How to Make a Good Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned; it’s the classy grandpa of mixed beverages.
Back in the day, it was just referred to as a cocktail, consisting of some sort of spirit, sugar, water and bitters. As drinking culture developed, the word cocktail came to refer to any sort of mixed drink. To get this now classic concoction, people had to ask their bartender specifically for “an old fashioned cocktail.”
Nowadays, if you walk into a bar or restaurant and order an Old Fashioned, it’s reasonable to expect a drink made from whiskey, sugar, and bitters, served in a rocks glass and garnished with an orange peel (and sometimes a cherry). However, depending on where you go, the drink you receive will vary wildly in terms of quality. In actuality, an Old Fashioned is an incredibly simple drink to make, but apparently it’s also pretty easy to make horribly wrong.
Before I was all that into cocktails, I remember trying my first Old Fashioned– and it was a good one. Naturally, the next time I was out somewhere I ordered one, but the drink I received was far from my previous experience. I couldn’t really tell you why at the time… it just wasn’t nearly as good.
With this revered classic that is far too often adulterated, it’s probably best to first learn how NOT to make an Old Fashioned. It’s a great drink to get creative with and can be the perfect starting point for developing your own unique recipes. I don’t want to stifle your creativity, but there are several things you just shouldn’t do to an Old Fashioned.
How *NOT* to make an Old Fashioned:
Well for starters, don’t throw the ice into the glass like the above photo… you’ll waste a lot of good whiskey 🥃
DO NOT shake an Old Fashioned, always stir it. This has nothing to do with temperature but everything to do with texture. Shaking it will add air and water, diluting the cocktail too quickly. Since the drink is primarily spirit, all you have to do is gently stir with ice, allowing for a smooth, velvety texture.
DO NOT muddle a maraschino cherry in your drink. I don’t know when this started or why people think you’re supposed to do it. Nobody wants little pieces of sugary cherry floating around in their drink. Yuck!
DO NOT use a cheap spirit and expect amazingness. This might be obvious, but with a cocktail that is mostly made up of one spirit, you’ll want to choose at least a semi-decent one. If you don’t like a spirit on its own, then you definitely won’t like it in an Old Fashioned.
DO NOT add soda water. This is another weird one where I’m not sure why people started throwing this into Old Fashioneds in the first place. Ideally you’re using a high-quality spirit here, so why water it down with bubbles?
Only simple ingredients and simple tools are needed here (note: affiliate links ahead).
You can technically get away without a mixing vessel or strainer and build the cocktail directly in a rocks glass if you prefer. You might notice that I didn’t suggest a muddler. There’s nothing wrong with muddling a sugar cube with a small splash of water (not soda water)– which really is the old-school way of doing it. I just prefer making a simple syrup beforehand because it more easily incorporates into the rest of your drink.
Spirit (usually whiskey but go with your spirit of choice)
Sugar (preferably made into a syrup for easier mixing)
Add 2-3 dashes of aromatic bitters.
Bitters are a bartender’s spices. A little goes a long way, so it’s best to not overdo it.
Try making an Old Fashioned without bitters though, and you just have a glass of whiskey with some sugar in it (who wants that?) It’s a small ingredient in terms of proportion but bitters essentially make an Old Fashioned, an Old Fashioned.
I usually opt for the tried-and-true Angostura Bitters. You can order them online or find them at most any grocery or liquor store. I’m not a regular Wal-Mart shopper, but I will go there just to get Angostura Bitters because they are half the price!
But hey, bitters are also where you can get creative. Ever tried chocolate bitters in an Old Fashioned? Do it, do it now.
Add 1 teaspoon of Demerara syrup
As previously mentioned, you may see Old Fashioned recipes call for using a sugar cube, then muddling it in the bitters and a splash of water. That works I guess, but what you’re doing is essentially making a sugar syrup… so might as well make a syrup ahead of time?
For Old Fashioneds, a 2:1 simple syrup is recommended (meaning 2 parts sugar to 1 part water). Simply measure out the sugar and water, combine in a pan over heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. The type of sugar isn’t a huge deal, but for best results use raw cane sugar or Demerara (my personal favorite). These types of sweeteners provide a much richer texture than your typical white granulated sugar.
Pour 2 ounces of whiskey
(or any other spirit you like!)
Old Fashioneds are typically made with some sort of whiskey, but the earliest recipes for the Old Fashioned simply call for “spirit of any kind.” I generally opt for using aged spirits, but an Old Fashioned made with Gin and St. Germain Elderflower liqueur is pretty spectacular.
Lately I’ve really been into making OF’s with añejo tequila, molé bitters and agave nectar. It’s an easy drink to make your own; so start by swapping out the base spirit and see what you like!
If you insist on whiskey, I recommend using one that is at least 100 proof. My personal preference is rye, so below are a few specific bottle recommendations (all of which are in the $20-$25 per bottle range):
Old Overholt Bonded Rye
Wild Turkey Rye 101
Old Forester Straight Rye
Stir with ice until chilled.
At home, I like mixing with 1” cubes that I make using silicone molds. Due to the size and shape, they don’t break down very quickly (so they don’t over-dilute your drink) and they have a large surface area to more easily chill your cocktail.
Insert your bar spoon into the mixture and gently move the spoon around the sides of your mixing glass in a smooth, rotating motion. There’s no need to agitate the ice much, which would just cause it to break down faster and add air bubbles (remember you’re going for a velvety texture here). Your objective is to chill the cocktail, as well as to slightly dilute it. With good ice, I’ll usually stir for about 20-25 seconds.
If you’re using bagged grocery store ice, only stir briefly. This sort of ice melts quick and will more easily water down your beverage.
Strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice.
Using a large ice cube has become the standard for serving an Old Fashioned. You can easily make 2” cubes at home using silicone molds, but if you want to take it up a notch, go for clear ice. Making clear cubes can be a bit more involved, but the easiest, most affordable option for home use is a unique mold by TrueCubes.
Large format ice provides a nice presentation but also tends to melt slower than several smaller pieces, allowing you to enjoy your drink for longer.
Gently express an orange peel over the top of the drink.
This is a subtle finishing step that is far too often overlooked.
Take a citrus peeler and pull a wide swath of orange peel. Then gently squeeze it over the top of your finished cocktail. You’ll notice a faint mist of citrus oil that will fall over the top of your drink, creating a fresh aromatic and subtle orange flavor. I’ll also briefly rim the glass with the orange peel before dropping it into the drink as a garnish.
Sometimes you’ll order an Old Fashioned somewhere and the bartender might not express the orange oils over the top. It’s not like it’s ruined or anything, but it’s a nice touch that really does complete the drink.
2 oz spirit
1 teaspoon sugar syrup
2-3 dashes aromatic bitters
Stirred & served on the rocks
It’s a simple process, but it really is the little details that makes or breaks a quality Old Fashioned.
Because there are so few ingredients, it’s even more important to be attentive to the details; like the type of sugar, the proof of the spirit or expressing the orange oil over the top. Poor quality ingredients will obviously make for a sub-par cocktail, but even too much (or too little) of the right ingredients can diminish the overall experience.
Making cocktails is about combining different elements to create unique and balanced flavors, and a well-made Old Fashioned is likely the best example of the craft.