For centuries, the Old Fashioned has remained a staple at bars around the world. “It is literally the definitive cocktail,” says Sam Treadway, owner of Backbar in Somerville, Massachusetts. “Once upon a time, the word ‘cocktail’ meant specifically this one drink.” As trendy, newer cocktails were invented, it became known as the “Old Fashioned cocktail.”
Will Benedetto, opening beverage director and bar consultant at The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club in Nashville, says the Old Fashioned is highly versatile with whiskey—and beyond. “Any spirit—any worth drinking—can be made into an enlightening Old Fashioned,” he says.
It’s doubtful that the elaborate craft cocktails of today will be remembered in a century. But owing to its short list of common ingredients and simplicity, the Old Fashioned endures.
How to Make an Old Fashioned
- 1 sugar cube or ½ tsp. sugar
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- 2 oz. bourbon or rye
- Lemon or orange twist for garnish
In an Old Fashioned or short rocks glass, add sugar, bitters, and half a splash of water. Agitate with a spoon or muddler to dissolve sugar. Add whiskey and one large ice cube (or several smaller ones) and stir well. Twist the citrus peel to release the oils and run it around the rim of the glass, then drop it into the cocktail.
⇒ Tweak your technique. Failing to fully dissolve a sugar cube or granulated sugar will leave you with an unbalanced drink that turns crunchy at the end. “When you put in the sugar and bitters, add a tiny bit of water and stir that around to at least start the dissolving,” says Treadway. Once you add ice, it becomes much harder to dissolve.
3 Key Elements of an Old Fashioned (Besides Whiskey) & How to Hack Them
1. Sugar: The Old Fashioned is traditionally made with either granulated white sugar or a sugar cube. Superfine bar sugar is fast-dissolving and eliminates the potential for a crunchy cocktail, as does simple syrup.
⇒ If you’re avoiding white sugar, try another sweetener. There’s a lot of variety in the world of cocktail sweeteners. Here are equivalencies for some common household sweeteners, although you can always adjust to suit your personal sweet tooth.
- Honey—⅜ tsp. “If you pour honey over an iced cocktail it won’t dissolve and incorporate in the drink,” says Benedetto. His solution is to add it to the room-temperature spirit or thin it with a bit of warm water before mixing.
- Agave syrup—⅜ tsp. Agave works well with whiskey, but Justin Mitchell, bar manager at The Dorian in San Francisco, switches to tequila and mezcal as the base spirit for his Oaxacan Old Fashioned.
- Brown sugar—½ tsp. If you’re substituting another spirit for whiskey, use brown sugar to add a barrel-like nuance. “Something dry like genever or Lowlands tequila would pair well with brown sugar,” says Benedetto.
- Maple syrup—⅜ tsp. Check the ingredients of your syrup. For the best flavor, use 100% maple syrup. A lot of inferior “maple-flavored syrups” are made primarily of corn syrup, Benedetto cautions.
- Splenda—¼ packet. Artificial sweeteners are often highly concentrated. Mitchell warns they require precise measurement to avoid over-sweetening your drink. Splenda, for instance, requires just 1⁄16 tsp., or ¼ of the packet.
- Cherry syrup—¾ tsp. Maraschino cherries are packed in sweet sugar syrup. Mitchell suggests using a barspoon’s worth of syrup, which is roughly ⅛ oz., or ¾ tsp. Or you can smash a cherry in the glass to free its syrup.
2. Bitters: Bitters are an integral part of holding the drink together. “It’s almost like adding salt and pepper to a food dish,” Treadway says, adding that the bitters can make the other flavors in the cocktail taste even better.
⇒ No bitters? Don’t skip, replace. An Old Fashioned without bitters lacks intrigue and balance. Treadway says you can achieve a good approximation with the tannins of black tea and bitter citrus peel. Simply steep one strong black tea bag (or 1 tsp. loose-leaf tea) in ½ cup of hot water for 5-10 minutes. Remove the tea bag and add ¼ cup sugar to the hot tea. Stir until dissolved. Use this simple syrup as your sweetener, muddling it with several citrus peels, for a balanced cocktail.
3. Garnish: If you must maraschino, limit it to a single cherry. And aim to add an orange or lemon twist, which lend a “blast of citrus oil and aromatics when you first sip the drink,” according to Treadway.
⇒ Or go straight for the sugar. That red cherry is mostly food coloring and sugar anyway, so Benedetto suggests being a bit more creative by reaching for sugary snacks that echo flavors in the cocktail. Try a toasted marshmallow, caramel corn, or even gummy bears.
What Whisky to Use?
As with the rest of its ingredients, the whisky used in an Old Fashioned can be switched up. It’s traditionally made with rye or bourbon, and if using bourbon, Mitchell recommends bottled in bond bourbon for a cocktail “with a little more bite.” While Treadway points out that scotch works well in the cocktail, he cautions that it can be “just a little aggressive on the smoke,” so you need to choose accordingly.
Here’s a list of whiskies in a variety of styles and prices.
$40 & UNDER
Bourbon: Maker’s Mark Straight, 89 points
Rye: High West Double Rye!, 91 points
Japanese: Suntory Toki, 88 points
Blended Scotch: Johnnie Walker 12 year old Black Label, 88 points
Single Malt Scotch: Glenmorangie Original, 87 points
Irish: The Irishman Founder’s Reserve Blended, 90 points
Canadian: Lot No. 40, 94 points
$60 & UNDER
Bourbon: Bulleit Blender’s Select Kentucky Straight (Batch 001), 95 points
Rye: New Riff Bottled in Bond, 92 points
Japanese: Kaiyo Mizunara Oak, 92 points
Blended Scotch: Sheep Dip Original, 91 points
Single Malt Scotch: Ardbeg An Oa, 93 points
Irish: Powers Three Swallow, 92 points
Canadian: Crown Royal Noble Collection 13 year old Blenders’ Mash, 92 points
$100 & UNDER
Bourbon: Kentucky Peerless Straight, 90 points
Rye: WhistlePig 10 year old Straight, 87 points
Japanese: Nikka Coffey Malt, 89 points
Blended Scotch: Compass Box Spice Tree, 91 points
Single Malt Scotch: Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2010, 91 points
Irish: Tyrconnell 16 year old Oloroso & Moscatel Cask-Finished Single Malt, 92 points
Canadian: Masterson’s Straight Rye, 94 points