14 Best Bourbons To Add To Homemade BBQ Sauce

A well-made barbecue sauce is a thing of beauty, and we firmly believe there's a BBQ sauce out there for everybody. Types of barbecue sauce vary widely around the United States and encompass an astonishing array of flavors. There might even be some regional styles you haven't heard about, like Alabama BBQ sauce, white in color with a creamy, almost mayo-like flavor; and Hawaiian barbecue sauce, famed for exotic tropical flavors like pineapple and ginger.

One of the best things about barbecue sauce is that it's crazy easy to mix up a batch at home. Most of these varieties start with a base made from common fridge and pantry staples like ketchup, vinegar, sugar, and spices. From there, there are tons of innovative ways to elevate your homemade barbecue sauce, like adding bourbon to your blend.

Bourbon contains many of the characteristics that make for (or complement) the flavors of BBQ sauce: It's sweet, smoky, and a little nutty. There's a plethora of recipes for whiskey 'cue sauces available online. The ratio of bourbon to other ingredients deviates wildly between recipes, so this is essentially a "measure with your heart" situation. Not sure what kind of bourbon you should use in your homemade sauce? We've got you covered. Don't worry: We know you probably don't want to use your expensive, limited-edition whiskey in a BBQ sauce, so this list is focused on bottles usually available for $50 or less.

Knob Creek Smoked Maple Bourbon

Knob Creek has been slinging out award-winning whiskeys since 1992. The company has a policy of aging whiskeys for a minimum of nine years (with the exception of the seven-year rye), and its slogan — "worth the wait" — says it all. Knob Creek has quite a few whiskeys and bourbons available. Unlike other whiskey brands, this business usually steers clear of gimmicky flavors, but there's one notable anomaly: Knob Creek's Smoked Maple Bourbon. Friends, this stuff is heaven. The full-bodied bourbon features notes of maple and vanilla with a trace of maple and hickory wood. It's sweet and smoky, both of which are great qualities in a BBQ sauce.

While not overpowering, the bourbon's maple flavor is definitely perceptible, so keep that in mind when picking a recipe to use it in. This bourbon will be a great addition to traditional tomato or ketchup-based sauces that are commonly elevated with brown sweeteners — think brown sugar, molasses, and of course, maple syrup.

Nine Banded Straight Bourbon

Nine Banded focuses on quality rather than quantity in its small product collection. The brand offers only three whiskey varieties: a cask-strength wheated bourbon, a regular wheated bourbon, and a rye-forward straight bourbon. BBQ fans who enjoy deep sweet-and-spicy sauces are sure to enjoy Nine Banded's straight bourbon. It's made from 87% corn, so there's quite a bit of sweetness to it (the manufacturer notes dessert-forward flavors like brown sugar and butterscotch), but also contains 11% rye for a hint of spices like cinnamon and clove.

The deep flavors of Nine Banded make it an ideal addition to the unique flavor profile of Kansas City barbecue sauce. KC-style sauces usually use brown sugar or molasses to achieve a pleasant sweetness that complements the rest of the ingredients in the tomato-based sauce. Bourbon is not a traditional ingredient in recipes for Kansas City 'cue sauces, but hey, there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to BBQ. Alternatively, consider honoring Nine Banded's ATX roots and adding the straight bourbon to a Texas BBQ sauce. These sauces are typically smokier and more savory than Kansas City sauces, so a bit of sweetness from the bourbon can help round out the flavor.

Old Forester 86 Proof

Old Forester has quite a fascinating history. It's the first bourbon to be sold in bottles in the United States. The distiller has been around for over 150 years and today offers a wide variety of whiskey and bourbon at budget-friendly prices. A 750-millileter bottle of Old Forester 86 Proof is available for around $22 and makes for a deep, satisfying addition to homemade barbecue sauce.

Old Forester 86 Proof has an oaky flavor along with notes of complex vanilla, refreshing orange, and a hint of herbaceousness. It will play well in many styles of BBQ sauce — however, the smoke and citrus components in its flavoring make it an excellent choice for those who enjoy Hawaiian barbecue. Hawaiian-influenced BBQ sauces contain ingredients that inspire bright, tropical flavors: salty soy sauce, tart pineapple, aromatic ginger, and sweet brown sugar are all common additions. 'Cue sauces (Hawaiian-style or not) that have been elevated with Old Forester 86 Proof will add depth and flavor to barbecued chicken, fatty pork belly, and even vegetarian options like a jackfruit BBQ sandwich.

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon

Bottled right in Kentucky, Woodford Reserve's Kentucky straight bourbon is less sweet than some of the other bourbons on this list and boasts an incredible array of smells and tastes for a $30 whiskey. Uncork the bottle and you'll immediately pick up an aroma of herbs, citrus, and spice — but allow a sip to coat your tongue, and the flavors crescendo to a symphony of oak, dried orange, pepper, caramel, and tobacco smoke.

The fabulously deep, oaky taste of Woodford Reserve straight bourbon has the ability to enhance many styles of homemade barbecue sauce, whether we're talking tomato-based sauces or mustard-based varieties like South Carolina BBQ sauce. Woodsy flavors and aromas are prominent in this bottle, so when it comes to smoked meats — which is really what BBQ is all about! — Woodford Reserve is a solid pick for a DIY whiskey-infused sauce. Slather your Woodford-infused sauce over smoked brisket, or use it to elevate an umami-rich grilled portobello mushroom sandwich.

Jim Beam Honey

There are myriad ingredients that will help add sweetness to a BBQ sauce, from straight-up sugar to agave nectar to balsamic vinegar. Bourbon, being a sweeter whiskey variety, offers up another route — and if you want to go one step further, honey-infused bourbon is a great (and cost-effective) way to do it. Jim Beam Honey is made with real honey liqueur blended with Jim Beam's classic bourbon. Importantly, this bourbon is decidedly sweet, but not sickly sweet, so the honey flavor won't overpower the rest of the sauce.

Honey BBQ sauce is usually made with a ketchup base, honey (of course), and aromatic spices like onion, paprika, chili powder, and garlic for balance. To swap out pure honey for Jim Beam honey bourbon in a honey BBQ sauce recipe, we suggest swapping out half of the required honey for bourbon — you can certainly nix the honey altogether, but bear in mind that the high viscosity of honey affects the structure of the sauce, so if you like your barbecue sauce a little thicker, leave at least some of the pure honey in. Honey BBQ sauce makes a yummy dip for chicken fingers or a sweet marinade for a rack of ribs before they're thrown on the grill.

Skunk Brothers' Smoke Jumper

Skunk Brothers, a craft distillery out of Washington state, was founded by a family of veterans descended from a Prohibition-era moonshiner. Armed with the goal of creating top-tier whiskies using local ingredients, Skunk Brothers specializes in peated bourbon, corn whiskey, brandy, and seasonal cordials. Several of their products have won Proof Awards, including Smoke Jumper Bourbon, which took home a gold medal in 2020. SmokeJumper is a peated bourbon made from a unique blend of local corn, malted barley, white wheat, and rye before undergoing an accelerated aging process. The finished product is a well-balanced bourbon with notes of butter, toffee, and pepper all brought together under an umbrella of peaty campfire smoke.

The distinct flavor of peated whiskey is what makes Smoke Jumper a natural choice for a homemade bourbon barbecue sauce. Peated whiskies are imbued with an unmistakable earthy and smoky flavor that results from the distilling and aging process, which incorporates burning peat. If you're creating a sauce that will be used for marinating or topping smoked meats, Smoke Jumper will help those exquisite, woodsy tastes shine through while aromas of butterscotch and malted barley add a sweet and mellow component to the mix.

Angel's Envy

Like 95% of the world's bourbon, Angel's Envy is distilled in Kentucky. In a state with an abundance of whiskey and bourbon distilleries, how does one stand out? The laws that dictate which kinds of whiskeys can be specifically labeled as bourbons still allow for quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to ingredients, distillation, and aging. The law requires bourbons to be aged in charred American white oak barrels, but Angel's Envy found a loophole. While Angel's Envy whiskeys are aged in American white oak, the spirits are finished in different types of casks, and Angel's Envy's Kentucky straight bourbon is finished in port wine casks.

Finishing the bourbon in port casks impregnates the whiskey with subtle flavors one usually finds in wine rather than bourbon — ripe fruit, raisins, chocolate, and the like — but classic bourbon elements, including orange, maple syrup, and nuts are present as well. The qualities derived from aging Angel's Envy straight bourbon in wine barrels make it a great pick for infusing vinegar-heavy sauces such as Carolina or Florida BBQ sauce, but it'll work just as well in a Kansas City or Texas-style concoction.

Maker's Mark

Known for its distinctive red wax seal designed to imitate blood dripping down the top of the bottle, Maker's Mark straight bourbon is a smooth, full-flavored whiskey made with red winter wheat as opposed to the traditional rye, which is how the bottle gets its signature reddish hue. The company manufactures a couple of different bourbons, but Maker's Mark Kentucky Straight Bourbon is the go-to dram for many whiskey drinkers. Oak, baking spices, some fruit, and earthy red wheat shine through in this bourbon; all of which are qualities that can enhance a homemade barbecue sauce.

Maker's Mark's straight bourbon is yet another whiskey that fits well into many regional styles of BBQ sauces due to its easy-to-drink nature, but it's an especially great addition to Texas BBQ sauce. The tomato paste sauces that accompany these smoked meats are usually softened with mellow honey and decadent brown sugar, so flavors like vanilla and spices in Maker's Mark are a boon to a Texas-style sauce. That said, the drinkability of Maker's makes it versatile enough to fit many barbecue profiles, so don't feel limited in your choices. 

Wild Turkey American honey

Technically, Wild Turkey American honey bourbon is classified as a liqueur — but it's a liqueur that uses bourbon as a base, and the unique flavors it offers just so happen to be a beautiful complement to BBQ sauce. Its alcohol content is similar to the aforementioned Jim Beam honey bourbon at 71 proof (to the Jim Beam version's 70), but the two honey bourbons are different enough that both warrant a mention. Wild Turkey American honey is made with corn, so it's a lot sweeter than Jim Beam's version. 

Wild Turkey American honey is 100% guaranteed to sweeten up your barbecue sauce, so keep that in mind when you hit the kitchen. Unless you want your sauce extremely sweet (no judgment — sweet sauces are great for burnt ends!), it's going to play best in 'cue sauces that fall on the savory side. The honey bourbon is great for balancing the vinegar-forward tastes of Eastern North Carolina barbecue sauces, which are usually quite tangy in nature. There are, of course, many aspects of traditional bourbon flavors present in Wild Turkey American honey — it's dessert-forward, with some notes of allspice, lemon, and fresh-baked cookies. The real bonus? It's a steal at under $20 for a 750-millileter bottle.

Larceny Small Batch

If you're looking for a one-of-a-kind, small-batch, award-winning bourbon that will impress your whiskey snob friends at an affordable price, you're in luck: Larceny's Small Batch bourbon is impeccable. Larceny Small Batch is made with wheat rather than rye as its secondary grain for an intoxicating balance of sweet and savory. It's won numerous awards, including a gold medal at the 2021 San Francisco World Spirits Competition among its accolades. The bottle maintains a solid five stars in reviews on Larceny's website, with reviewers citing excellent balance and versatility — it's brilliant straight-up, but also makes a lovely upgrade to an Old Fashioned or Kentucky Mule; so one can only figure that this smooth sipper is sure to shine in a homemade BBQ sauce.

Larceny's Small Batch bourbon smacks of fresh-baked bread, toffee, and caramel. There's not a lot of smoke to be found in this bottle, so if you're chasing that elusive combo of a sweet and smoky barbecue sauce, Larceny's small-batch bourbon can upgrade an already-smoky sauce with dessert-forward flavors without impregnating the sauce with an overpowering sweetness. 

Rowan's Creek

"Herbal" is probably not the first word that comes to mind when it comes to BBQ sauce, but hear us out. The mysteriously bright and botanical taste of herbaceous bourbons can add a surprisingly pleasant layer of complexity to sauces. Enter Rowan's Creek, a small-batch bourbon from Willett Distillery, a family-run business. The bourbon itself is aged for 12 years and clocks in at 50.05% ABV, considerably higher than the alcohol percentage of your average bourbon. This bottle features velvety notes of vanilla and caramel, sweet maple, and the unusual aroma of mint on the palate.

It's this extraordinary herbaceous quality that makes Rowan's Creek a zinger of a choice for your homemade BBQ sauce. While most bourbon-infused sauces highlight common whiskey elements like smoke and sugar, infusing a 'cue sauce with Rowan's Creek bourbon gives it a little somethin-somethin' you don't usually find in the barbecue world. A Rowan's Creek-based sauce is a great way to elevate smoked brisket, BBQ beef; you can also use it as a dipping sauce for sweet potato fries or grilled veggie kababs.

Stillhouse Black Bourbon

Would you buy a bourbon that comes in a container that looks like an oil can? That's what Stillhouse is betting on with its Black Bourbon. The 100% stainless steel container isn't just a gimmick: The material is designed to help bourbon chill faster for those who enjoy their whiskey cold. This bourbon is composed of corn, rye, barley, and limestone water. A strong coffee taste is perceptible in the finished product. This is because, after a unique charcoal filtering process, Stillhouse finishes off the liquid by resting it in a bed of roasted coffee beans. In addition to notes of caramel, several samplers have remarked that Stillhouse's black bourbon has a fairly strong alcoholic taste, but overall, it has a high approval rating.

There are many ingredients that can be used to take a homemade barbeque sauce to the next level, but one pantry staple that can make a huge difference is coffee. Incorporating coffee in your BBQ sauce builds and grows the flavors that are already present in most 'cue sauces, allowing the distinct spicy and sweet taste of coffee to blend in with the tanginess of ketchup or tomato paste in a really delightful way while contrasting — but not clashing with — spices like garlic and paprika. Coffee granules have long been incorporated into dry rubs, so using a coffee-forward bourbon in homemade BBQ sauce is a natural next step.

Watkins Cinnamon Apple Bourbon

BBQ tends to be associated with the summer months when the air is warm enough for outdoor grilling. However, there's no rule that says you can't barbecue year-round, and pairing seasonal flavors with sauces presents a fun challenge for the home chef. If you love the taste of fall-forward foods like apple cider and cinnamon, then you're sure to enjoy spiking your homemade BBQ sauce with Watkins Cinnamon Apple Bourbon. With cozy notes of cinnamon, toasted walnuts, and ripe apples, this bourbon is a true fall treat. It's also a great deal at around $24 per bottle (make sure to keep one around for hot toddies).

Watkins Cinnamon Apple presents a fair amount of syrupy taste on the tongue due to the apple flavoring, but the toasty presence of baking spices helps to temper it. When added to a 'cue sauce, this bourbon will play well off the larger-than-life boldness of Texas BBQ, but could also add some playful spice to non-regionally-specific sauces like this bourbon-chile barbecue sauce. Try it over some pulled pork, which tends to be delicious with pome fruit such as apples — apple bourbon BBQ pulled pork sliders are sure to be a hit at your annual haunted house pre-game or a Thanksgiving potluck.

Warbringer Mesquite Smoked Southwest Bourbon

Mesquite is a core component of Texas-style barbecue. Patience is key: In this unique regional style, the meat is cooked very slowly over low heat in a smoker stocked with mesquite, oak, hickory, and pecan wood chips, which lend an intoxicating woodsy flavor to the finished product. What better bourbon, then, to add to a tantalizingly smoky mesquite-forward sauce than one made with corn immersed in mesquite smoke? Warbringer mesquite-smoked bourbon's blend of smoked corn and rye is an obvious pick when it comes to mixing bourbon and BBQ sauce.

Warbringer's Mesquite Smoked Bourbon is the product of Sepse Creek Distillery in Oxnard, California, but uses genuine Texas mesquite wood in its process. It features a fascinating combo of flavors ranging from burnt sugar to pine to, of course, smoke. While this bottle is excellent when enjoyed straight-up, Warbringer can be used to infuse sweeter barbeque sauce varieties like Kansas City or Hawaiian-style sauce with an elusive, hazy, bonfire smoke quality. Pair Warbringer Mesquite Smoked Southwest Bourbon BBQ sauce with any meats or veggies you like — it's particularly striking when combined with smoked sausage, beef brisket, and pork ribs.