Essential Whiskey Cocktail: Old Fashioned

For such a simple drink, the Old Fashioned can ignite passionate debates—rye or bourbon, sugar cube or simple syrup, cherry or no cherry. But when it comes down to it, there’s more than one correct way to make this classic whiskey cocktail.

In the late 18th or early 19th century, if you walked into a bar, you’d order a cocktail by naming your spirit and get a mix of that spirit, sugar, bitters, and water or ice, explains drinks historian Elizabeth Pearce, owner and founder of New Orleans cocktail tour company Drink and Learn.

“But bartenders can’t leave well enough alone,” she adds. And in the post-Civil War era, vermouth and new liqueurs such as Chartreuse and maraschino were arriving from Europe. Bartenders began experimenting and adding these novel ingredients to drinks; patrons could no longer predict with certainty what the “whiskey cocktail” would contain or taste like. And so discerning drinkers began asking for a “whiskey cocktail the old fashioned way.”

By 1888, the Old Fashioned earned its own recipe among the inventive newfangled drinks in Henry Johnson’s New and Improved Illustrated Bartenders’ Manual, listing the formula as ¼ teaspoon sugar, 2 small lumps of ice, 2 to 3 dashes of bitters (Boker’s genuine only), 1-2 dashes curacoa [sic], or absinthe (if required), and 1 wine glass of whiskey, stirred and served with a squeezed lemon peel on top.

Post-Prohibition, fruit such as cherries and oranges were appearing in Old Fashioneds. (Some historians suggest the practice started during Prohibition to mask the use of low-quality illicit whiskey). Fast-forward to today, and we’re back to the old fashioned Old Fashioned: whiskey, sugar, bitters, one big rock, and a twist. Pearce has a few ideas why the simple and delicious cocktail has endured through the ages. “You don’t need a big bar to make it, it’s easy to make, and it’s forgiving—you can err a little on any side and it’s still a good drink.”

The Old Fashioned is one of the simplest whiskey cocktails. (Photo by Ian J. Lauer)

Choose Your Whiskey

The Old Fashioned is traditionally made with bourbon or rye. The latter makes for a dryer drink, and bartender Charlotte Voisey, host of The Proper Pour With Charlotte Voisey, recommends adding an extra bar spoon of sugar or simple syrup for balance. If you’re going with bourbon, Voisey suggests trying a wheated bourbon. “I like the roundness of character it brings,” she says. “And a healthy number of dashes of bitters adds spice and edge to the otherwise softer profile of the bourbon.”

Others, however, find wheated bourbon to be too herbal and prefer a corn-forward option. “The maltier, nuttier, sweeter flavors of those bourbons tend to balance well with citrus bitters and maple syrup, which are my ingredients in an Old Fashioned,” says Percy Rodriguez, director of beverage at SECOND in New York City.

Bottom line: Use the whiskey you like best since the cocktail is mostly whiskey.

Old Fashioned Recipe

  • 1 sugar cube or ½ tsp. sugar
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • 2 oz. bourbon or rye
  • Garnish: lemon or orange twist

In an old fashioned or short rocks glass, add sugar, bitters, and half a splash of water. Muddle with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved. Add whiskey and one large ice cube (or several smaller ones) and stir well. Twist the citrus peel to release the oils and run it around the rim of the glass, then drop it into the cocktail.

Top Tips

Use the proper glass
Yes, you need a sturdy Old Fashioned or rocks glass. “You build the drink in the glass and need a really strong bottom because you’re muddling the sugar with bitters,” Pearce explains.

Muddle well
Add half a splash of water, Pearce suggests, because the bitters alone aren’t enough to dissolve the sugar. But only a half a splash—you want to wet the sugar, not drown it.

Use one big ice cube
Add one large rock to the drink. It will chill the cocktail without watering it down too quickly.

Make It Your Own

  • Swap out whiskey for brandy, rum, mezcal, tequila, or gin.
  • Try different bitters, such as orange or Peychaud’s.
  • Replace the sugar cube with simple syrup, maple syrup, agave, or any sweetener you prefer.
  • Muddle an orange wheel, cherry, or pineapple wedge with the sugar.

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