You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bar that doesn’t have an old-fashioned on its menu, and any self-respecting bartender should have mastered their own version of the drink. According to cocktail snobs like Slate writer Troy Patterson, the many variations on the old-fashioned and the particular method of choice can say a lot about a person’s character.
A modern obsession with the authentically vintage has thankfully turned bars away from the muddled cherry and orange mess that became popular after Prohibition and stayed that way for some time. Do not—I repeat, do not—muddle fruits in your old-fashioned. Do not garnish with a slice of orange. Let a good old dog lie.
Truly the simplest of all drinks (there’s only one spirit and you don’t need any fresh fruit on hand to make it), this boozy stalwart is a satisfying tipple and an easy, essential cocktail to add to (or begin building) your repertoire.
Read on for a brief history lesson, advice, and a cocktail recipe to make your own.
Kind of a Silly Name for a Cocktail, Right?
It’s not just called that for fun—it truly is old-fashioned. The first recorded cocktail (back when people didn’t even know what the word “cock-tail” meant), the tried-and-true old-fashioned is composed of any brown spirit, bitters, and sugar. And that’s it.
The first known record of this “recipe” can be found in George Kappeler’s Modern American Drinks: How to Mix and Serve All Kinds of Cups and Drinks, initially printed back in 1895. It’s the original and quintessential whiskey cocktail: there was once a time when, if you uttered the words “whiskey cocktail,” an old-fashioned was what you’d get.
Literally done in the old-fashioned way—booze, water, bitters, and ice—these drinks were simple and straightforward and eventually riffed upon, overcomplicated, and subsequently, some might say, ruined.
Sensible iterations should, in my opinion, only go as far as subbing rye for bourbon or elevating the complexities of the cocktail with different (or even multiple) bitters. Spicy rye marries well with Fee Brothers Aromatic Bitters, which is made with a range of ingredients, including warm notes of cinnamon and vanilla that prove perfect in an old-fashioned.
They are not to be confused with the ever-classic Angostura bitters, which are unparalleled in flavor profile and aromatics. Orange bitters (like Regan’s) wonderfully complement a sweet bourbon, and Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters, while expensive, provide a unique aroma—and are much classier and more subtle than actual cherries.
A quick word on cherries: forget everything you know about the maraschino. There are two versions: American and Italian. The Italian variety, traditionally made by preserving the rare and utterly beautiful marasca cherry, is the real deal. No dyes, no excess of preservatives or strange chemicals—just sugar and cherries. They’ll cost you a pretty penny (around $15), but drop one (coated in a thick, wine-dark syrup) into your old-fashioned, and you’ll soon feel insulted by every neon-red cherry that crosses your path.
Now, back to the cocktail. As for the sweet, you can use a rich demerara syrup (a 2:1 ratio of unrefined demerara sugar to water), but that’s not as fun. Instead, use a sugar cube to soak up the bitters, then add a tiny splash of club soda before muddling to dissolve. After that, it’s just the whiskey, the ice, the stirring, and the best part: the drinking. Garnishes are optional; just remember what I told you about those cherries.
A Drink of One’s Own
Though the old-fashioned is a classic, a few places have managed to set themselves apart with their iterations.
Amor Y Amargo | New York, NY
Meaning “love and bitters,” Amor y Amargo is the ideal destination for Your Friend the Cocktail Purist/Snob. You won’t find any fruit juices (or shakers) behind the bar here, as every drink the bartenders create is stirred, just like the old days. Each drink is strictly composed of spirits, amaros, vermouths, syrups, and bitters, and their old-fashioned is just one of many classics and unique riffs.
The Charleston | Chicago, IL
I may be biased, but then again, this is my list. And I picked The Charleston because 1) I live in Chicago and I go there, and 2) they make a unique old-fashioned. Also, it’s a great, low-key corner bar that’s surprisingly unpretentious. No bells and whistles in this old-fashioned (as it should be), just three types of bitters—which, in my mind, make their version stand apart.
Cole's | Los Angeles, CA
A Los Angeles landmark, Cole’s has been open for nearly as long as the old-fashioned has been around. The bartenders here believe in the powers of high-proof whiskey (since, back in the day, all whiskeys were around 100-proof, sometimes higher). They keep it simple with a lemon and lime twist, a real maraschino cherry (like the ones I mentioned above), and a giant hunk of ice that won’t water your whiskey down too much but just enough.
Recipe for an Old Fashioned
adapted from The Charleston
2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey, though I prefer rye (Old Overholt will do just fine)
Scant ¼ oz. simple syrup OR one demerera sugar cube
2 dashes Regan’s orange bitters
2 dashes Fee’s old-fashioned bitters
4 drops Bittercube’s Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters
Fill a mixing glass with ice. Add all ingredients* and stir for about 10 seconds. Strain over a large ice cube, express orange peel over the top, and garnish with a totally optional Luxardo maraschino cherry.
* Only use this method if you’re using simple syrup. If you’re using a sugar cube, proceed as follows:
Add the cube to the bottom of your glass. Shake and drop your bitters in, saturating the cube. Add a very small splash of club soda, and muddle to create a paste. Swirl to coat the interior of the glass, add whiskey and ice, stir, and serve as above.
photo by Andrew Nawrocki, Groupon