The 10 Best Bourbon Substitutes For Cooking

As we head into and fully embrace the coziness and coolness of autumn, cooking and baking richer, more luscious dishes becomes the norm. Adding bourbon to your recipes can greatly add to the hominess of a particular dish, imparting a variety of tasting notes that go hand-in-hand with the season's most beloved plates — from apple pies to roasted pork.

The all-American spirit can impart a wide range of flavors, and according to the official bourbon tasting wheel, can inbue everything from floral to vanilla to tobacco notes to a particular dish. Thanks to the wide array of tastes presented, subbing in other ingredients when you simply don't have bourbon on hand can be easier than expected. Between fruity and floral, grain and wood, sweet and spice, there are a number of other spirits and non-alcoholic options open to you when you're cooking or baking with bourbon and don't have any on hand. Here are 10 of the best substitutes we've found.

1. Vanilla extract

The first and seemingly most obvious swap for bourbon is vanilla extract. The standby ingredient for everything from cakes to baked feta pasta has notes ranging from floral to caramelized sugar but actually works like salt or MSG. So, vanilla could be just as at home in your barbecue sauce recipe as your bourbon would, surprisingly.

If you need to swap vanilla for bourbon, use a one-to-one ratio and, in the words of Ina Garten, make sure it's the "good" vanilla. For a bourbon and chile barbecue sauce, swap out the quarter cup of bourbon for good vanilla extract and combine with unsalted butter, minced garlic, onion, Thai chile (or your favorite hot pepper), ketchup, brown sugar, apple cider vinegar, peach preserves, honey, salt, and pepper. Melt the butter in a saucepan, sauté the onion and garlic until soft, then add the remaining ingredients and simmer until thick. The vanilla may seem like an odd choice here, but the floral sweetness of the vanilla will up the ante for the peach preserves while balancing the vinegar.

2. Rum

Jack Sparrow's favorite drink, rum, can also be swapped in when you're in a pinch and can't find any bourbon lying around. Rum, namely the dark and spiced varieties, are a good bourbon substitute as they both contain similar notes of spice and sweetness. Additionally, both rum and bourbon are aged in wooden barrels, so the oaky notes are present in both spirits. Again, don't swap in your coconut Malibu or white lightning rum from St. Martin for bourbon; if you have a bottle of Kraken lying around from your foray into eggnog last year, that's the ticket.

Maybe you're craving sticky Chinese bourbon chicken (which, arguably is not really supposed to contain bourbon at all). Swap in 3 tablespoons of dark, spiced rum for the 3 tablespoons called for in the recipe, and ensure that it's successfully deglazed your pan before adding the rest of your sauce mixture (a delightful combo of brown sugar, chicken stock, hoisin sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar, sesame oil, cornflour, and rice vinegar). Add in your quick-fried chicken and warm it through.

3. Brandy or cognac

Brandy and its many varieties — including Cognac and Armagnac — can be a wonderful replacement for bourbon. The spirit is made from distilled wine and sometimes fruit, then aged in either stainless steel or oak barrels.

Depending on the type of brandy, different tasting notes are at play. The spirit can be sweet, spicy, slightly bitter, and even fruity, depending on the age and quality. Basic brandy can be fruity, a bit sweet, and oaky, depending on the barrel it's been aged in. All of these notes are similar and in line with bourbon, making brandy, and many varieties of brandy, a great substitute for bourbon. Note, though, that brandy will work best in recipes that don't count on the spiciness of bourbon, which brandy does not have. Try a bread pudding with bourbon sauce — swapping in brandy on a one-for-one ration — or even these very seasonal maple pot de créme with bourbon cream. The bourbon cream here only relies on 1 tsp of the spirit, so swap in your favorite brandy variety and enjoy.

4. Peach nectar and apple cider vinegar

It may seem a little odd, but you probably have apple cider vinegar hanging out in your pantry from that salad dressing you made a bit ago, and peach nectar, well, maybe you tried your hand at an odd late summer cocktail at some point. Mixing the two together could be the oddest bourbon substitute on our list, but it does work.

The peach nectar works to replicate the sweetness and sugar components of the bourbon while the apple cider vinegar ensures the combination isn't too saccharine and, also, adds some complexity. The combination can be used to replace bourbon in recipes where the spirit's fruitiness needs to shine, like ham with a bourbon and brown sugar glaze. The glaze, which consists of orange juice, brown sugar, molasses, and Dijon, already has quite a bit of sweetness in it. The peach and vinegar concoction works here because the vinegar will help cut the sweetness — as bourbon would — adds complexity, but still imparts a bit of sugar to balance out the richness of the ham.

5. Dark beer

If you've got a leftover bottle of Guinness in the outside refrigerator and no plans to drink it any time soon, it could come in handy as the substitute for the bourbon you don't have in a recipe you're dying to make. Though the heartiness of a dark brew makes it much more flavorful than the average lager or light beer, porters and stouts aren't a perfect swap for bourbon. They can be aged in bourbon barrels, and they are made from fermented grain — just like bourbon. However, in cooking them, the alcohol and flavor is going to dissipate much faster than it would for the spirit, so you may need to use more than a one-to-one ratio for this swap.

A good spot to start would be these mashed potatoes with a boozy twist: the addition of bourbon. Since the bourbon here is mixed into cream and butter then simmered, swapping in a very dark beer like Guinness or a bourbon barrel-aged beer like Founders Brewing Imperial Stout or Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. The flavor of the beer will carry through the cream infusion, and the savory notes will work as well as the original bourbon would.

6. Scotch

If you're cooking and out of bourbon, reaching for the expensive bottle of Scotch may actually be a good substitute. The same cannot be said for subbing Scotch for bourbon in a cocktail. Still, thanks to the more savory qualities of the Scotland-made spirit, recipes relying on the less sweet qualities of bourbon can benefit, as can any recipe where the smokiness of Scotch can shine.

One recipe that would benefit from the swap is this savory bacon jam, where bourbon adds a smoky richness that can be easily replicated by Scotch. While the bacon is in the pan, sauteeing away with onions, getting good and caramelized — instead of deglazing with a quarter cup of bourbon, opt for a quarter cup of Scotch instead. Then, you can continue with the recipe, adding in a bit of maple syrup for sweetness, vinegar to balance, and pepper for a bit of heat.

7. Almond extract

Almond extract imparts a sweet nuttiness that is present in some bourbons, making it a good substitute especially when it comes to baking. Good almond extract is just almonds that have been pressed for their oil; the extract of which is then mixed with alcohol and water. It's not unlike vanilla extract, in that sense. The imitation stuff, loathed by many bakers and cooks alike, has a phony taste thanks to synthetic benzaldehyde. There's also the fact that many almond extracts use the pits of other stone fruits, like peaches and plums, to try and achieve the same flavor, resulting in an overtly strong extract that's overpowering for many folks.

If you do happen to find a really good quality almond extract without the phony stuff, it can be subbed on a one-for-one ratio with bourbon. Try a recipe like these pecan sandies, whose flavor is enhanced with a splash of bourbon. Swapping in almond extract can up the nuttiness here; only about a tablespoon is needed while you're creaming the butter.

8. Rye whiskey

Apparently, one of the best swaps for bourbon is rye whiskey, thanks to the extreme similarities between the two spirits. Both are types of whiskey made from grain mash, but bourbon — in order to be called bourbon — must be made from at least 51% corn. Rye, on the other hand, has to be made from at least 51% rye, a cereal grain. For either spirit, the remaining 49% or so can be made up of anything from barley to malted barley to wheat, giving them a similar makeup that becomes more different depending on the composition of the other grains.

Since rye and bourbon are so similar, there aren't many rules as to where you can or should make the substitution. Try a bourbon-glazed salmon as a starting point, where brown sugar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, apple cider vinegar, crushed red pepper, and minced garlic together in a small saucepan; then add the rye and simmer for about 10 minutes until the liquid reduces. Baste your salmon before putting it in the oven, and before you know it, bam — incredible dinner.

9. Apple juice

Apple juice, apple cider, or a variety of fruit juices can actually work as a bourbon substitute, so, parents of toddlers, rejoice, since we know you've got an assortment of the stuff stashed in the fridge. If you aren't baking and, instead making something savory like a barbecue sauce, glaze, or pan sauce, a fruit juice like apple juice or apple cider could be one of the better substitutes for the bourbon you're lacking. Even though apple juice doesn't really have any of the tasting notes or qualities of bourbon (except maybe being a little bit similar in color), the reason it acts as a decent swap is that it generally tends to work well with the same ingredients you'd see in a recipe with bourbon.

So, a recipe where the swap could work is savory one where bourbon isn't used in a huge quantity. Since the holidays are coming, try steaming green beans until crisp-tender. Top with a sauce made from crumbled bacon, caramelized onions, and a bourbon pan sauce. Once the bacon is done cooking, remove from the pan, reserving the fat. Cook the onions and once caramelized, add a pat of butter and about a tablespoon of bourbon — sub in the apple juice here. Crumble the bacon and combine with the sauce and onions, then drizzle over the green beans.

10. Coffee, brown sugar, and molasses

The last and arguably oddest bourbon substitute is a combination of black coffee, brown sugar, and molasses, mixed in equal parts to equal whatever amount of bourbon you're replacing. The combination actually mimics the complex flavors of bourbon while cooking, allowing it to seamlessly act as a substitute without too much notice. It makes sense, considering many bourbons present notes of brown sugar and molasses upfront. The coffee — like the apple cider vinegar in the earlier swap — provides both depth and acidity to balance the sweetness of the other elements in the mixture.

A recipe where this swap could work? Maple Bourbon Steak Tips features a delicious marinade made from maple syrup, bourbon, pineapple juice, Dijon mustard, minced garlic, salt, and black pepper. Swap in your coffee, brown sugar, and molasses for the quarter cup of bourbon here, going for two tablespoons of black coffee, one tablespoon of brown sugar, and one tablespoon of molasses. We're going for a bit of an uneven ratio here as we don't want the marinade to be too sweet, and the coffee will help keep the marinade more liquid than not. After marinating your steak tips in the delicious concoction for at least an hour, cook in a cast iron skillet to the desired doneness, basting with more marinade as you go. Serve over mashed potatoes for a cozy meal.