How to Make the Perfect Old Fashioned

A seemingly simple cocktail is open to interpretation and improvement. And it may not even involve whiskey.

October 19, 2022 6:49 am
Old fashioned whiskey drink on ice with orange zest garnish. There are numerous ways to improve and perfect an Old Fashioned.
It's an easy drink to make, but a few subtle alterations can perfect an Old Fashioned
SimpleImages / Getty

As a go-to cocktail, the Old Fashioned seems ideally simple: As most bars make it, it’s really just a stirred drink featuring 2 oz of whiskey (bourbon or rye), sugar, bitters, an ice cube and an orange twist as a garnish. There might be a Luxardo Maraschino cherry on top and/or a bit of water added and maybe simple syrup in lieu of a sugar cube. 

“I like the drink’s simplicity,” writer Robert Simonson told InsideHook a few years back during a publicity tour for his book, The Old-Fashioned: The Story of the World’s First Classic Cocktail with Recipes and Lore. “It’s the very definition of a cocktail at its most elemental. Plus, anyone can make one.”

The good news is that because anyone can make one, it also means anyone can improve it just as easily. But first… 

What is an Old Fashioned?

The Old Fashioned has led a fascinating, tortured history: Civil War-era roots (Union soldiers received “Whiskey Cocktail” provisions), a fruity downfall mid-century and a 21st-century rebirth (a.k.a. The Mad Men Effect). Per Simonson’s historical tome, the drink was first mentioned in a book by Jerry Thomas in 1862 as a Whiskey Cocktail — and it was shaken.

According to The Oxford Companion to Spirits and Cocktails, the Old Fashioned was really just a way to describe the first known definition of a cocktail (which dates back to 1806), which was “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters.” When cocktails started getting fancy in the latter half of the 19th century, some consumers started asking for an “old-fashioned” cocktail where the base liquor wasn’t split with, say, vermouth. 

Cocktail Courier Old Fashioned Variety Kit, now on sale
The Cocktail Courier Old Fashioned Variety Kit, now on sale
Cocktail Courier

What’s the basic recipe for an Old Fashioned?

Since Elijah Craig is sponsoring Old Fashioned Week, we’ll follow their recipe, which is pretty close to any classic OF we’ve ever made ourselves. (Old Fashioned Week runs Oct 14-23 and features an array of bars and restaurants serving up variations on the classic cocktail, with some proceeds earmarked for the Southern Smoke Foundation.)

The Elijah Craig Old Fashioned

Prep Time: 5 mins

Total Time: 5 mins

Servings: 1

  • 2 oz. Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
  • .25 oz. Simple Syrup
  • 3 Dashes of Bitters
  • Orange Swath
  • Brandied Cherry (optional)
  • Directions:
    1. In a mixing glass add bourbon, bitters, simple syrup, and ice. Stir until well chilled.

    2. Strain the cocktail over a large ice cube in a double old-fashioned glass.

    3. Garnish with a swath of orange and an optional brandied cherry.

Note: Cocktail Courier offers an Old Fashioned kit featuring Elijah Craig (see photo above), which features some interesting variations on the drink; some ingredients in the kit include pomegranate molasses, chili bitters and pear syrup.

Old Fashioned from Westward
The key to this Old Fashioned? It’s more than the choice of whiskey.

What’s our favorite take on an Old Fashioned?

We offered up several variations on the Old Fashioned last year, but this is still our favorite, utilizing an American Single Malt, playing around with the sweetener and making one very important addition.

True Northwest Old Fashioned

Prep Time: 5 mins

Total Time: 5 mins

Servings: 1 drink

  • 2 oz Westward American Single Malt
  • .25 oz Jacobsen’s Bee Local Honey
  • 1 pinch Jacobsen’s Sea Salt
  • .5 dropper Portland Bitters Company Aromatic Bitters
  • Directions:
    1. Stir ingredients over a large ice cube.

The key here is the salt. Jacobsen extracts their spice from oyster beds within Oregon’s Netarts Bay. Add in artisanal honey and some organic bitters, and you have a cocktail that offers a different sweetness and a touch of salinity (basically, it’s the “chunky chocolate chip cookies with sea salt” of Old Fashioneds). Plus, you’re utilizing a single malt, which isn’t going to be as sweet as bourbon or as spicy as rye, but at 45% ABV does have a bit more heft to stand against the other ingredients. 

What is one thing you can alter to improve an Old Fashioned?

First, start with the booze itself. The Old Fashioned doesn’t have to have a whiskey base (in Wisconsin, they’ve always preferred brandy). We’ve had excellent variations featuring añejo tequila, rum, a split base of rum and mezcal, and even gin. As well, we’ve had versions with non-American whiskies and also (as seen above) with American whiskeys that aren’t bourbon or rye. 

“When I make riffs on an Old Fashioned, the one ingredient I like to play around with is the sugar,” says Lynn House, National Heaven Hill Portfolio Mixologist (Heaven Hill is the company behind Elijah Craig bourbon). “Angostura bitters are very complex in flavor and thus lend themselves to pair with a multitude of sweeteners.”

House subs out the traditional sugar element with apple cider syrup. “Growing up and still living in the Midwest, apples are our queen crop. What I like to do is take a cup of locally-made apple cider, mix it with a cup of pure cane sugar, throw in one cinnamon stick and let it simmer in a saucepan until the sugar has dissolved. Allow time for the syrup to cool and then remove the cinnamon stick. That creates an Old Fashioned that is perfect for the chilly fall and winter evenings.” 

But again, any ingredient is up for experimentation — the spirit, sweetener, bitters or garnish. Simonson’s preferred method adds in Fernet Branca and utilizes a lemon peel. House rhapsodizes about a variation that swapped out Lunazul Anejo for the base and had a tamarind and chile syrup (for the sweetness) and mole bitters. 

Sunday's Finest Gold Fashioned 2022 Blend, available now. It's a ready-to-drink, premium take on the Old Fashioned.
Sunday’s Finest Gold Fashioned 2022 Blend, available now
Sunday’s Finest

Is there an idealized take on an Old Fashioned?

Last year saw the debut of Sunday’s Finest Gold Fashioned, a ready-to-drink Old Fashioned riff with luxury packaging, a limited number of bottles and an ingredients list that really went for premium takes on the classic ingredients. (And an elevated, $150 price point.)

This year, the Gold Fashioned returns (at only 3,000 bottles) with a blend that includes a 9- and 15-year Kentucky straight bourbon, a 6-year Indiana rye, Grade A Tahitian vanilla, single estate Ecuadorian cacao, Seville orange peel, wild harvest gentian root, fair trade Malawian Demerarafrom the French Alps and Afghan saffron. Add in an orange zest atomizer and you’ve got an extremely elevated take on a classic drink. 

“When you have a simple recipe, it forces you to think more deeply about each of the components,” says Damaine Nickles, the Brand Manager and Activation Lead of Analogue Liqueurs and part of the Sunday’s Finest team. “Here, we focused chiefly on the quality of ingredients by sourcing the best individual components possible to allow for an expression of an Old Fashioned — one that we think is as good, if not better, than one that’d be slid across the bar at some of the world’s best cocktail programs.”

Besides the elevated ingredients, the split base of the Gold Fashioned is key. “I love split-based cocktails,” says Sunday’s Finest founder Robert Haynes, formerly of Chicago cocktail den The Violet Hour. “You can add complexity without changing the cocktail entirely. With a split base, you can enhance the blend and showcase what’s cool about each whiskey. If we just used a 15-year bourbon, that would be cool, but it might be over-oaked. Now that slightly younger rye gives it character and makes it more assertive.”

What’s the biggest mistake when making an Old Fashioned?

Besides muddling in cherries or other fruit? (That said, if you like it that way, enjoy!)

“The most common mistake I see people making is mixing an Old Fashioned in the glass that they will be enjoying the cocktail in,” says House. “Honestly this is how I was taught. I was also taught to muddle an orange slice and day-glow cherry in the glass first. I think it’s important to mix the ingredients in a separate mixing glass, then strain it over fresh ice in a new glass. You will have a cleaner and better-balanced cocktail.”

Also? Remember to use large ice cubes. Says House: “The melt is slower and it allows one to truly sip and savor this iconic cocktail.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.