11 Best Bourbon Substitutes Ranked

Bourbon, unlike many other types of booze, is a truly American creation, and one that is enduringly popular in its native land. According to data compiled by Business Insider (along with the BARTENDr app), the number one brand of liquor in 19 states is a bourbon: Jack Daniels came out on top in Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia; Even Williams is the favorite in Arizona and Illinois; in Michigan, they're all about Jim Beam; and in South Carolina, their pick is George Dickel.

Not only are people drinking bourbons by the barrelful (fun fact: there may be more bourbon barrels than humans currently residing in the state of Kentucky), but they are also using it to cook with. Bourbon makes a great marinade for meat and can also be used to concoct condiments, such as mustard or the tasty bacon jam that Shake Shack slathers all over some of its sandwiches. Bourbon also plays nicely with sugar in desserts like bread puddingbourbon balls, and boozy hot chocolate.

If you don't typically keep bourbon on hand, though, or would rather save the good stuff for sipping instead of cooking, what can take the place of this spirit? While it partially depends on what exactly you're going to use it for, there are certain options that work better than others. Read on for our top bourbon substitutes, ranked from first to worst. 

1. Rye

The very best substitute for bourbon, if you are looking for a nearly identical product but for some reason do not have access to the real thing (a highly specific local shortage, perhaps?), is a Kentucky-style rye whiskey. There is a very thin line separating a bourbon with a high rye content and a rye whiskey that sticks close to the legal minimum (51%) of the grain from which it takes its name (via Whiskey Advocate).

A Kentucky-style rye — or any rye, for that matter — can be substituted at a 1:1 ratio for bourbon in pretty much any application (via Advanced Mixology). You can use it in cooking, and of course it can be used in mixed drinks such as a Manhattan, old fashioned, or Sazerac. Of all the possible substitutes, rye is also the best, and perhaps the only, one that also makes a satisfactory stand in for bourbon when you're drinking it straight up. The only downside is that we're still having a hard time imagining any instance in which you'd have access to rye but not bourbon, so in most cases this is probably an ingredient swap that you would never actually need to make.

2. WhistlePig PiggyBack Devil's Slide

If the reason you're looking for a bourbon substitute is because you don't want to use alcohol at all, then the best possible substitute you'll find is WhistlePig PiggyBack Devil's Slide. This is a zero-proof (well, technically 0.5% ABV), 100% rye whiskey.

If you typically drink bourbon straight up or on the rocks, then no, you won't find Devil's Slide to be indistinguishable from the real deal — you can't take the alcohol out of booze without at least slightly affecting the taste. Still, Devil's Slide is arguably leagues above any of the other non-alcoholic spirits available at present. Even the whiskey connoisseurs at InsideHook found it quite palatable in cocktails. It also makes for a tasty, non-spiked coffee. As far as using it in recipes, Devil's Slide makes an excellent bourbon substitute since a certain amount of the alcohol usually cooks off, anyway. The only real problems with Devil's Slide, as we see it, are that it comes at a premium price, similar to that of WhistlePig's boozier offerings, and that it may also be more difficult to get your hands on once dry January is over. Still, we're giving it a shout-out here in hopes that WhistlePig will step up the production and maybe consider adding it to their year-round lineup.

3. Blended whiskey

It's like one of those logic problems on a standardized test — if all bourbons are whiskeys, then all whiskeys are bourbons, right? The answer is most definitely not. But it is true that most types of whiskey are typically referred to by their specific type: bourbon, rye, or Scotch. Of course, it can't just be that simple. There is also an entire category of blended whiskeys, which contain unique combinations of different malt and grain whiskeys (via Whiskey Exchange). So can a blended whiskey be used in place of bourbon? In most cases, yes, although the flavor of the drink will be somewhat different.

According to Liquor Laboratory, because bourbon's grain blend is high in corn, it tends to have a sweeter flavor than other types of whiskey, and is more likely to have tasting notes of vanilla and caramel. If you use blended whiskey in place of bourbon in a cocktail, your drink may end up more on the dry side. If you use it as a cooking substitute, you may also wind up with a dish that is slightly less sweet, but you can always compensate by adding a pinch of brown sugar and perhaps a dash of vanilla extract.

4. Scotch

Of all the different types of whiskeys, Scotch may be the one with a flavor profile most dissimilar to bourbon. While bourbon is made from corn, Scotch whiskies – all of which are produced in Scotland — are barley-based. What's more, the barley is malted, something that gives Scotch its very distinctive smoky flavor. While you can swap out Scotch for bourbon in a cocktail, the drink will tend to be a bit drier, similar to one made with blended whiskey, as well as having a noticeably different taste. 

As for using Scotch in place of bourbon in the kitchen, the former liquor may be better put to use in savory dishes than sweet ones. As a marinade or in a sauce for meat or vegetables, Scotch would probably work quite well, but in a sweeter type of condiment, like a barbecue sauce, Scotch's smoky overtones might be a bit much. Scotch may overwhelm some dessert dishes, as well — while it is used to make the traditional, sweet Scottish treat cranachan, you might not want to add it to a batch of brownies. If you do choose to swap Scotch for bourbon, a smooth, well-aged, blended Scotch will probably make the best substitute. A single malt Scotch, on the other hand, is something that should be enjoyed for its own merits, as it doesn't play so nicely with other ingredients.

5. Brandy

Brandy — and by that, we mean all of the brandies, including cognac, armagnac, grappa, and more — is another of the brown spirits that, while not all that similar to bourbon, can nevertheless be substituted for it in certain circumstances. While brandy is made from grapes, it is a distilled spirit with a similar alcohol content to most types of bourbon, and it also tends to have some sweetness to it.

Brandy can work in place of bourbon in certain mixed drinks. In fact, in Wisconsin, it's the preferred spirit for making the typically whiskey-based old fashioned. A brandy mint julep, on the other hand, probably wouldn't fly — to be fair, nor would a bourbon Alexander

The main difference between the two spirits is that bourbon has more of a distinct flavor to it. According to Liquor Laboratory, bourbon tends to have more of a spicy or smoky taste, as well as distinct notes of vanilla that are lacking in brandy. When it comes to cooking, brandy would work well in something like a bread pudding or other rich dessert recipes. Brandy pairs especially well with buttery flavors, and it goes great with chocolate, too. For savory dishes, brandy blends harmoniously in a cream-based sauce. But for bolder preparations, it might not be the best bourbon substitute due to its more subtle flavor.

6. Dark rum

While rum and bourbon might seem like very different spirits, they do have their similarities. This is particularly true of darker rums. Both are aged in oak barrels, and both have some sweetness to them. Bourbon gets its sweet flavor from the sugar in corn, while rum is actually distilled from sugar cane (via Saucey). As a bourbon substitute, rum is pretty much the opposite of Scotch –- Scotch works where you don't need so much sweetness, while rum is better when you want to taste the sugar.

If you usually drink your bourbon straight, you most likely won't be too thrilled with rum as a substitute, and will be better off staying within the whiskey family. If you make the swap in a cocktail, though, while you will definitely be able to taste the difference, it will likely be a lot more palatable — particularly if it is a sweeter drink. We probably wouldn't use rum in a Sazerac, as it's not at its best with bitters or absinthe, but if Jack and Coke is your go-to, rum and coke shouldn't be too much of a stretch. If you're looking to replace bourbon used in cooking, rum might not be the best choice for many savory dishes — though it can work beautifully in a glaze or marinade for meat. When it comes to desserts, anything bourbon can do, rum can do just as well — or maybe even better.

7. Dark beer

Beer for bourbon? While this might not seem like the most intuitive of ingredient swaps, it can actually work with certain types of beers and certain types of recipes. Beer cannot, of course, be swapped out for bourbon in cocktails. In cooking, however, beer can sometimes work as a bourbon substitute because, as Flaviar points out, both beverages do have a few things in common. They're made from fermented grains, and there are even some barrel-aged beers. In fact, if you really want a good bourbon substitute, you could look for a beer that's been aged in a bourbon barrel. It's worth noting that dark beers, such as stouts or porters, make a much better substitute than do lighter ones, like lagers or ales.

Dark beer can be used in place of bourbon in a stew, savory sauce, or meat dish. As beer is not as strong as bourbon, you may wish to use more of it, although you'll have to compensate by reducing the amount of other liquids used or else cooking the dish for a longer time to evaporate some of the extra moisture. You could also use beer as a bourbon replacement in rich chocolate desserts where its flavor could complement rather than clash with the dish. You'll either need to substitute beer on a 1:1 basis, accepting that the flavor won't be as noticeable, or else use it to replace not only the bourbon, but also some of other liquid in the recipe.

8. Vanilla extract

From this point on in our ranking, we are dealing with non-alcoholic bourbon substitutes — or, in the case of vanilla extract, technically not non-alcoholic, as the stuff you buy in the supermarket is typically somewhere in the 35%-40% ABV range (via Bon Appétit). But still, vanilla really isn't the kind of thing that anyone but the truly desperate would consume as a drink. When it's used in baking, vanilla has such a concentrated flavor that generally a teaspoon is enough for an entire cake or batch of cookies — so there's a very small amount of alcohol per serving, and this isn't even accounting for the amount that evaporates during baking. Plus, you can always use vanilla paste or powder for an alcohol-free option.

As bourbon has certain vanilla-like flavor compounds, vanilla extract makes a decent substitute for it when used for baking. In fact, some home cooks have been known to use bourbon in place of vanilla since, on an ounce-per-ounce basis, it tends to be a lot cheaper. If you're going the opposite direction, you can use an equal amount of vanilla to replace the bourbon called for in a dessert recipe. But if you don't want such a strong vanilla flavor, you can also use a teaspoon of vanilla and two teaspoons of water to replace a tablespoon of bourbon. However, we would not recommend using vanilla to replace bourbon in savory dishes, and it probably won't satisfy as a cocktail replacement, either.

9. Apple juice

While vanilla is the best bourbon substitute for baking, it has too distinct of a flavor to really work well in a barbecue sauce or marinade. Vanilla may just be too firmly entrenched in our minds as a dessert flavoring, so making the leap to use it in savory dishes just seems kind of odd. For an entirely alcohol-free bourbon substitute that does work well in savory dishes, particularly ones that are meant to have some sweet notes, you can use a little apple juice instead. This isn't the kind of swap you'd use to replace a large amount of bourbon, but if you only need a spoonful or so, the apple juice will not only replace the lost liquid but will add a little flavor of its own.

Why apple, as opposed to orange, pineapple, or any other type of juice? It's not so much that apple juice tastes like bourbon in any way (it absolutely does not), but that it tends to play nicely with the same ingredients. It can even be used as a bourbon substitute when baking if there's no vanilla available, although the flavor will be somewhat muted. Use apple juice as a bourbon replacement with a 1:1 ratio or, if you want a stronger flavor, use it to replace some of the additional liquid in the dish.

10. Ginger beer

Ginger beer is something that you could certainly drink in place of bourbon if you want to turn your Kentucky Mule into a Virgin Mule. In fact, ginger beer with a squeeze of lime makes for a super simple yet very tasty mocktail.

Ginger beer can also take the place of bourbon used in cooking. While other sodas can replace moisture and add sweetness, we like the spiciness from the ginger found in this particular substitute — and it's worth noting that this is not the same as ginger ale, which tends to be far less gingery. As with apple juice, it's not so much that ginger beer's flavor resembles bourbon (it doesn't), but that it complements the same ingredients. It is quite a bit sweeter than bourbon, however, so you might want to cut down on any additional sugar used in the recipe. If you're using ginger beer for baking, we recommend leaning towards fruity or ginger-flavored desserts, like this Raspberry Moscow Mule Cake from The Cookie Rookie. Ginger beer doesn't make the best bourbon substitute for brownies or other chocolate treats. In such cases, we'd suggest sticking with vanilla. 

11. Peach nectar and apple cider vinegar

Last on our list comes a 50-50 combination of peach nectar and apple cider vinegar. Such a swap would likely work best in dishes that have another fruity element to them, or have a combination of sweet and savory flavors. The peach nectar replaces the sweetness from the bourbon, while the vinegar cuts that sweetness down to a more manageable level and provides a little more depth and complexity.

There are several reasons why this ingredient combo ranks lowest on our list. First of all, peach nectar isn't as available as apple juice and may also be more expensive. Second, apple cider vinegar has been so ubiquitous in recipes since it became trendy (the University of Chicago called it the internet's "new pixie dust" back in 2018) that we're a little skeptical about its use (or overuse) on general principle. While apple cider vinegar's sweetness and tang can replace a certain amount of flavor in the absence of bourbon, other subtly sweet vinegars, like balsamic or rice vinegar, might also work, as would lemon juice. And the third reason this peach juice and vinegar combo ranks so low is because it is definitely not something you're going to want to drink on its own unless you're a true believer in apple cider vinegar's alleged healing properties (spoiler alert — aiding weight loss isn't one of them).