze brand that's been around for over a century and a half. While there are over dozen different whiskey options on its roster, the 1910 is the bourbon that Jack Rose Dining Saloon's beverage director Joseph Oddo recommends for a piping hot chocolate. 

Not surprisingly, its roots date back to 1910 when a fire on the distillery's bottling line halted production. The distillers had no choice but to take the mature, ready-to-bottle whiskey, and store it in a secondary barrel until the bottling line was back up and running. That second barreling created a totally new expression that the folks at Old Forester felt should be shared. Today, the 1910 continues to employ that second barreling which Oddo says gives the bourbon "a lovely vanilla forwardness." He also notes that it has "lots of influence from the wood, so it's rich and smooth." If the 1910 ends up being your hot chocolate bourbon of choice, Oddo recommends that you should "definitely serve it with marshmallows." 

Elijah Craig Small Batch

If you're looking for a bourbon that won't wreck your wallet, Adam Morgan, the bar manager at Husk in Nashville says that Elijah Craig Small Batch is the way to go. Among the best small-batch bourbons under $40, this is Elijah Craig's flagship bottling. According to the distillery, Elijah Craig was the very first distiller to char new oak barrels. He discovered that toasting the new oak to a level three gave the bourbon its smoky, vanilla flavors. The results were so impressive that the distillery continues the tradition of charring the barrels to level three for all its expressions.

Morgan believes that char is what gives the Small Batch its "prevalent notes of nuttiness, vanilla, and citrus zest." Those flavors balance well with "a soft, yet creamy mouth feel that would perfectly spike a hot chocolate," he adds. But if you want to take your cocoa to the next level, Morgan says that adding "toasted marshmallows would really seal the deal on this wintery treat!"

Buffalo Trace

Another bourbon that's gentle on the wallet is the flagship bourbon from the Buffalo Trace distillery. Sean Ebbitt, the owner of Lexington's Bluegrass Tavern, believes this sub-$30 bourbon would be "a nice touch" to a piping hot cup of cocoa.

Located in the heart of bourbon country, Kentucky, Buffalo Trace was named after the trails that the buffalo carved through the unmanned country so many years ago, according to the brand's website. Those paths, one of which crossed the Kentucky River, led pioneers to find the new frontiers they called home. It was on these banks that a new distillery was built to create one of the oldest bourbons in the States. That was over 200 years ago, and the people at Buffalo Trace have been distilling whiskey and bourbon the same way ever since.

Aging for years in new oak barrels in the original rickhouses that were built back in 1773, the whiskey that materializes is a bourbon that's deep amber in color with notes of vanilla, molasses, toffee, and a hint of spice. That "mild spice" is why Ebbitt says Buffalo Trace is one of his top picks for a boozy hot chocolate.

Old Weller Antique 107

One of the many labels from Kentucky's Buffalo Trace distillery, W.L. Weller has been around since before Prohibition. Originally part of the Stitzel-Weller Distilling Company, the label joined Buffalo Trace in 2002. Since then Buffalo Trace, has expanded the Weller brand and taken the bourbon from three to seven different expressions. 

The 107 of Old Weller Antique comes from the fact that this bourbon is bottled at 107 proof. A higher proof means it's going to be a relatively strong bourbon that while good on its own or over ice, is also going to make a nice addition to any cocktail. That said, this bottle is not cheap. While its retail price is in line with your standard mid-shelf bourbon, since it shares a family tree with the highly coveted Pappy Van Winkle you'll be hard-pressed to come across it in the wild. If you do happen to track down a bottle, expect to pay three figures. Even at the higher price tag, Jason Brauner, the co-owner of Louisville's Bourbons Bistro, believes it's the best choice for a hot chocolate. He says its notes of baking spices and powdered cocoa "mimic the comfort you find in a cup of hot chocolate."

Town Branch finished in Maple Stout Barrels

Though it started as a brewery in the 1800s, Lexington Brewing & Distilling Company recently added whiskey, bourbon, and rye to its roster when owner Pearse Lyons decided to add distilling to his list of traits. It seemed the obvious choice since his brewery is located in Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon. Lexington released its first whiskey in 2012 and since then it broadened its library to a variety of offerings including multiple gins. The brand even incorporated its brewing roots with its distilling operation, introducing the limited edition Town Branch Maple Barrel Stout Finished Bourbon in fall of 2022. 

Using barrels that originally held Michigan maple syrup, Lexington Brewing & Distilling created its Maple Barrel Stout. Then once the beer was poured into bottles, those same barrels were rolled across the street to the distillery where the Town Branch distillers immediately filled them with bourbon. The bourbon stayed in these barrels for a year to create a unique expression.

Combining the flavors of maple syrup, bourbon, and beer garners you with a very unique bourbon indeed. With its notes of oak, brown sugar, malt, and maple syrup, Sean Ebbitt, the owner of the Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, thinks this bourbon would be "a bit of a risk on the flavor but could be an interesting alternative" if you're looking for something a little different.

Johnny Drum Private Stock

Hailing from the Willet Distillery, Johnny Drum Private Stock offers a high alcohol by volume coming in at an impressive 101 proof. Though not quite in Weller territory, this isn't the easiest bottle to track down. But if you are lucky enough to grab one, Alexandra Garret, a bartender at San Francisco's Rickhouse, highly recommends it. While it might be a bourbon that's "off the beaten path," she insists that Johnny Drum Private Stock is "absolutely delicious alone or in a drink." 

Named after a young drummer boy during the Civil War, this bourbon offers welcome notes of apricot, apple, and orange with plenty of caramel and brown sugar. (We like the sound of that!) Those flavors are why Garret believes it's a good choice for a large cup of cocoa. Priced at under $50, Johnny Drum Private Stock is worth having around even when the weather warms up.  

Elijah Craig Toasted Barrel

While the Elijah Craig Small Batch is a great inexpensive way to booze up your hot chocolate, the Toasted Barrel will take that piping cup of cocoa up another notch. Though not the most expensive bourbon in the Elijah Craig library, this bourbon, which runs about $70 a bottle, is definitely something you want to use when you really want to make that hot chocolate extra special. See, this bourbon isn't just aged in one barrel, it's aged in two. 

Like all bourbon, the Toasted Barrel is matured in a new charred oak barrel. However, it's finished in a second, brand new charred oak barrel. What you end up with is a bourbon that's on the sweeter side. That second toasting is why Sean Ebbitt, the owner of the Bluegrass Tavern, suggests it "will be a nice touch to the cocoa," while Joseph Oddo, the beverage director at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon notes that it "has this cinnamon quality that's just absolutely wonderful."

Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon

If you're looking for something to take your hot chocolate to the next level, then Darron Foy, the bar manager for New York's The Flatiron Room, suggests Hillrock Solera Aged Bourbon. According to the distillery, this bourbon is aged in a unique way: using the Solera method. Commonly used to mature sherry, the barrels are stacked in a pyramid. Then a small portion of whiskey is removed from the bottom tier of the pyramid while new whiskey is added to the top barrels. So, no barrel is ever completely emptied, which means you have older whiskey mingling with newer whiskey to achieve a depth and flavor you don't get with the standard aging process. 

But the folks at Hillrock don't stop there. Once the bourbon is mature, it spends some time in 20-year-old Oloroso Sherry casks. Foy says that finishing the bourbon off that way adds notes of raisin, cherry, burnt orange, and chocolate. Coming in at around $100 a bottle, Foy admits that "this would be a decadent and pricey hot chocolate, but well worth it for the flavor!"

Wilderness Trail Rye

While bourbon is a popular choice for hot chocolate, several experts mentioned rye as a nice alternative, especially if it's on the sweeter side. Because rye tends to be spicier, it takes the hot chocolate in a completely different direction. Sure, there are plenty of options out there since a lot of bourbon distilleries also make rye, but Joseph Oddo, the beverage director at Washington D.C.'s Jack Rose Dining Saloon, suggests Wilderness Trail

According to the distillery's website, Wilderness Trail uses a mash for its rye that's made up of 56% rye, 33% corn, and 11% malted barley. It created this unique mash bill in order to achieve a broader balance of flavor, which means in the end, you have a rye that's slightly sweeter than the average bottle. Oddo says that because they "use a sweet mash, some of their expressions can come out almost minty, which is perfect for hot cocoa."

Michter's American Whiskey

Not really a bourbon and not really a rye, Michter's Unblended American Whiskey is a smooth sipper that Alexandra Garrett says is "an easy go-to" for hot chocolate. A bartender at San Francisco's Rickhouse, Garrett knows a thing or two about whiskey. She says that because this is unblended, "the distillers don't have to abide by normal bourbon or rye rules," which means that the whiskey they end up with is not only a lower proof (83.4 to be precise), it "has a softer, lighter taste" than some of the other bourbons out there. 

While bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, whiskey can be aged in barrels that have already been used for other liquors. While Mitcher's offers several top-tier bourbons, this bottle can't use that label since the unblended whiskey rests in whiskey-soaked barrels that are toasted and then charred. That aging process yields a spirit that Garrett says has "a lot of cinnamon, shortcake, and vanilla (flavors) which is desirable in a drink like hot chocolate."