Take a look at the cocktail menu at any decent bar today and I’m willing to bet that the first drink listed is an Old Fashioned. With good reason too, a drink with as much history as the rest of the menu combined deserves a place at the top. Appearing in writing as far back as the late 19th century, the Old Fashioned has endured countless twists and turns as bartenders modified the drink to please each new iteration of the whiskey drinker.
Originally known as a Whiskey Cocktail, the Old Fashioned is one of the few drinks conforming to the technical definition of a cocktail – a drink composed of spirits, sugar, bitters, and water. Variations started to appear around the end of the 19th century calling for additions of absinthe, Curaçao, and maraschino liqueur, and even before the onset of prohibition, fruit entered the glass. While the often ridiculed practice of muddling fruit wasn’t common until the 60s and 70s, it occurred as early as the 30s. During and immediately after prohibition ended, fruit became much more common (likely an attempt to mask the taste of awful liquor).
Over the course of the 70s and 80s, whiskey took a pretty big hit as the world of flavored vodka exploded. The Old Fashioned somewhat faded out of many bars and those who continued to drink them were all but forced to make them at home where they could ensure their drink was exactly what they expected. Fast forward a couple decades to today, thanks in part to Don Draper, you can find an Old Fashioned in just about any decent bar. The Old Fashioned has become one of my go-to drinks and has become the means by which I judge every new bar I visit. If your bar passes the Old Fashioned test, you can bet on seeing me again.
The Old Fashioned is such a simple, straightforward drink, and yet it’s easy to personalize with variations in ingredients and methods of preparation. With countless high-quality whiskeys and the array of specialty bitters available today, you can explore countless twists on a classic without threatening the integrity of the drink. I’ll walk you through my method of preparing the drink, which came from an excellent video of cocktail historian/bartender Chris McMillian preparing the drink as part of a series on New Orleans Best Cocktails (link at the bottom). I don’t claim this to be the right way or the best way, but it is my way of making an Old Fashioned.
Making The Drink
1. Start with a sugar cube in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Unrefined cane sugar is going to give you a slightly richer molasses flavor, but regular old sugar will work just fine if that’s what you’ve got. I’m a huge fan of these rough-cut Demerara “cubes” particularly because they vary in size quite a bit. I can adjust the sweetness by choosing a smaller or larger chunk of sugar as needed.
2. Saturate the sugar cube with 2-3 dashes of Angostura bitters and add just a splash of water. (Experiment with other bitters, but Angostura is where you want to start)
3. Muddle the sugar until fully dissolved into a syrup. (You can also use simple syrup in place of the sugar and water. Nothing wrong with that, but I prefer to muddle).
4. Cut a small piece of orange zest, about the size of a nickel, leaving as much of the white pith behind as possible. Muddle the orange zest in the sugar/bitters mix to release the oils into the glass. Feel free to remove the orange zest, but I leave it in the glass. Take a quick smell, it’s intoxicating.
6. Pour 2 oz of your whiskey of choice into the glass and garnish with an orange slice or a twist and a Luxardo cherry. Bourbon and rye both work well here so take your pick. As a general rule, if you’d drink it neat, it’ll probably make a pretty good Old Fashioned.
7. Sit back, sip, and enjoy.
Give it a try and let me know what you think. Have your own personal twist or variation? Share in the comments below!
If you’re interested in a more in-depth history of the drink, check out The Old Fashioned by Robert Simonson. Pretty quick read, and includes about 60 pages of recipes and variations on the drink to keep you busy for a little while. Also, check out the New Orleans Best Cocktails video series featuring Chris McMillan here.