Even if you don’t believe that the Old Fashioned cocktail was how cowboys took their medicine, adding sugar and bitters to whiskey is a fine way to drink it.
The bitters we use in mixology started out as medicine over 200 years ago and were claimed to cure all manner of ailments from hangovers to upset stomachs. Folklore has it that settlers on the American frontier started adding sugar and whiskey in order to “make the medicine go down” and the cocktail was born.
Whether you believe this or not, the Old Fashioned is the first cocktail, harkening back to the early 1800s. As the art of mixing drinks got more complex in the 1850s, drinkers wanting a simple combination of sugar, bitters, and whiskey would ask for a cocktail in the “old fashioned style.”
The modern Old Fashioned uses simple syrup instead of sugar cubes because it’s easier to make and doesn’t leave you with a slug of half-dissolved sugar at the bottom of your drink. It’s a great first cocktail if you’re just getting started in mixology because it’s easy to make and has widespread appeal. It’s inspired countless riffs and variations, and you can change it dramatically just by switching whiskeys.
- 2 oz Whiskey
- 1/2 oz Simple Syrup
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Orange Peel
- Add bitters, simple syrup, and whiskey to a mixing glass
- Add ice and stir until chilled
- Strain into an Old Fashioned glass with ice
- Cut a strip of peel from an orange, express the oil into the glass, and drop the peel into the cocktail
How to make an Old Fashioned with a sugar cube
If you’re determined to make your Old Fashioned the traditional way, with a sugar cube instead of simple syrup, there’s a few changes you need to make. Sugar doesn’t dissolve well in cold water, so you need to muddle the sugar cube before you add ice.
We’ll build this one in the serving glass, rather than use our mixing glass.
- Drop the sugar cube into the serving glass. Use an old fashioned glass, also known as a rocks glass or lowball.
- Add 2 drops of bitters on to the sugar cube.
- Add 1/2 oz (15 ml) of room temperature water to the glass.
- Muddle the sugar cube until the sugar dissolves into the water.
- Keep muddling – you don’t want any sugar granules to remain the bottom of the glass. Nobody wants their last sip to be a gritty mouthful of undissolved sugar.
- Add the whiskey.
- Add a large ice cube and stir.
- Keep stirring for a long time since you don’t have any cracked ice to speed the chilling process.
- Garnish and serve
How to garnish an Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned, in its classic sense, requires a garnish. This is one of the cocktails for which the garnish is, itself, an ingredient. The oils from the orange peel are essential to the aroma and taste of the drink.
Over the years, there have been many atrocities visited upon the Old Fashioned, from muddling orange slices in the serving glass to garnishing with enough fruit for a fruit cocktail. While a single Luxardo cherry is permitted as an indulgence, it is not required. Anything else is an abomination.
The proper garnish for an Old Fashioned is a sliver of orange peel, with the oils from the peel expressed into the cocktail. The peel is then wiped around the rim of the glass and dropped inside.
What kind of whiskey should you use in an Old Fashioned?
The short answer is: use whatever whiskey you like drinking.
Traditionally, the Old Fashioned is made with bourbon or rye whiskey. You can also use bourbon-style whiskeys that aren’t from Kentucky, like the many great American whiskeys from Tennessee to Texas. Using Canadian whisky, Irish whiskey, or Scotch will take the drink out of traditional territory, but is completely acceptable.
Remember, your cocktail is only as good as the worst ingredient. That’s especially true of the whiskey in the Old Fashioned, because the whiskey is the star of the show. That said, many whiskey-lovers save their high-end whiskeys for sipping and use their more inexpensive whiskeys for mixed drinks. It’s really up to you – a high-end whiskey won’t be “ruined” in an Old Fashioned because the flavor won’t be masked by other ingredients.
Some major brands I like are: Old Forrester, Bulleit, Sazerac Rye, Makers Mark, and Knob Creek. I’m currently enjoying the Old Forrester 86-proof as my main bourbon for mixing, and the Sazerac Rye is absolutely fantastic if you like a rye Old Fashioned. Bulleit has solid offerings in both the bourbon and rye categories. These are all huge brands that should be accessible everywhere.
Living in Texas, I have a soft-spot for Texas whiskey. My favorite Texas distillers are Balcones in Waco, TX, and Ironroot Republic in Denison, TX. I highly recommend the Ironroot Republic Promethean and the Balcones Baby Blue.
Can you make an Old Fashioned with other base spirits?
While the traditional Old Fashioned is made with bourbon or rye, the formula is ripe for experimentation. Any aged, brown base spirit can make a foundation for creating an Old Fashioned-like drink. Reposado Tequila and dark Rum are popular spirits for riffing on the Old Fashioned. You could also experiment with Brandy or Cognac.
You typically would not use a clear spirit in an Old Fashioned, so stay away from vodka, gin, blanco Tequila, and white rum. Just as those aren’t spirits that people enjoy sipping on the rocks, they aren’t ideal base spirits for an Old Fashioned.
When you change base spirits beyond bourbon or rye whiskey, you’ve fundamentally changed the Old Fashioned and you are permitted to explore other garnishes.
How to create cocktails based on the Old Fashioned
It’s easy to create cocktails using the Old Fashioned formula that take the drink in surprising new directions.
In addition to swapping base spirits, you can also replace the simple syrup with other sweeteners. You could use a honey syrup, or replace the syrup altogether with a liqueur like a Curacao or Triple Sec. Combining two liqueurs is also an option. When creating The Sherpa, Sasha Petraske and Matt Clark replaced the 1/2 oz (15 ml) of simple syrup with 1/4 oz (7.5 ml) each of Curacao and St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram to create an Old Fashioned-style cocktail that paid homage to the classic but was wholly unique.
Changing bitters is another way to experiment. Instead of Angostura, try orange bitters, root beer bitters, or any of the other bizarre bitters on the market today. Some will pair well with your chosen whiskey, and others will clash. Try a few different combinations until you discover one that works. One of my favorite substitutions is to replace the bitters altogether with 1/4 oz (7.5 ml) of Amaro Montenegro.
Lastly, you can add new ingredients to the cocktail. When the weather turns cold, I like to add a few drops of cinnamon tincture to make a Cinnamon Old Fashioned.
Your newly created cocktail can be garnished any way you like.