Bourbon’s distillation chiefly from corn can initially make for a spirit that lacks distinct contours. Distillers offset this slackness by using secondary grains, such as rye, and through long aging in oak barrels, which provides a tannic edge as if from a tea bag. Lower-shelf bourbons tend to have more corn and spend less time in a barrel, and so can be rounder and less edgy. Which means they play well with others—a good mixing bourbon is an easy-to-lead dance partner.
So who can do the leading? Bourbon gets along with an array of complementary ingredients, but a few rank among the most consistent and amenable partners. Try these pairings and see how they improve your cocktail choreography.