9 Best Bourbons To Use When Baking

The past decade has seen such a bourbon renaissance, even bakers who hadn't previously considered it as potential ingredient have been reevaluating the spirit. When this alcohol evaporates in heat, its unique flavor profile remains. Those rich notes of caramel, vanilla, and baking spices (among other delicious tastes) can potentially enhance flavors added to baked dishes, elevating them from good to heavenly, one dram at a time.

Bourbon is a specific type of American whiskey, with strict rules surrounding its distillation. A bourbon's mash — the mix of grains from which it is distilled — must consist of at least 51% corn. The other 49% can be any combination of rye, wheat, and malted barley. Regardless of what rounds out a bourbon's mash, however, bourbon must be distilled no higher than 160 proof and barreled at no higher than 125. Traditional bourbon must be aged in new charred barrels, typically oak.

Such factors influence the final flavor of the alcohol — and by extension, recipes in which it is used. Bourbon's complexity can bring depth to baked goods, sauces, plated desserts and more. But because there are so many different types of bourbon, one must choose wisely.

When choosing a bourbon to bake with, the wine rule matters: Don't select one you wouldn't drink. Beyond that, consider the underlying flavor profile of what is being baked. They can be influenced by the wood barrel they are aged in, with hints of oak or other woods. Proof matters, too. Experiment to find what you like.

Maker's Mark

Maker's Mark has a sweet, soft finish that is gentle and easy to incorporate into a variety of desserts. Chalk that up to a 70% corn mash with a slightly higher ratio of wheat to rye. It's distilled to be warm, not hot, with no lingering traces of bitterness. Maker's Mark is suitable for baking when the bourbon flavor should be more subtle.

Tasting notes on this bourbon include a spice-forward flavor profile with cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger. Vanilla and caramel are also evident, but each flavor blends with no real standout or dominating flavor.

This smooth blend of flavors makes the bourbon, with its signature wax cap, an excellent selection for desserts that need depth to cut through the sweetness. Pecan pie is a great place to utilize Maker's Mark, as are Blondies. Also consider adding it to any chocolate baked dessert with hints of ginger or clove.

Although older vintages of Maker's Mark are solid sipping whiskies, the immature nature of the regular bottle is perfect for baking. Somehow, adding heat and sugar brings flavor nuances forward to make even the simplest baked goods more delicious.

Buffalo Trace

The Buffalo Trace distillery is home to a famous family of bourbons, including the elusive, prized Pappy Van Winkle brand. The distillery has been in business for over 200 years, and is the oldest continuously operating distillery in the United States.

Buffalo Trace has a balanced flavor profile with notes of caramel and vanilla. It is a mild whiskey. Because Buffalo Trace is a lower-proof bourbon with some age, longer cooking is not necessary to remove the "burn" present in a higher-proof or immature bottle of bourbon. This makes it perfect for caramel and ganache. These two dessert sauces are developed quickly and used for layer cakes, cupcakes, or choux pastry filling.

Even though long baking times aren't necessary, Buffalo Trace is an excellent option for sweet treats that bake on low heat for an extended time. Pumpkin pie and cheesecake are seasonal desserts that benefit from the bump this bourbon brings, picking up the brown sugar and spice present in the whiskey. Substitute Buffalo Trace for water in a candied orange peel recipe to highlight the bourbon's undercurrent of candied fruit.

Who says bourbon isn't for breakfast? Buffalo Trace can also be used to create the topping for pecan sticky buns or cinnamon rolls.

Woodford Reserve

If heaven exists, its residents' spirit of choice might just be Woodford Reserve. This is an exceptionally smooth, premium sipping whiskey that is naturally sweet with notes of dried fruit. It has a slightly higher proof (just under 90), belied by a highly fragrant nose of cocoa, vanilla, and spicy tobacco. When it hits the tongue, the flavor is rich and complex. Cocoa, buttery caramel, and spice are present, each balanced beautifully with a silky feel and a long, delicious finish. There is no hint of heat associated with a higher-proof whiskey, but the overall sensation is of warming spice and rich chocolate.

Woodford Reserve is ideal for deepening and adding complexity to baked goods. It makes for a delicious cookie studded with fruit but is equally at home in a blueberry pie. Another way to use Woodford Reserve in baking is to add it to favorite recipes that need a flavor boost or a counterpoint to their sweetness. Think caramel cake with a shot of bourbon added to the frosting, or adding cherries soaked in bourbon to a perfect pavlova.

Bulleit Bourbon

Another high-rye, affordable tipple with a spicy kick, the founder of Bulleit bourbon was a bit spicy as well, mixing the first batch (of what was technically not a bourbon) in 1830 before sailing towards New Orleans with a boat full of casks. He disappeared along the way, but the legacy of Bulleit was established, and it continues to this day. Bulleit swapped the original recipe to make it a true bourbon, with two-thirds corn and one-third rye on its mash bill (the exact opposite of the original formula). Today, the recipe stands at 68% corn, 28% rye, and 4% malted barley, giving it more complexity.

The flavor is spicy and oaky right off the bat. Honey is more present than caramel, and cinnamon makes an appearance, too. It has a medium finish with a string of toffee and citrus notes. This spirit's added complexity and spice-forward flavor helps it stand up and out in baked goods with intense flavors. Spice cakes and dark chocolate cakes are a perfect foil for Bulleit. Kentucky butter cakes benefit from Bulleit as well, as it breaks up what could be a somewhat monotonous flavor profile.

Overall, Bulleit is a very straightforward bourbon for baking. It was crafted for bartenders and designed to be mixed with juices and other mixers. Because of this ability to play well with other flavors, it's a very easy bourbon with which to bake.

Knob Creek Smoked Maple

Knob Creek is distilled at the Jim Beam distillery, along with other favorite bourbon brands like Booker's and Basil Hayden. It finishes smoky as the name suggests, but the initial tasting notes include maple, caramel, vanilla, and pepper. Cinnamon also appears as an underlying aroma and taste, as does molasses and a touch of brown sugar. The maple flavor is consistent from start to finish, not an overwhelming sweetness but a current in which all other tastes flow.

Even though maple flavors are added, this spirit is still technically a straight bourbon, as additives are introduced after distillation. The final product weighs in at 90-proof, giving it a slightly sharper, hotter finish than lower-proof bourbons.

It's easy to consider pairing Knob Creek Smoked Maple with any number of baked goods. Add Knob Creek Smoked Maple to crème brûlée and prepare to experience this dessert again like it's the first time. Incorporate it into a dark chocolate bread pudding to cut the richness of the chocolate while adding a mellow, smoky layer of flavor. Add it to the caramel in a pineapple upside-down cake or bake it into a brioche or holiday pannetone for a unique twist on a traditional favorite.

Eagle Rare

Many bakers wouldn't bat an eyelash at spending lots of money on the finest chocolate or imported butter. They know that high-quality ingredients produce better results. The same goes for bourbon in baking, and Eagle Rare is at the upper limit of what one might think to spend for a single ingredient — but worth it.

Available in Rare, Double Eagle Very Rare, and Eagle Rare 17-Year Old, this exceptional bourbon whiskey comes to kitchens from the same distillery responsible for Buffalo Trace and Pappy Van Winkle. The standards are high, and Eagle Rare meets them.

Eagle Rare is the one to go with for baking. The spirit is light and dry, with an initial delicate flavor of oak, honey, and almonds. It seems simplistic at first, but this 10-year-old whiskey unveils some surprises: Tastes of oranges, wood, mint, and pine. It seems almost heartbreaking to hide this bourbon's light under a bushel of butter and flour, but the same characteristics that make it great for sipping also make it excellent for baking.

Some might wait until the first Saturday in May and get into the spirit with Kentucky bourbon balls, but there's no need to put it off. Eagle Rare's wood, spice, and citrus add an unbelievable depth to a simple carrot cake, and its cinnamon flavors are perfect for setting an apple pie on fire or adding as a sauce for monkey bread.

Wild Turkey 101

Wild Turkey is a higher-proof flavor bomb. With an initial taste of caramel and vanilla and a signature citrus finish, this smoky bourbon is surprisingly smooth for its proof. Cinnamon and other spices appear in the middle palate, but the initial burst of vanilla and the final hint of orange in this spirit (typically aged between six and eight years) make it perfect for baking.

High-proof bourbons in general are excellent for jams and desserts that can handle a smoky flavor, because they need a bit of cooking time to remove the strong alcohol finish. Malted barley is an additive used in breakfast cereals, and Wild Turkey 101 provides this type of flavor. Baking a fruit crisp or a dessert bar with oats in the topping? Once the alcohol is baked off, this bourbon's smoky, malty finish will enhance the oats' natural flavors.

Another perfect baking application for Wild Turkey 101 is hearty bread. The long baking time and high heat that bread requires cook off all the sting of alcohol, leaving behind nothing but sweet, smoky goodness.

Old Grand-Dad Bourbon Whiskey

While it's important to bake with a bourbon worth sipping, several affordable bourbons fit the bill. Old Grand-Dad is among the top contenders. 

Named after a famous distiller with an eponymous bourbon already under his belt (Basil Hayden), Old Grand-Dad is an affordable libation as great for sipping over ice as it is for baking. It's available in 80- and 100-proof versions, and each bring something different to baked goods. With notes of spice, caramel, and vanilla and hints of oak and citrus, the 80-proof version of Old Grand-Dad brings depth to cakes and cookies. It finishes long — hints of pepper and cinnamon remain strong in baked goods. This is perfect for bold baking flavors in chocolate desserts, but Old Grand-Dad also tames overly sweet preparations like custards for bourbon-based pie.

But use caution, because bourbon can curdle cream and eggs when added to custard too soon. In any type of bourbon custard pie, mix heated milk into tempered eggs and sugar, then add that mixture to the pie crust. Mind the oven temperature, as a too-hot oven can also cause eggs to curdle.

Angel's Envy

In bourbon making, white dog (a.k.a, white lightning, the raw white distillate) sits in whiskey barrels for years, taking on the flavors of the barrel and deepening in color and taste over time. The majority of bourbon is aged in barrels rick houses, where the barrel staves expand and contract ever so slightly as the weather changes. As this happens, part of the liquid evaporates, lending the rick house its aroma and releasing what is known as the "angel's share."

From this sweet process comes Angel's Envy, a relative newcomer to the bourbon market. Established in 2010, the founders believe that what remains in the barrel is enough to make those angels jealous. The original whiskey is aged in port wine barrels, but they now have offerings with rum, Madeira, sherry, tawny, and ice cider finishes.

Predominant tasting notes of this exceptionally smooth bourbon include maple, chocolate, caramel, and vanilla. Any baked goods with these flavors make for a perfect pair, especially when there is a short cooking time and the whiskey's flavor can shine through. Caramel sauce between layers of vanilla cake, luscious hasty pudding, and bourbon-soaked peaches in an upside-down cake are all excellent baking applications. Candied bourbon pecans are yet another way to highlight Angel's Envy, bringing forward an soothing, subtle toasted nut flavor.