Cocktail Recipes/Old Fashioned

Old Fashioned

Some cocktails are meant to act as little more than boozy desserts — delicate confections in glasses that make for exquisite treats at dinner parties and events.

And then there are cocktails that are made to savor the spirits themselves; designed to highlight, rather than overwhelm the fragrance and flavor of their boozy portents.

The old fashioned cocktail is as simple and yet refined as any cocktail may come, leaning on the subtleties of bitters and fruit garnish to draw out and highlight the complexities in any good bourbon or rye whiskey.

You drink an old fashioned to appreciate the star of the show: the whiskey.

What Is An Old Fashioned?

An old fashioned is a simple cocktail drink, made with just a few ingredients: rye whiskey or bourbon, Angostura bitters, sugar, and a dash of water. Purists drink their old fashioned cocktails without any garnishes at all, while others add a bit of citrus peel or a plump maraschino cherry.

The old fashioned cocktail has a mildly sweet, bitter flavor, with notes of citrus or fruit, depending on the garnish that gets used. It’s a stirred drink, typically served over ice, and made in the glass that it is served in.

Old Fashioned Cocktail Recipe

Serving size: 1 drink

Drink strength: 27% ABV

Prep time: <15 minutes

Equipment needed:

Lowball glassware, Optional: Cocktail spoon

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz of good rye whiskey
  • 3 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp Water
  • ½ tsp granulated sugar or 1 small sugar cube
  • Optional: orange peels, lemon peels, or maraschino cherries

Directions:

  1. Add the sugar, bitters, and water to a lowball glass, and stir them with the cocktail spoon until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
  2. Add a single large ice cube, or fill the glass with ice.
  3. Pour the whiskey over the ice and stir for no more than 30 seconds (just long enough to chill the drink).
  4. If you’re adding a citrus peel, gently squeeze the peel over the glass to release some of the fragrant oils over the drink, and then drop it in (but don’t muddle the fruit).

Notes:

  • Quality rye whiskey is essential.
  • The correct amount of bitters is absolutely crucial to making this a well-balanced drink.
  • Simple syrup can be used, but will add more water and less texture to the drink. Reduce the ice to compensate.
  • Don’t use soda water in this drink.
  • Old fashioned cocktails were typically made using a single large ice cube in the Prohibition days. Keep some on hand if you want the more authentic version of the drink.
  • STIR, don’t shake this cocktail.
  • Don’t muddle the cherry in the old fashioned.
  • Use as little pith as possible on your fruit peel.

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The History of the Old Fashioned Drink

The old fashioned cocktail dates back to the early 1800s, and was one of the first whiskey cocktails on record. Like many drinks, it rose to popularity during Prohibition, and was served over a single large ice cube and muddled with sugar. Fruit garnishes didn’t join the drink until after Prohibition.

Though for many years it was simply referred to as a ‘whiskey cocktail’, in 1880, the Chicago Tribune was the first to call it by its modern namesake, the old fashioned cocktail. The old fashioned drink gets its name from the many drinkers who didn’t keep up with the fashionable drinks of the day, sticking to their favorite Prohibition-era cocktail.

As the drink spread west, German settlers in Wisconsin would give rise to their own rendition, substituting brandy for the rye whiskey. This gave birth to the Wisconsin Old Fashioned, which is still a favorite in the area to this day.

Today, there are many modern variations on the original old fashioned cocktail, almost all of them utilizing some form of brown liquor.

Old Fashioned Ingredients

What’s in an old fashioned is deceptively simple: just rye whiskey or bourbon, Angostura bitters, sugar, and a bit of water. The drink is often served ungarnished, or with a simple twist of lemon or orange peel, or in some cases, a single maraschino cherry.

Bourbon or Whiskey?

Traditional old fashioned cocktails were typically made with rye whiskey, though any brown liquor will do. The most popular by far is the bourbon old fashioned. Far more important than the type of brown liquor you use however, is the quality — this is not the cocktail for cheap well whiskey.

What’s the Difference Between Bourbon, Whiskey, and Rye?

There’s usually a lot of confusion about the differences between whiskey and bourbon, and even rye. The type of grain and the type of barrel that a whiskey is aged in usually determines what kind of whiskey it is.

A lot of people use bourbon, whiskey, and rye interchangeably in their cocktail recipes. In certain instances where the flavor differences are still complemented by the other ingredients in the cocktail, this is fine. However, there are notable differences between the three that every home mixologist in the making should be aware of:

Whiskey is a category, and also a spirit. Bourbon and rye are both technically whiskeys. Whiskey is an alcohol made from fermented grain mash, and is typically aged in wooden barrels. All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons.

Bourbon is a type of whiskey. Bourbon is made from at least 51% corn, and is aged in new charred oak barrels. It’s a general rule that bourbon cannot contain any additives or colorings, and must contain at least 40% alcohol by volume (ABV) at the time of its bottling. Though most bourbon is made in Kentucky, this is not a prerequisite for qualifying as a bourbon. Bourbon is known for having a smoother, rounder taste, with notes of vanilla, oak, and caramel.

Rye is a type of whiskey. Much like bourbon, rye whiskey has certain constraints on what it is made from and how it is aged. To be considered a rye whiskey, a spirit must be distilled from a mash that is at least 51% rye, and be aged at least two years in new oak charred barrels. Rye whiskey has a bolder finish than bourbon, with a note of spice and hardness to it. 

Scotch is a type of whiskey, too. Scotch is made in Scotland, typically from a fermented barley mash. It’s heated over a peat fire, and aged in oak barrels for no less than three years. Unlike bourbon, true Scotch is only made in Scotland.

Sugar or Simple Syrup?

Many people use simple syrup in their old fashioned cocktails because they don’t have to worry about dissolving the sugar crystals in the drink. However, this does add water to the drink, and can dilute your whiskey if you don’t adjust your ice accordingly.

Traditional old fashioned cocktails were made with granulated sugar, or even sugar cubes, which were then muddled with the bitters and a splash of water to break down the sugar. A little bit of leftover sugar was to be considered part of the appeal, and adds additional texture to this simple drink.

The Best Cherry for Old Fashioned Cocktails

Cherries are a relatively new addition to the old fashioned drink, and just like with the whiskey, quality is everything. If you decide to garnish your old fashioned cocktail with a cherry, make sure to avoid the red fluorescent variety, and opt for a high quality maraschino with no artificial dyes or flavors. Luxardo maraschino cherries fit the bill perfectly.

Good Whiskey for Old Fashioned Drinks

The best whiskey for an old fashioned cocktail will be smooth enough to drink straight up on the rocks, with a nice oaky aroma. Any of these options are widely available and will make an old fashioned cocktail that’s bar quality:

  • WhistlePig 15-Year Rye Whiskey ($229.99 for 750 mL)
  • Angel’s Envy Rye Whiskey ($84.99 for 750mL)
  • Woodford Reserve Rye Whiskey ($32.99 for 750mL)

Old Fashioned Recipe Variations You Can Try

In addition to the bourbon or rye whiskey variations, there have been many other iterations on the original old fashioned cocktail recipe.

Tequila Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with 2 oz of anejo tequila.

Rum Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with 2 oz of dark rum. Add 2 dashes Angostura bitters, 1 teaspoon allspice dram, 1 teaspoon demerara syrup, and 2 dashes of orange bitters over ice and stir. Garnish with an orange twist.

Mezcal Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with 1 1/2 oz of reposado tequila and 1/2 oz of mezcal. Reduce Angostura bitters to one dash, and use 1 tsp agave nectar in place of sugar, if any. Garnish with an orange twist.

Scotch Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with a high quality Scotch. You can also swap out the Angostura bitters for orange bitters instead.

Gin Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with a high quality gin. You can also swap out the Angostura bitters for grapefruit bitters instead.

Wisconsin Old Fashioned: Replace the rye whiskey with brandy. Add a splash of club soda or sprite, and don’t skip on the fruit and sugar cube with this one.

Maple Old Fashioned: Substitute the sugar with a grade A or B maple syrup.

How to Make an Old Fashioned Drink

You don’t need any drink mixing equipment to make an old fashioned. Old fashioned drinks are stirred with a small cocktail spoon in the glasses that they’re served in — typically lowball glasses.

To get started, you’ll need:

  • Lowball glasses
  • A cocktail spoon
  • 2 oz of good rye whiskey
  • 3 dashes of Angostura bitters
  • 1 tsp Water
  • ½ tsp granulated sugar or 1 small sugar cube
  • Optional: orange peels, lemon peels, or maraschino cherries
    1. Add the sugar, bitters, and water to a lowball glass, and stir them with the cocktail spoon until the sugar is mostly dissolved.
    2. Add a single large ice cube, or fill the glass with ice.
    3. Pour the whiskey over the ice and stir for no more than 30 seconds (just long enough to chill the drink).
    4. If you’re adding a citrus peel, gently squeeze the peel over the glass to release some of the fragrant oils over the drink, and then drop it in (but don’t muddle the fruit).

Drink and enjoy.

Use a Cocktail Maker to Make an Old Fashioned

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If you like this drink, try:

Manhattan recipe

Negroni recipe

Whiskey sour recipe

 

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