Mastering the Old-Fashioned Recipe

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The staple of every respectable cocktail bar on Earth, the old fashioned cocktail is a classic drink that has been served since the mid-1800s and is as popular today as it was back then. Although the classic beverage calls for just a few ingredients, today there are literally hundreds of versions with add-ons ranging from muddled fruit to exotic flavors like black walnut bitters. As with most cult classics, there is a long story that explains why the old fashioned exists in the version that it does today. 


The History

If you happen to take a look at the drink menus for a couple different cocktail bars, you will notice that there is actually a wide range of debate on what should actually go into the Old Fashioned. Rye or bourbon, sugar cube or simply syrup, demerara sugar or white table sugar, muddled fruit or no. While there are many ways to make this whiskey cocktail, there is one classic, timeless recipe known by every respectable bartender (or mixologist if you’re in Brooklyn).

To understand why the drink is made the way that it is, it is helpful to start with the history of the cocktail. Around the turn from the 18th to the 19th century, when you walked into the bar there was a very distinct way to order cocktail. You would name your spirit, and the bartender would give you a mix of that spirit, sugar, bitters, and water or ice. In the post-Civil War era, vermouth and liqueurs like Chartreuse and maraschino began to arrive from Europe. Much like today, bartenders were not content to stick with the classics, and instead started to experiment with these new and novel ingredients to craft their own unique spins on famous concoctions. This meant that simply ordering a “whiskey cocktail” could result in a beverage with a wide range of ingredients or flavors. So, to counter this, drinkers began asking for “a whiskey cocktail in the old fashioned way”.

The first known (at least to me) written recipe for the Old Fashioned appeared in Henry Johnson’s New and Improved Bartenders’ Manual. That recipe listed the formula as a quarter teaspoon of sugar, 2 small lumps of ice, 2 to 3 dashes of Boker’s genuine bitters, 1-2 dashes of curacoa or absinthe, and 1 wine glass of whiskey, stirred and served with a squeezed lemon peel on top. 

As the quality of illicit whiskey began to fall during Prohibition, fruit such as cherries and oranges started to appear to mask the lower quality liquor that bar tenders were forced to use. Fast forward to today, and most of the high end bar tenders are back to the Old Fashioned of ole’: sugar, bitters, whiskey, a big rock of ice, and a twist of orange. Comparing this old fashioned to more complicated versions makes it easy to tell why – the classic version consistently delivers a high quality cocktail that is easy to make and hard to mess up.

So which Whiskey Do you Use?

One of the most debated questions is whiskey should you use in making your Old Fashioned. This is often the only questions that many bartenders will ask you about how you want your drink made. 

Traditionally, either bourbon or rye is used. Rye usually makes for a dryer drink, and the bartender at one of my favorite local establishments recommends adding an extra bar spoon of sugar or simple syrup to compensate. On the other hand, if you are going to use bourbon, it is often recommended to use an extra couple dashes of bitters to add space to what would otherwise be a mellow drink.

My advice: use whatever whiskey you like best. Since the cocktail is mostly whiskey, your enjoyment of the drink will be driven largely by how much you like the bourbon that is serving as its base. 

Lately, I usually use bourbon (lately either Blade and Bow or Larceny) as my base, but in truth, any quality whiskey will do.  

The Recipe

  • One cube of demerara sugar or 1/2 tsp. of demerara sugar simple syrup
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 dash of orange bitters
  • 2 oz. bourbon or rye
  • Garnish: orange twist

In a classic old fashioned or short rocks glass, add sugar and bitters and a half splash of water. Let the bitters and water soften up the sugar cube and then muddle until the sugar is mostly dissolved. Add the whiskey and stir well, allowing the mixture to set in and dissolve in for a couple minutes. Add one large whiskey cube (or a couple smaller ice subs) and stir well. Twist the orange peel to release the oils and run it around the rim of the glass, then drop it into the cocktail. 

Top Tips

Muddle in the glass

This recipe works best with a sturdy Old Fashioned or rocks glass that lets you muddle the drink directly in the glass. You will need a strong bottom since you are muddling the sugar with the bitters in the glass. Since the sugar will continue to dissolve into the cocktail as you go, you want to retain as much of the oils in the glass as possible.

Muddle well

The bitters alone won’t be enough to dissolve the sugar, add a half splash of water to help it along. Some people go with adding a little soda water to the end, but I prefer to avoid this step but giving the bitters/water/sugar combination a couple moments to set before adding my bourbon.

Use a whiskey Cube

Using one large rock will chill your drink without watering it down too quickly. It is normal for the flavor of the drink to come out more as you drink as the sugar continues to melt into the bourbon, but using crushed ice will tend to leave you with a watery drink.

Where's the Cherry?

While the classic recipe does not call for a cherry (we aren’t using moonshine or knock off whiskey like in the Prohibition), there are many Old Fashioned enthusiasts who still enjoy a cocktail cherry with their drink. If you are going to use one, here are a couple quick recommendations:

  •  Skip the bright neon red maraschino cherries. They are artificially colored and flavored, and its basically like adding candy to your cocktail. Instead, go for a brand like Luxardo or Woodford Reserve Bourbon cherries. They taste better, look better, and make for a much more pleasant experience. 
  • Do NOT muddle the cherry! Instead just drop a single cherry into the drink. Some of the juice from the cherry will add additional flavor to your drink but you want to avoid mashing the cherry into little pieces at the bottom of your glass.