As the name would suggest, Old Fashioneds are perhaps the oldest of cocktails. The first published definition of the word “cocktail” dates back to the early 1800s and is described as “spirits of any kind, sugar, water and bitters”. “Old Fashioned” is a more elegant name for this combination of ingredients than “The First Whiskey Cocktail,” but that’s exactly what it is. The most classic preparation consisted of whiskey — namely American whiskey and, more specifically, rye — as the spirit type, and ice joined the party once refrigeration went mainstream.
The go-to preparation: to a rocks glass, add 1 cube (or teaspoon) of sugar, 2 to 3 dashes of bitters of choice and 2 ounces (60 ml) of whiskey. Fill the glass with ice (preferably one big rock), stir, add a lemon or orange twist and optional cherry. A popular variation, of course, is to muddle the cocktail cherries and sugar in the glass before proceeding to next steps. I’ll let you discuss amongst yourselves whether that’s an acceptable presentation. As a fan of cherries, I personally don’t get mad at it.
Using the basic recipe template (obviously there are tons of riffs out there made with additional modifiers like different liqueurs, bitters and/or fruits), a successful Old Fashioned is built on the sum of its rye. The expression should be well structured with some grainy heft to it, balanced spice and depth of flavor. Below are some of the bottles we like best.
This stalwart of the brand’s portfolio was my “gateway rye” back in the day, and I still gravitate towards it for cocktails because its flavor profile is so well stacked between its spice, herb and fruit notes. The product is also fairly easy to come by, though the Toasted Barrel variation, which comes out once a year or so (as it did recently), is harder to find in the wild but worth the thrill of the hunt. There’s a distinct caramel popcorn note to it that’s so delightful in an OF.
The OG of American rye brands is now available in different ABVs and age statements, but I think the sweet spot is the Bonded. At 100 proof as per American bottled-in-bond standards, it has just the right amount of rye oomph to play off a variety of bitters styles (whether spicy, nutty, fruity or aromatic) and can take on some sweetness without making the drink taste too unctuous.
This is one of the priciest options on the list, but it’s well worth it, especially considering what it takes to bring it into the world. The joint effort between Leopold Bros. head distiller Todd Leopold and Cascade Hollow master blender Nicole Austin is a blend of Leopold’s ultra nerdy Three Chamber Rye recipe — which applies an arduous distillation technique that has otherwise long gone out of practice — and George Dickel Column still rye. The result is a gleaming, multifaceted gem of a whiskey. The basic OF recipe serves to highlight its beauty, not dull it.
This expression is the brainchild of brand co-founder and master blender Heather Greene, who sources mature rye from Indiana and finishes it in ex-port wine barrels in Texas, which are then batched and blended. The art of blending achieves a rye with familiar herbal and spicy notes, with a twang of dried fruits that make for an ideal canvass for Old Fashioned recipes.
In this Angel’s Envy expression, mature rye takes a nap in casks that once held Plantation XO rum. The result is like a buttered rum candy with extra spice and a hint of herbaceousness. It’s particularly delightful when mixed with aromatic bitters (such as Angostura) and a citrus peel.
The 5 Best Ryes for a Manhattan, According to BartendersStock up on these bottles if you’re looking to make the classic whiskey cocktail
This is a 100% rye from Canada that’s matured a minimum of five years. It’s a spicy little devil, but that extra kick makes it ideal to mix with Old Fashioned recipes that lean into a fruity flavor profile. It also works well in recipes that use modifiers like liqueurs and amari.
Where and how this rye is made is a bit of a head scratcher — it’s sourced from Canada, aged in New York City and perfected in Uncle Nearest whiskey barrels in Tennessee. But what truly matters is how it tastes. Because it’s unfiltered, it’s pretty full on, with intense flavors of green apples, toasted rye bread, herbs and vanilla that awaken the palate. Open that cocktail toy chest because there’s a lot to play with here.
Here is another unfiltered rye, and it just goes to show how much this category can vary, even with similar styles. Less fruity than the one above, this 100% Nevada farm-grown rye has richer cereal notes, spice and a hint of smoke from charred oak on the finish. This is a whiskey you want in an Old Fashioned while taking in music at a jazz club.
Only one in 10 casks are selected to produce the higher proof variation of this Virginia distillery’s flagship rye. It’s a great all-purpose rye in general, but it’s particularly suited to Old Fashioneds for its “ryeness” — the slight grassiness and spice balance that has a subtle spark of heat.
This special outlier from Denmark is made from rye and a touch of barley, both of which are floor-malted in-house and bottled unfiltered. There’s a distinctly chocolatey note to it, which is so beyond delectable when mixed with the classic fruits of Old Fashioneds, orange and cherry.
Back in the early 2000s when the cocktail boom coincided with the rebirth of American whiskey, this was one of the ryes (along with Overholt above) that was so popular, it was hard to keep in stock at Astor Wines, where I was the assistant spirits buyer. This bottled-in-bond, well-structured workhorse from Heaven Hill is still one of the most popular Old Fashioned ryes, and deservedly so.
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