Everyone should have a drink of choice, like a favorite song. Something that works no matter who makes it. And only classic cocktails have that ubiquity. For me- It’s the Old Fashioned Cocktail.
Years ago, when I was reading Esquire building an archetype of what it means to be a man, I read in an article how a man should have a drink of choice. Knowing how to make a good cocktail, it seemed, was as important as tying a tie or toasting a friend (keep it short and sweet).
I fell in love with Old Fashioned Cocktails for their simplicity. They are easy to make and last a while going down. Because the whiskey is balanced by the bitters and sugars, each sip is complex and has a long finish. It’s one of those drinks you can make after work, to wind down and relax.
There are many timeless drinks, but the Old Fashioned Cocktail is the best for a reason.
It was the first-ish.
A History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail
The Old Fashioned refers to a simpler mode of cocktails, that mixed Spirits, Sugar, and Bitters together. This was circa 1860s and the use of bitters, particularly Angostura, was intended for medicinal purposes- to settle the stomach or as an aperitif; to open the appetite before eating.
The Bartender’s Guide 1862 published the first version of the recipe, in it The Whiskey Cocktail recipe showed Whiskey as it’s spirit, not Bourbon and a slice of lemon peel instead of orange. From there the recipe changed, as bartenders started adding fruits and carbonation to drinks. In 1880 purists were calling for a more simplified cocktail, done the old-fashioned way. By 1882 Harry Johnson’s New and Improved Illustrated Bartender’s Manual was still calling it the Whiskey Cocktail.
By 1888 Theodore Proulx’s published the first Cocktail book listing that recipe as The Old Fashioned. There’s very little reference on Proulx’s book online, and the only other reference I could find is in Robert Simonson and Daniel Krieger’s The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail
Its closest cousin is the Manhattan, which follows a similar recipe: Whiskey, Bitters, and sweetened with Sweet Vermouth instead of sugar or simple syrup. Both are whiskey forward cocktails.
How to make the best Old Fashioned
Old Fashioned Ingredients
There are many variations, but this is your basic shopping list:
- Bourbon or Rye Whiskey
- Angostura Bitters
- Orange Peel
- Cherry (Optional), Maraschino is traditional, but try a fresh cherry for a change.
Time needed: 8 minutes.
- Make a Simple Syrup
This makes everything faster. Simmer together in a pot equal parts water and sugar. Stir until the sugar granules are dissolved. Chill and put it in a squeeze bottle.
- In a rocks glass, combine:
Simple syrup (or sugar and water)
- Add the Ice
If you can, use a big sphere or cube of clear ice. It won’t melt as fast and dilute your drink.
- Add Bourbon
Use the decent stuff. If you have Port Finished, that’s the one to go with.
Use a vegetable peeler and get an orange peel. It won’t give you pith. Squeeze it on the glass to release the citrus oils.
Orange Slice- (optional) slice thin and neat.
Cherry. (optional) but fun to look at.
Use good whiskey or Bourbon. It makes a difference. If you have Buffalo Trace or Pappy Van Winkle, use them. But my favorite bourbon comes from St. Augustine FL, the St. Augustine Distillery makes an aged bourbon finished in Port Wine Barrels; and it makes for the best bourbon for an Old Fashioned.
Disclaimer: I am not paid to say this. They just make really good stonkin stuff!
Traditionally, you make the old fashioned with sugar, dissolving it in water and 2 dashes of Angostura Bitters before adding Ice and the Bourbon. However, simple syrup is also a good alternative. The water and sugars come already dissolved and if you have it on hand, it can help speed up the process. This is normally what bartenders do to save time.
This is also useful to infuse a particular flavor and add another variety to the drink. ie: Rosemary Old Fashioned etc.
- Very balanced, just sweet enough.
- Citrus aroma and an appetite opener
- Strong, but not overpowering. You won’t need more than a drink or two to start feeling a buzz.
The whole idea about whiskey and bourbon-based cocktails is to open up the flavor concentrated in the spirit. Adding complementary flavors like citrus and introducing sweetness, make the spirit more palatable and easier to drink. Which is why this cocktail was made in the first place.
While the classic cocktail is the classic for a reason, there is something to be said for innovation. In our travels, we came across these two adaptations that deserve your attention.
Smoked Old Fashioned
Where: The Campbell Apartment, NYC
How was it?
Smoke works! The flavor of cherry smoke gives a depth of flavor to the cocktail, which was everything you’d expect for $20 a pop.
On our first trip to NYC, we basically ran an eating tour, cramming as many restaurants as we could in a weekend. To see more, it’s here!
Cuban Old Fashioned
Where: Finka Table & Tap, Miami FL.
Finka arrived at a different idea. Staying true to Cuban roots, they added Cuban coffee syrup reduction to the cocktail, which adds a second layer of bitterness along with the Angostura. It works beautifully however, because the earthy notes in the coffee marry the brown sugar notes of the bourbon.
I had my bachelor party there last year, and it was a perfect experience.
So was the drink.
Equipment you might need
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links, which means that if you click on one of the product links, I’ll receive a small commission. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. If you would like to view my disclosure policy click HERE.
BTW! A HUGE shoutout to our very talented resident artist, Carlos Gallostra for his resources and fact-checking. He knows Art History and Cocktails are an art.Print
This Old Fashioned Recipe is the traditional drink without fuss. It’s simple, elegant, and wonderfully balanced, perfect for the start of a meal, or to relax.
- 1 tbsp Sugar or Simple Syrup
- 2 Dashes of Angostura Bitters
- 2 oz of Whiskey or Bourbon
- Ice (Optional)
- Citrus Peel
- Twist Cherry (optional)
- Add simple syrup, Angostura bitters, and Bourbon together.
- Add the ice and stir. If using sugar instead of simple syrup, add the sugar and water together.
- Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and add the bitters and Bourbon.
- Finalize with the ice and stir.
- Using a channel knife for a twist, or a vegetable peeler, cut the peel of an orange, twist it, and run it along the rim of the glass. Adding it to the drink as a garnish.
- Garnish with a cherry (optional: not orthodox traditional, but at this point, do what makes you happy)
Add more sugar or simple syrup to taste. It should taste sweet to your comfort level. A good sphere of clear ice adds a dimension of elegance to this cocktail. Don’t muddle a citrus slice into the drink.
- Category: Cocktails
- Method: Stir
- Cuisine: American
Keywords: Old Fashioned Cocktail
A little about me
I’m a chef and a former psychologist. I spent years studying how we experience food to make the best eating experiences possible- and I show you how to eat well on this site. I host secret popups in Miami, FL teaching people how to approach good food that’s never been done before.