If you know any whiskey cocktail, it should be the Old Fashioned. Made well, the simple marriage of whiskey, sugar, and bitters yields one of the most delightful cocktails you will ever enjoy. Made poorly, it will undoubtedly sour you on the drink, and for some, whiskey cocktails in general.
The story of the Old Fashioned is the story of cocktail culture in America. Every whiskey lover should have a good understanding of its history and an excellent recipe in their back pocket. So join me as we dive into the history, basics, variations, and more and become an expert on what I consider the most incredible whiskey drink of all time: the Old Fashioned.
Old Fashioned History
The word "cocktail" (or "cock tail") was used a handful of times in print pre-1806 and presumably also in general parlance. However, the truly formative use of "cock tail" comes on the heels of a report in The Balance, and Columbian Repository newspaper on the results of a political election. This report included the word and, confused by its meaning, a reader wrote to the editor to understand just why he meant by "cock tail." The editor, Mr. Harry Croswell, responded to his inquisitive reader with the definition that cocktail historians and bartenders alike cite as the first true definition of our beloved concoctions: "Cock tail, then is a stimulating liquor composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters..."
Now, Mr. Croswell was no mixologist, but his definition speaks to the intrinsic simplicity of what a cocktail truly is. A spirit as the base, sugar to balance the heat of the liquor and buoy the overall flavor, bitters to engage more of our palate and provide complexity, and finally water - in the form of ice - to chill and gently dilute. Mr. Croswell's definition also perfectly embodies what an "Old Fashioned" is.
In Mr. Croswell's day, it was common to refer to cocktails by the type of spirits used, such as the "Gin Cocktail" or the "Brandy Cocktail"; the Old Fashioned has a similar early genesis in the Whiskey Cocktail. According to my 1958 Professional Mixing Guide by Angostura, a Whiskey Cocktail is made by adding 2 dashes of Angostura bitters to 1.5 oz of whiskey in an "over-size whiskey glass," stirred well with ice before serving. And going even further back, Jerry Thomas - author of the seminal The Bar-Tender's Guide: How to Mix Drinks or The Bon-Vivant's Companion - provides the following recipe for the Whiskey Cocktail:
109. Whiskey Cocktail
(Use small bar glass)
2 or 4 dashes of gum syrup.
2 do. bitters (Bogart's).
1 wine-glass of whiskey, and a piece of lemon peel.
Fill one-third full of fine ice; shake and strain in a fancy red wine-glass.
Though some of the ingredients in Thomas' version seem a little odd to modern readers, the ingredients and technique are almost exact to what we now consider a proper Old Fashioned. Gum syrup (or gomme syrup) is a rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to 1 part water, with gum arabic used as a thickener). Bogart's (or Boker's) was a brand of bitters used in most of Thomas's cocktails, common in the mid-19th century. However, the company eventually folded during Prohibition. Essentially, the Old Fashioned truly is the Whiskey Cocktail.
Rye whiskey was the most common whiskey in the 19th century and most likely used in the Whiskey Cocktail and Old Fashioned. However, Americans also had quite a taste for French brandy, like Cognac. Still, due to various geopolitical and environmental events, the supply of these French mainland and colonies ebbed and flowed, leading Americans to continue to dip into their own supply more and more.
The Old Fashioned itself owes a debt of gratitude to a throwback movement in the mid-1880s that saw barkeeps being asked to serve up "old-fashioned" drinks by discerning patrons. Drinkers wanted to quaff creations that their parents and grandparents drank (just as fashion trends are cyclical, so are drink trends) and were yearning for cocktails that were made with more "traditional" methods. An 1886 excerpt from the Comment and Dramatic Times is cited as the first time the term "old-fashioned" is used to refer to a cocktail similar to what we know now:
“The modern cocktail has come to be so complex a beverage that people are beginning to desert it,” said the editor, Leander Richardson. “A bartender in one of the most widely known New York establishments for the dispensation of drinks was telling me the other day that there had set in an unmistakable stampede in favor of old-fashioned cocktails.” Mr. Richardson then defined what the standard-bearers were after: a drink “nearly everywhere recognized as being made with a little sugar, a little bitters, a lump of ice, a piece of twisted lemon peel and a good deal of whiskey. It has no absinthe, no chartreuse and no other flavoring extract injected into it.”
The Classic Old Fashioned
2 oz 90-100 proof bourbon or rye
1/4 oz rich simple syrup*
2 dashed aromatic bitters (Angostura recommended)
Combine whiskey, rich simple syrup, and bitters into a mixing glass. Add ice. Stir gently for 30 seconds. Strain into rocks or Old Fashioned glass. Express a lemon peel across cocktail, discard. Garnish with fresh lemon peel.
Optional: serve over one large ice cube.
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HOW TO MAKE AN Old Fashioned
Old Fashioned Ingredients
You've seen bitters represented on menus, in recipes, and in stores, but what are they exactly? Bitters are a tincture. A tincture is effectively an alcohol infusion, or as I like to say, "stuff soaked in liquor." The most common tincture you've likely seen is a vanilla extract: vanilla bean soaked in alcohol to leach out and preserve a concentrated vanilla flavor.
Bitters started as a medicinal tincture developed by doctors and apothecaries to cure various ailments, especially digestive ones. The most famous bitters are Angostura: the dark bottle with a yellow cap and (for some) an infuriatingly oversized shirt white label. If you're not careful, you may mistake it for Lee & Perrin's (more on that later). Angostura Bitters were originally created by Dr. Johann Gottleib Benjamin Siegert, a German doctor hired by Simón Bolívar to serve as a Surgeon General over his troops, to treat the soldiers' various digestive issues. Siegert's tincture was wildly popular, and he soon built a distillery to service demand. The distillery was originally located in Angostura, Venezuela - hence the name - and moved to its current location in Port of Spain, Trinidad, its' home ever since.
Angostura represents the quintessential aromatic bitters flavor profile: baking spices, a little citrus peel, underpinned by that deep, bitter note we all love. For me, Angostura is the Frank's Red Hot of the bitters world because "I put that $#!t on everything." So if you need one brand of bitters on your bar, start with Ango. (Also, call it "Ango" if you want to sound like a pro!)
For the most authentic Old Fashioned flavor, try Angostura. Once you master that, try other aromatic bitters, such as Peychaud's (the unique bitters used in a Sazerac cocktail), Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic, Scrappy's Aromatic, or an aromatic variety from a craft producer.
Rich Simple Syrup
There are a few ways to add sweetness to a cocktail, but the best way is by pre-diluting the sugar with water by making a syrup. There are two main types of sugar syrup: rich simple syrup (2 parts sugar to water) and simple syrup (1 part sugar to water).
Rich simple syrup is ideal for a short cocktail (or of low volume) because it enhances the texture of the final product. The texture is a vital part of any cocktail and can take a drink to the next level. The syrup is easily measured to ensure a consistent cocktail every time. Using a simple syrup (1:1 measurements) adds extra dilution to the drink, and I prefer to fully control the dilution of a cocktail with ice. The more control over variables, the better! If you feel experimental, try one version with rich simple and one with regular simple and determine which you prefer.
You should absolutely make your own simple syrup at home. It is easy, cheap, and gives you the ability to experiment with different types of sugars! Using the recipe below, you can use regular refined sugar, Demerara sugar, sugar in the raw, or other sugars for different types of flavor. All will yield sweetness, but with different levels of molasses content. Never buy that cheap plastic bottle of simple syrup from the store again!
I do not recommend using sugar cubes or raw sugar. This will leave residual undiluted sugar in your cocktail, which yields an unpleasant grainy texture. All ingredients go into this cocktail at room temperature or colder, and sugar requires both heat and water to dissolve. Since all of the cocktail ingredients continue to get colder, it is not ideal for the sugar to fully dissolve. However, if you don’t mind the grains and prefer the solid sugar method, use one spoonful of sugar or one sugar cube in place of the syrup.
RICH SIMPLE SYRUP
16 ounces sugar of choice
8 ounces filtered or spring water
Note: For best results, measure the above by weight not volume. A good kitchen scale is an excellent, affordable investment for cocktail making.
For the classic preparation, we will use rye or bourbon whiskey. I recommend using a 90-100 (45-50% ABV) whiskey when mixing cocktails. This alcohol level ensures the whiskey flavor will truly shine in the cocktail, that quintessential whiskey "burn" is preserved, and the whiskey is the star of the show. Lower than 90 proof, you risk a more demure drink, and over 100 proof, the alcohol can overwhelm the drink. We want to be right in the middle.
As far as choosing brands, a high rye bourbon for cocktails is always a safe bet. You certainly can use a standard or wheated mash bill, as well. For rye, it depends on your palate if you want softer rye (51%) or a spicy rye punch (95%). Price does not always equate to quality, but quality does matter. Do not mix an Old Fashioned with any whiskey you wouldn't enjoy on its own, whether neat or on the rocks. The best "mixing whiskey" is one you would also drink unmixed. A cocktail is only as good as the sum of its parts, and if the main ingredient is lacking, the whole will be, too.
Below are some of the brands I recommend to use in the Old Fashioned. Please note no whiskeys that are allocated or generally hard to source are included. We want to ensure that everyone has easy access to a great cocktail!
Evan Williams Bonded
Wild Turkey 101
Elijah Craig Small Batch
Old Forester 1920
HIGH RYE BOURBON MASH BILL
Old Grand Dad Bonded
Four Roses Small Batch
Breckenridge High Proof
RYE WHISKEY MASH BILL
Knob Creek Rye
Russell's Reserve 6 Yr Rye
Old Overholt Bonded
High West Double Rye
Having the right tools for the job makes all the difference. For the Old Fashioned, the tools are basic but essential. The tools below are essential for any bar, especially a bar that wants to make the best Old Fashioned.
Mixing Glass: Spirit forward cocktails (and ones that do not contain juice, egg whites, or solids) should be stirred. This ensures a lower level of dilution and a gentle mix since we don’t need to work hard to get these ingredients to meld together.
Though you can stir a cocktail in the bottom of a shaker tin, a mixing glass is explicitly designed for stirring cocktails. The shape is a cylinder to guide the bar spoon, and the bottom is weighted, so it does not tip over while stirring. A mixing glass also features a built-in, narrow spout to easily pour liquid into a glass. You can purchase a great one for about $20.
Jigger: Measurements in cocktails are essential to ensure you achieve the same great flavor and balance every time. A jigger is the standard cocktail tool to measure liquids. A true pony jigger features a 1.5-ounce jigger vessel on top and 1 ounce (or pony) measure on the bottom. You can also use an angled jigger (it looks like a small measuring cup), a shot glass (a standard measures 1.5 oz), or a tablespoon (1 tablespoon measures ½ ounce).
Bar Spoon: A bar spoon is created explicitly for stirring cocktails. The handle is long, thin, and spiralized, so it easily turns between the fingers. The end of the spoon is created to nestle perfectly in the curve at the bottom of a mixing glass. The bowl of a bar spoon measures one teaspoon, so it’s also another handy measurement tool.
Strainer: After your cocktail is well-stirred, you must strain it! There are two main options for stirred cocktail strainers: the Hawthorne and Julep strainers.
The Hawthorne strainer features a spring that fits neatly into a mixing glass (or cocktail shaker). It uses tightly wound coils that contract when placed inside a glass to keep the solids in and only allow liquid to pass through. This design also allows for easy cleaning if any solids remain in the coils, as they expand once released. The Hawthorne strainer was created in the late 19th century explicitly as an improved tool for straining cocktails.
The Julep strainer has a different origin story and was actually created as an alternative to straws for drinking Julep cocktails. Straws have been in use for millennia, generally made from reeds or ryegrass, but paper straws were not put into mass production until 1888. Because the traditional grass straws broke down quickly in liquid, some preferred to drink out of strainers, which kept ice back and permitted liquid through. The Julep cocktail (like the Mint Julep) was a favorite of Virginians in early 19th century America, especially as a breakfast drink (whiskey was safer than water, and mint aids in digestion). Since the Julep is served mounded with crushed ice, Americans would use the Julep strainer on top of the drink to hold back the ice and “forest of mint” garnish to more easily enjoy the cocktail.
Back in Jerry Thomas’s (author of the first most-exhaustive cocktail guidebook) day, the Old Fashioned was garnished with a lemon peel. It so happens that this is also my preferred garnish. However, there are a few options. You’ve most likely seen an Old Fashioned served with an orange peel; this is also a great choice. The difference between lemon and orange oil is sweetness: lemon oil will provide a lift and brightness, whereas orange oil will provide a sweeter note. Both are lovely, but if you haven’t tried one or the other, give them both a go and see which you prefer.
You want to add both an expressed citrus peel to the drink and a fresh peel as a visual garnish for the best results. First, take a sharp paring knife, vegetable peeler, or Y-peeler and cut two 3-4 inch long, 1 inch thick pieces of zest from the outermost layer (exocarp) of the fruit. Avoid cutting off much of the pith (the squishy white bitter part, also called mesocarp) or the citrus juice vesicles (endocarp), as we only want the oil contained in the exterior layer.
Take one piece of rind and hold it between index fingers and thumb, with the exterior side facing the glass. Bend the rind slightly with the fold facing your body. This will release the oil in the rind and you will see tiny droplets alight on top of your cocktail. Some like to rub the citrus peel around the inside (and even outside) of the glass, but this can make the drink look messy (the oil streaks on the glass surface) but it will be fine for the flavor. Once you have expressed the peel, discard - it has served its purpose. Placing the expressed peel in a glass will serve no purpose. The second piece of rind will serve as your garnish. You may choose to put it inside the glass, cut a slit in the side to affix to the rim of your glass, or create fun shapes, like a rose, a roll, or a twist.
What about flaming the citrus? This technique is mostly for show but can slightly impact the flavor, as it adds a light smoke to the oil. You should be careful with the flame source, though, as using a standard Bic lighter can impart the very undesirable flavor of butane into your drink. I suggest using a long match and allowing the fire to burn for a few seconds to diffuse match head chemicals. Then using the same technique above, spray the oil through an open flame between the rind and your glass.
And then we get to the most common question I receive about the Old Fashioned: what about the Cherry? Cherry is a traditional garnish for the Manhattan, not the Old Fashioned. So, where did the Cherry come from? Well, following Prohibition, many of the great American mixologists fled to Europe to continue their crafts legally (and with consistent access to quality products). Prohibition also led to the proliferation of lower quality products since most distilleries were shuttered and the atrophy of pre-Prohibition cocktail culture. Folks lost sight of the “old ways.” Whether it was to cover up the taste of mediocre whiskey or just try a new fashion, bartenders began muddling cherries, oranges, and sometimes even pineapple with a sugar cube and dubbing it an Old Fashioned. Needless to say, traditionalists were not pleased.
On January 2, 1936, a person going by the moniker of “OLD TIMER” wrote a letter to the editor into the New York Times claiming that following Prohibition, “Proper mixing of drinks seems to be all but a lost art.” The letter reads in part:
"Consider, for instance, the old-fashioned cocktail. Time was when the affable and sympathetic bartender moistened a lump of sugar with Angostura bitters, dropped in a lump of ice, neither too large nor too small, stuck in a miniature bar spoon and passed the glass to the client with a bottle of good bourbon from which said client was privileged to pour his own drink. In most places the price was 15 cents or two for a quarter.
Nowadays the modern or ex-speakeasy bartender drops a spoonful of powdered sugar into a glass, adds a squirt of carbonic to aid dissolution, adds to that a dash or two of some kind of alleged bitters and a lump of ice, regardless of size. Then he proceeds to build up a fruit compote of orange, lemon, pineapple and cherry, and himself pours in a carefully measured ounce and a half of bar whiskey, usually a blend, and gives one a glass rod to stir it with. Price, 35 to 50 cents. Profanation and extortion. [...]
Prohibition has much to answer for besides crime and racketeering. "
The level of pedantic and perturbed in this letter truly resonates with me, because I feel exactly the same way about the precision required for each part of the cocktail to make it truly excellent. As for price, adjusted for today’s exchange rate, the cost jumped from $2.36 in 1919 to a whopping $9.43 in 1936, so OT’s qualms of his cocktail nearly quadrupling in price were warranted. Granted, the issue with the free pouring nature of the pre-Prohibition era was probably better for business (and livers), anyways. Pre-Prohibition, patrons were entrusted to pour their own whiskey into the Old Fashioned sugar/bitters/ice preparation. According to Cocktail Historian David Wondrich, patrons who took advantage of this practice by pouring too many drams would often be handed a towel since they would be “taking a bath there.” But worst of all, the most disturbing post-Prohibition practice was adding fruit salad to a perfectly good Old Fashioned.
In conclusion, the cherry is an unnecessary addition to the Old Fashioned. I strongly believe it does not belong in the drink. Just as Prohibition was repealed, so too must the cherried Old Fashioned. It is a vestige from a bygone era during which those from that time weren’t even thrilled with it. The cherry is extra, serves no purpose, and thus should be Marie Kondo-ed from the drink entirely. As Coco Chanel said, “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” So in the case of the Old Fashioned, before you serve this cocktail, remove any unnecessary accouterments. However, if having a cherry as a snack with your cocktail sparks joy, please live your truth and have your cherry. Just make sure it’s a Luxardo if you absolutely must. Trust me, it’s the best.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF OLD FASHIONEDS
The Old Fashioned is both a cocktail and category. I like to look at it as a formula and foundation for countless permutations of flavors and spirits. It is simple to craft your own variation with so few ingredients by switching one or all key elements.
Spirits: Though the traditional is made with rye or bourbon whiskey, try swapping the spirit out for another brown liquor, such as rum or brandy. Want to get really daring? Try a clear spirit such as tequila, gin, or mezcal. Or even better, try a barrel-aged gin or añejo tequila to preserve some of those aged wood notes. Finally, you can always infuse your own spirits by adding fruit, vegetables, or spices to tweak the flavor. To boost caffeine, try infusing bourbon with coffee beans - just be sure to remove them after 24 hours to prevent the whiskey from turning bitter.
Just in the vein of brands like Forgiven or Bourye, an Old Fashioned can be given a twist by combining the spirits inside. You certainly could use one of the brands mentioned above. Still, you could also incorporate bourbon and rye whiskey in the drink for an added dimension. Play around with the measurements (equal parts, 2:1, etc.) to find your favorite.
Infusions are another way to vary flavor in a cocktail. Try infusing your favorite spirit with a flavor you would like to feature in the cocktail, such as coconut, lemongrass, or hibiscus. The best tip for infusing liquors is that less is more when it comes to time: you only need to infuse a spirit for a maximum of 24 hours to achieve a nice flavor. It is best to strain out the infusing element (herbs, fruits, spices, etc.) and keep the infused spirit in a glass bottle (just use a Mason jar or the empty booze bottle). The more delicate the item being infused, the less time it will need. For example, herbs like basil or mint will only require an hour or two (after that, they start to turn bitter), whereas whole spices can last longer. If your infused spirit is cloudy or has floaters after an infusion, try straining with cheesecloth. Infused spirits can be stored at room temperature.
Fat washing is an excellent way to imbue not only flavor but also texture into a spirit. Fat washing is essentially infusing a spirit with fat. Plant-based fats tend to work better, but you can use animal fats, like bacon or duck fat. Popular choices include coconut oil, olive oil, and brown butter. Bourbon is an excellent candidate for fat washing, as the sweetness of the corn plays beautifully with the richness of the fat. To fat wash a spirit, bring the fat to a liquid state (heat it) and combine with the desired spirit in a deep dish or baking pan (a Cambro also works well). Bottles do not work as well for fat washing because you need to remove the solid fat after freezing. It can become tricky if the solidified fat clogs up the opening. Take the combined spirit and fat, let freeze overnight, then skim off the frozen fat and return the washed spirit to a glass container. Fat-washed spirits can be stored at room temperature.
Sugar: Sweetness in a cocktail comes from many sources, and it’s easy to experiment with different sugars. Try a Demerara syrup for a darker, more molasses-forward flavor. My favorite way to experiment with sugar is to craft my own infused syrups. Using the rich simple recipe above, add in fresh fruit or spices and simmer and infuse. Check out our Kentucky Campfire Old Fashioned or my Grilled Peach Old Fashioned for inspiration.
You can also use other natural liquid sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, date syrup, maple syrup, or sorghum. Since these are usually thicker, I recommend cutting them with water for easier handling and mixing. If you’re using mezcal or tequila, try agave nectar. Each type of sweetener will add a new dimension to your cocktail, from depth to tartness to earthiness to fruitiness.
What about keto-friendly sugar substitutes? There are so many sugar alternatives on the market, but some are better than others for making cocktails. I do not recommend using Stevia, as it can have a strong aftertaste that overwhelms a cocktail. Good options include monk fruit sweetener, Swerve, Xylitol, erythritol, and even Splenda. If you want a premade option, Swoon is a great product. Remember, the measurements will not be one to one for regular simple syrup. You will want to start with only a teaspoon and find an equilibrium that fits your taste. Generally, sugar alternatives are much sweeter by volume than regular sugar, so a little goes a very long way.
Once you choose the sugar alternative you prefer, make a simple syrup using the same method above but not with the exact measurements. The level of sweetness of each of these alternatives varies widely, so add small amounts to boiling water and taste as you go to get to the desired level of sweetness. The level these sweeteners dissolve in water can also vary, so be sure to shake the syrup before using it when removing it from the fridge.
Bitters: The world of bitters is diverse and vast. Every bar should include at least an Angostura (aromatic) and orange bitters, but where you go from them is up to you! Start with flavors you like, and then get as wild and experimental as you care to. Some personal favorites are Tiki bitters, Earl Grey bitters, Peach bitters, and Lime Coriander bitters. If you can think of a flavor, I bet they have bitters for it. Check out your local liquor store and distilleries for unique selections. And if you can’t find a particular flavor, try your hand at crafting your own! Just be sure to consult Cocktail Safe when working with unusual ingredients, like wormwood.
Water: Yes, you can even get creative with the water. Water is added to cocktails in the form of ice. You can get creative with your ice by changing the shape or playing with the flavor of the liquid. But as we have said here before, do not use whiskey stones or steel balls: they do not work, can give your cocktail an odd flavor, and are not worth the potential dental bills.
Let’s cover shape first. The shape of ice matters, as it impacts the rate of dilution, which can make or break your cocktail. The smaller the ice, the quicker the melt, and quicker the dilution - this is why we prefer to use larger ice cubes in both whiskey and cocktails. Larger ice has a smaller surface area, thus a slower rate of dilution. The best ice to use for a spirit-forward cocktail like an Old Fashioned is either an ice sphere or a large rock cube. Spheres will melt more slowly than rocks, but both are great options.
Want to play with ice flavor? The flavor of your ice matters because as it melts, it becomes part of your drink. First, make sure you are using good water if using plain ice, changing the cocktail’s flavor. Second, let’s go beyond plain water! Try freezing coconut water in large rocks to use in an aged rum Old Fashioned. Ice can also be infused with flavors (such as orange blossom, rose water, or herbs) or served as a visual stunner by freezing fruit, flowers, or other edible items inside of an ice mold.
Garnish: You can get creative with your garnish by mixing up your citrus. Agave-based spirits pair beautifully with lime or grapefruit zest. Blood orange oil will yield a darker, less sweet note. Meyer lemons (as opposed to the common Lisbon lemon) will provide a sweeter flavor since they are a cross between a Lisbon/Eureka lemon and a Mandarin orange. Have some Yuzu? Give it a go with a gin preparation. Key limes, clementines, Kaffir limes, and more are all perfect for experimentation. Note I don’t mention cherries because I firmly believe they have no place in this cocktail.