How to Substitute Spirits for a Fresh Twist on a Classic Cocktail

by Lauren Vigdor  |  06.26.2022

Creating original cocktails may look like alchemy, but in reality you shouldn’t need to resort to transmutation to come up with a new and delicious beverage. If you’re looking for a way to wake up (and step up) your cocktail game, but don’t know where to begin, or maybe you just haven’t been to the liquor store in a while and are out of your usual favorites, consider swapping out the spirits in some of your favorite classic cocktails. It’s a simple and surefire way to create something new and exciting without offsetting the delicate balance of tart/sweet/strong that is your favorite cocktail. 

There’s no better place to start than the most enduring of all cocktails, the Old Fashioned. If the beauty of an Old Fashioned lies in its simplicity, then that simplicity also leads to endless room for variation. The key to a great Old Fashioned is quality; beyond that, your options are limitless. Start with a well crafted spirit, add a touch of sweetness and a few dashes of your favorite bitters – muddled fruit is totally optional. Dark rum, such as the one produced by Bespoken Spirits, with its flavors of banana and coconut, pairs excellently with brown sugar and mole bitters for a tropical twist on an Old Fashioned. Casa México Añejo tequila spends a minimum of 12 months in American oak barrels, which impart smooth vanilla and caramel flavors making the tequila perfect for a spirit-forward sipper. Bonus points if you pair it with citrus bitters and a dash of agave. 

Generally speaking, brown liquors tend to stand in well for one another. If your go-to cocktail is a Manhattan, try subbing in a different dark spirit, such as a Cognac. Ferrand Cognac 1840 makes for an excellent sippable cocktail. Lighter spirits that have been aged or rested in oak barrels can also make great substitutions for whiskey in cocktails. The oak barrels that Bluecoat Barrel Finished Gin is rested in impart some of the warm nuanced flavors reminiscent of a good bourbon, while maintaining the complex herbal character of the base spirit. 

Manhattan cocktail drink decorated on bar counter in pub or restaurant. Ice cube in empty glass.

Light and herbal spirits can also be interchanged with surprising and sophisticated results. Have you really lived if you haven’t tried a Negroni made with mezcal instead of gin? We like Bruxo 1 or Bruxo 2, depending on our mood. For a savory spin on a Martini (no olives required) try making one with aquavit. The touch of juniper will keep you in familiar territory, while the complex herbal and carraway notes in Oslo Håndverksdestilleri’s Akevitt Blanc are sure to wow your friends and make them ask “What exactly am I drinking?”

One of the most fun ways to experiment with creating new cocktails is through the use of liqueurs. If a recipe calls for a raspberry liqueur, try swapping it out for something else fruity like Tamarelo Tamarind Liqueur, or something floral like Italicus Rosolio Di Bergamotto. As long as the spirit you use has a similar sweetness level, you won’t offset the balance of your cocktail. For example, we love bitter orange liqueurs, but probably wouldn’t use them as a substitute for a sweet orange liqueur. Pomegranate liqueur would do a better job of changing the flavor of your cocktail without compromising the balance. You can always tweak the proportions of your cocktail to suit your taste, adding a bit more or less of any sweet/tart/bitter components as you see fit. 

Haoward Nguyen

Standard spirits can also be swapped out for their nonalcoholic counterparts in order to liven up your mocktail game. Try subbing a botanical non alcoholic spirit, such as Ceder’s Classic, for gin in a Tom Collins. It will have all the refreshing botanical and juniper complexity of a gin cocktail minus the alcohol. 

Starting with small amounts of quality ingredients, tasting, and adjusting as you go is a pretty foolproof place to start experimenting with cocktail creation. The more things you taste, the better you’ll become at judging which substitutions make the most sense right off the bat. Cocktails are meant to be fun and celebratory, so whatever you do don’t take yourself too seriously! The worst that can happen is that you end up with a drink that doesn’t taste good. It’s not the end of the world. Just dump it out and start over (or pinch your nose and chug – we won’t tell).