If someone asked me what my favorite cocktail is, it would 100% be the old fashioned.
There is something about this classic cocktail, maybe it’s because it’s so easy to make at home, or because it’s such a perfect balance of flavors, but it’s the one I go back to. Unlike many drinks with dozens of obscure liqueurs and fresh fruits, old fashioneds are easy and the supplies are always on hand.
For me, old fashioneds are the perfect drink. Simple with few ingredients that are more than the sum of its parts, and never trying to hide that it’s alcohol.
Whenever I’m at a new bar, I always order an old fashioned. The way every bar does something different with the same recipe is so interesting. Unlike ordering a specific drink that you love or something off the menu, you have a good frame of reference while letting the bar run free with their energy and creativity.
At home, I usually reach for an old fashioned as well, not just because we don’t keep fresh fruits around or dozens of specialty liqueurs, but because there’s something satisfying about perfecting something so simple.
Old fashioneds were one of the first cocktails ever developed, back in the day when the whiskey wasn’t too good and the liqueur selection was slim to nil. The old fashioned cocktail actually predates prohibition, going way back to some of the first cocktails. Originally they were made with gin, brandy, or whiskey as well, but these days, we know them only with whiskey, usually bourbon, sometimes rye.
They are smoky, spicy, a tiny bit sweet, very smooth, and incredibly strong.
The Manhattan and the old fashioned are very similar, because they both came from around the same period and more or less are the same color. For me, a manhattan tastes a little more floral, smoother, and fruit foward from the vermouth and cherries, while the old fashioned is a little darker, a little rounder and more complex tasting from the bitters. The old fashioned highlights the whiskey more as well, so it’s a little more important to use a decent one.
I drank a lot of old fashioneds to write this post. The original; with garnish, without garnish; with smoke, without smoke. I’ve also had a lot of old fashioneds – and variations on them – in a lot of restaurants. I can definitively say that it’s a lot easier to make a high end bar quality old fashioned than it is to make a restaurant quality pate de campagne, or a ramen shop quality bowl of noodles.
Choose something mid-range but not crazy good. Examples of decent, easy to find, middle-of-the-road bourbons are Bulleit or Wild Turkey. Decent ryes include Alberta Premium or Pendleton.
There is a debate about simple syrup vs sugar in making old fashioneds. Most people at home are unlikely to have simple syrup and it’s not considered traditional anyway, but I find it to make a smoother drink. Muddled sugar, meanwhile, is more convenient and provides a more weigh-y texture, but takes more care to dissolve the sugar completely.
Angostura bitters is where you want to be here. You can experiment with other bitters over time, but Angostura is the classic for a reason. While you can get Angostura bitters on Amazon, you can often also find them right next to the soda at any grocery store.
Invest in a good 2” covered ice cube tray for your cocktails. You don’t need to go crazy and make clear ice, but traditionally, old fashioneds were served with large ice cubes. A covered ice cube tray protects your ice from any stray freezer smells.
Originally, old fashioneds did not have a garnish. More modern old fashioneds are garnished with orange peels, often flamed (gotta earn that $16 old fashioned somehow). Really modern old fashioneds are often served with smoked garnishes like rosemary or cinnamon. My favorite all time garnish was literally a smoked cedar block from a drink I got in Banff.
(I asked him if he has ever burnt himself holding that block, he said: “every night”)
The old fashioned is an American cocktail, so using an American whiskey such as bourbon or rye is essential. You can use Scotch, Irish, or Japanese whiskies if you would like, but it’s both a waste and not really an old fashioned.
I prefer bourbon over rye out of respect for where the old fashioned comes from (Louisville), but rye, aka Canadian whisky, is a good change up sometimes for its spicier and harsher flavor profile.
You don’t need to (and shouldn’t) use a hugely top shelf bourbon for your old fashioned, because your bitters, sugar, and especially garnish will ruin the subtle notes you pay for in top shelf whiskey, but neither should you use something that smells like paint thinner or nail polish remover. My go to is Bulleit, mostly because I like the shape of the bottle. For an upgrade, I go Four Roses or Elijah Craig.
Old fashioneds are cocktail royalty: martinis go in martini glasses, old fashioneds go in old fashioned glasses. Not too many other cocktails can say that. Old fashioned glasses are also called rocks glasses or low ball glasses. The glass actually is older than the cocktail, so you should definitely serve them up in a good old fashioned glass.
The glasses come in singles and doubles. Unless you always drink doubles, it’s better to buy a single glass so the drink doesn’t look half empty in the glass.
The best cocktail of all time
5 from 2 votes
Add sugar, bitters, and water to the glass and stir until sugar is dissolved.
Add whiskey and give it a quick stir.
Add ice cube. Stir until cold (25-30 stirs or about 30 seconds)
Optional: For an extra smoky touch, flame a sprig of rosemary, an orange peel, or a cinnamon stick as garnish with a blow torch, then cover and allow to infuse for 30s-1 minute.
Old fashioned recipe
Amount Per Serving
% Daily Value*
Saturated Fat 0.01g0%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.