The scene opens: A woman walks into a restaurant. The place is busy, a sea of noise, glasses clinking amid that cluttered roar of a hundred voices all talking at once. She walks to the bar and the bartender approaches with a menu, which she politely waves away. “What can I get you?” the bartender asks. “Bourbon,” she replies, “neat.”
Now—what do you know about this woman? Or what do you think you know?
Whiskey is different from other spirits, and I’m not talking about how it’s made. It has a cultural cachet that the spirits simply can’t touch; it is, for lack of a better word, cool, and it’s been cool for like 200 years, from cowboys to Humphrey Bogart to Matthew McConaughey doing six-minute long commercials for Wild Turkey. It’s so much so that it’s deployed in film and television as a kind of a trope—if someone drinks whiskey, they’re confident, independent, etc, etc—and as such is practically aspirational: Someone might not enjoy rum or not care for pisco and really won’t think much of it, but in my experience, people who don’t like whiskey tend to want to like whiskey.
This brings us to the Kentucky Buck, and to a bartender named Erick Castro who, in the middle of 2009, was hired as the beverage director to open a whiskey-focused cocktail bar called Rickhouse. Rickhouse was hotly anticipated, the sister bar of the game-changing Bourbon & Branch, and about to open in the heart of San Francisco’s Financial District. Everyone knew they’d be busy, and not just with whiskey aficionados. However, because it was a whiskey bar (the decor makes you feel like you’re drinking inside an enormous barrel), anyone with Castro’s experience would know that Rickhouse’s cocktail menu needed a quick whiskey-based crowd-pleaser as a kind of lightning rod for the people who didn’t necessarily love whiskey but wanted to order it anyway, so he made a drink he had been working on the winter before: He muddled up a strawberry into some bourbon, made it refreshing with lemon juice, and gave it a warm earthy spice with ginger beer and a dash of bitters.
If it sounds like a Moscow Mule with bourbon and strawberries it’s because that’s exactly what it is, but the mule was passé by that point in San Francisco, so Castro reached deeper into history for the name. A “Buck” is a style of cocktail that dates back to the 1890s—long before the Mule or the Dark ‘n Stormy—and was composed of just a spirit (usually whiskey) and ginger beer, so named because the ginger and alcohol together would give quite a kick (the Moscow Mule is named similarly, for the kick). Plus, it sounds better—it’s not too generic like “Strawberry Bourbon Mule” or too esoteric like “Erick’s Excellent Elixir,” it’s foundational. It’s a Kentucky Buck.
The cocktail became a classic almost immediately. The genius of this particular drink is not that it’s delicious (though it is) and not that it’s quick and easy enough that anyone can make it (though they can), but that strawberry and ginger fit together so seamlessly, that you could use literally any spirit and it would taste great. There is no moment in the drinking experience where you’re not being charmed by the strawberry or spiced by the ginger or both at the same time, and because of this, you could give a Kentucky Buck to someone who absolutely hates bourbon and they’d probably like it. It is one of those whiskey conversion drinks, something to draw someone’s eye on a menu, to couch the aggressive tones of whiskey in flavors familiar and overwhelmingly delicious. It’s something to offer someone who hasn’t been able to like whiskey but, for some reason, really wants to.
Kentucky Buck (fresh version)
- 2 oz. bourbon
- 0.75 oz. lemon juice
- 0.75 oz. ginger syrup
- 1 strawberry
- 1-2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- About 2 oz. soda
Muddle the strawberry in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add bourbon, lemon, ginger syrup, and bitters, and shake for six to eight seconds. Strain over fresh ice in a tall glass and top with soda water. Garnish with a half strawberry or a lemon wheel or a mint sprig or all three.
NOTES ON INGREDIENTS
Bourbon: Honestly, it doesn’t matter much what bourbon you use here—it’s not that different brands won’t offer different experiences, but that they’ll all be pretty good. If I had my choice, I’d grab my go-to cocktail bourbon, which is Buffalo Trace—rich, well aged and slightly sweet. Elijah Craig would also work very well, and Four Roses Small Batch would be incredible. I might lean away from the spicier bourbons just because the ginger already comes with a bunch of spice, but again, ginger and strawberry are such scene stealers that the brand of bourbon is relatively unimportant.
Strawberry: You can infuse your strawberries into the bourbon if you have a mind to (about a half pint of strawberries per bottle of bourbon, and let sit for three days before straining out the solids). That’s what Castro did at least briefly back in 2009, but I suspect that was more for expediency than flavor—with a strawberry infusion and ginger beer, you can just build the drink in the glass, no shaking required. That being said, I advise fresh, as fresh ingredients will always be more vibrant than a syrup or infusion. Just cut the top off a strawberry, throw it in the tin, and muddle it, which is barspeak for “smash it with something blunt.”
Ginger: There’s a lot of ways you can go with this. The best way is, annoyingly, the most difficult, which would be to make a fresh ginger syrup. For this you’ll need either a good juicer or a blender—for a juicer, you literally juice the ginger, and then measure how much juice you have, add an equal amount of sugar and stir until the sugar dissolves (the yield on this is terrible, but if you love ginger spice, this is as good as it gets). Nearly as good is to blend it—add equal amounts of white sugar, boiling water and roughly chopped ginger to a blender and blend on high for about 30 to 60 seconds, then strain out the solids and refrigerate (Note: the cocktail might need 1 oz. of the syrup if you make it in the blender). Both ways of making the syrup should last a month or so in the fridge.
If you don’t feel like making a fresh syrup, that’s ok—this drink was originally designed for ginger beer, after all. The recipe for a ginger beer Kentucky Buck is below. As for brands, make it a spicy one: Cock ‘n Bull or Blenheim are my favorites that I’ve tried, but anything with good spice will work well.
Kentucky Buck (ginger beer version)
- 2 oz. bourbon
- 0.5 oz. lemon juice
- 1 strawberry
- 1-2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- 4-5 oz. ginger beer
Muddle the strawberry in the bottom of a cocktail shaker. Add bourbon, lemon and bitters, and shake for six to eight seconds. Strain over fresh ice in a tall glass and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a half strawberry.