For decades, the Old Fashioned cocktail has held icon status among whiskey aficionados and drink-recipe-Luddites. And what’s not to love? Traditional ingredients, tried and true combinations, and a name that unabashedly refuses to be modern. But all this reverence has actually made the Old Fashioned drink unapproachable. Beginning craft-cocktail enthusiasts don’t want to call the wrong type of whiskey, and home bartenders are afraid to mix the ingredients incorrectly. Do not fear, would-be mixologists! Here is everything you need to know about how to make an Old Fashioned cocktail that’s unbeatable, along with a little history to make you sound smart when you make one.
What is an Old Fashioned Cocktail?
Even though the name first appeared in print back in 1862, it wasn’t associated with the mixed drink we know and love today. History officially traces the origin of the Old Fashioned drink of today back to Louisville, Kentucky in the 1880s. It’s said that James E. Pepper invented the recipe, which quickly gained local popularity, and spread to nearby cities such as St. Louis, Nashville, and Chicago. The first book to put the recipe into print was the 1895 edition of Modern American Drinks. Since then, the original Old Fashioned has survived Prohibition, Mad Men, and the corporatization of the American distilling industry.
There are four essential ingredients in an Old Fashioned cocktail. Depending on where you are (and personal taste), you can take some liberties with the garnish. However, these components cannot be compromised.
Ideally, you need to use white sugar cubes. This will give you the original flavor and texture. It’s not technically incorrect to substitute brown sugar cubes or loose granulated sugar, but that should be a last resort. White sugar cubes pack an intense burst of sweetness, also help you get the proportions right without the need for measuring spoons.
Highly concentrated and distinctive, the Angostura bitters flavor works best. Bitters are made from concentrated botanicals, and every brand uses a different blend. Some bartenders will substitute Peychaud’s Bitters, now made in Kentucky, especially when using bourbon. You’ll find that Angostura bitters use a unique balance of herbs and spices that are a more suitable fit for the Old Fashioned drink.
Water & Ice
It is easy to take water and ice for granted, but because we are working with subtle flavors in this cocktail, you need to use filtered or distilled water, both as a mixer and when making your ice. Any hint of chlorine or tap water taste will be very apparent, so plan ahead and set aside some perfectly pure water and ice cubes before you start mixing.
You might find a bartender that has a passionate opinion as to the kind of whiskey you need when making an Old Fashioned, but most experts agree that both bourbon and rye are acceptable. Bourbon will give you fuller, richer flavors, and potentially extra sweetness. An Old Fashioned with rye will be dry tasting and possibly offer a bit more spice.
The Old Fashioned Cocktail Recipes
In honor of the four essential ingredients, we’ve pulled together four different Old Fashioned cocktail recipes, from traditional to something with a twist. Start with the original, and work your way through the variations to come up with a signature recipe of your own that highlights your favorite flavors while honoring the legacy.
From Bartender’s Guide, Published 1947:
- 1/2 cube sugar
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
- 1 squirt seltzer
- 1 1/2 oz rye or bourbon
Muddle sugar and bitters; add ice and whisky; stir and decorate with cherry and slice of orange on a toothpick.
From Cocktail Chemistry Lab:
- 2 oz (60ml) bourbon or rye
- 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
- 1 sugar cube
- Orange twist
Add the sugar cube to a rocks glass. Drop two dashes of bitters and a bar spoon of water onto the sugar cube. Muddle the bitters and water into the sugar until sugar is dissolved. Add the rye or bourbon, stir. Add a large chunk of ice or two and stir until chilled. Twist a large piece of orange zest over the drink and drop into the glass.
Alternate Version From Bartender’s Guide, Published 1947:
- 1/2 cube sugar
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 dashes curaçao
- 1 1/2 oz bourbon
- 1 strip orange peel
- 1 strip lemon peel
Muddle sugar and bitters, add a cube of ice, curaçao, and whiskey; stir and decorate with a slice of pineapple.
Sour-Cherry Old Fashioned, From NY Times Cooking:
- 2 Sour Cherries, stemmed and pitted
- 1 Orange Peel Strip
- 1 Sugar Cube
- 2 or 3 Dashes of Bitters
- 2 oz Rye or Bourbon
Put the cherries, orange peel, and bitters into an Old-Fashioned glass. Crush the cherries and sugar with a muddler. Fill the glass with ice. Add whiskey. Stir until drink is cold.