Old Fashioned

June 9th, 2007

My recent forays in to the world in gin cocktails has turned up several fantastic drinks, including the Martini and the Aviation, but there’s only so much gin you can drink before you start to wish for something a bit different. So tonight I’ve gone back to my favourite spirit (which I’m amazed I’ve yet to mention on this blog), possibly my favourite ever cocktail, and the first classic cocktail I ever made – the Old Fashioned.

The Old Fashioned is a real dinosaur, dating back to the 19th century, and has a long and somewhat unclear history. As with any cocktail this old its recipes are many and varied. All contain the essential ingredients of Bourbon, sugar, water and bitters, but also add additional ingredients, some of which work well, others that, well… don’t. Of course this presents something of a problem when trying to order an Old Fashioned at a bar, as you’re never quite sure what you might end up being served.

I learned this the hard way last year whilst on holiday in New York City. My two friends and I were at a fairly upscale restaurant (which will remain nameless) and after the main course I decided that I would skip dessert and instead order an Old Fashioned. When the waitress returned with a hi-ball glass I was a little concerned, but my Britishness held me back from querying it. What I had been given did indeed contain bourbon, but also contained soda water and a slice (not the zest) of orange, which ruined the drink I was used to. I’ve since read many similar stories, and now know to be a little more careful when ordering drinks.

The choice of bourbon can make a big difference to your Old Fashioned. Of the brands I’ve tried, I found Knob Creek and Woodford Reserve to be my favourites, and despite loving it in a Manhattan found Makers Mark a little too sweet for an Old Fashioned. Unfortunately I’m out of Knob Creek at the moment, so tonight I’ll be using Woodford.

Old Fashioned cocktail with Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Aromatic bitters and Angostura bitters bottles in background

Old Fashioned

Most recipes call for just Angostura bitters, but I find adding the Fee Brothers bitters works nicely. Similarly, some purists decry the use of orange zest, but I really like the additional layer of flavour it brings. The key to a great Old Fashioned is taking the time to stir it in the glass, which cools the drink and adds water making the bourbon more palatable. I use sugar syrup rather than regular sugar as I hate discovering a few left over granules in an otherwise smooth drink, which I’ve found can happen sometimes no matter how much you’ve stirred the drink!

As you might expect the predominant flavour in an Old Fashioned is the Bourbon. Although the amount of bitters added is tiny, their effect is definitely noticeable, helping to bring out the flavours of the Bourbon. Many consider it to be a winter drink given the “warming” properties of Bourbon, but I think it works great at any time of the year. Very simple, yet so complex, the Old Fashioned has survived during three centuries for very good reason, and is undoubtedly my favourite cocktail.

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Posted in Aromatic Bitters, Bourbon, Orange, Recipes

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24 responses to “Old Fashioned”

  1. Rick Rick says:

    Great post! Interesting use of both Angostura and Fee’s Aromatic bitters; I’ll have to give that a try. Woodford Reserve and Knob Creek are among my favorites as well. The orange peel does add such a nice aroma – give fee’s orange a try sometime for adding a hint of orange to the taste.

    Nice shot too!

    How did you get your ice so clear?

  2. Marleigh Marleigh says:

    I’m a big fan of the Woodford as well—but Maker’s in a Manhattan? Really? Perhaps I’m just a rye purist…

  3. Jay Jay says:

    Thanks Rick. I will have to try adding a dash of orange bitters in as well, I like the idea.

    No real secret regarding the ice I’m afraid… it’s just ice brought from the local supermarket. Though I say “just ice”, I’ve tried most brands available in the different supermarkets and found this to be the best one, good sized ice cubes that are nice and solid. I gave up trying to make my own a while back, I don’t have the patience to try the double/triple freezing method, and I’d always forget to refill the trays and be out of ice when I most wanted some!

    Marleigh, I desperately want to try rye, but it’s pretty scarce here in Britain. A few online shops stock it, but the cheapest I’ve found a bottle of Sazerac 6 Year Old works out to be a little under $60! I’m holding off posting about the Manhattan until I’ve tried a true rye one, but for now I find the Maker’s Mark Manhattan pretty tasty.

  4. Marleigh Marleigh says:

    Oi! That’s such a bummer. I didn’t realize rye was so hard to come by in the UK. I don’t think I’ve seen a bottle of rye retail around here for more than $25, but we’re pretty spoiled as selection goes.

  5. Jay Jay says:

    Well now you’re just making me jealous! ;)

  6. Marleigh Marleigh says:

    Maybe so, but your country has a better gin selection!

  7. Jay Jay says:


  8. Walter Walter says:

    A variation on the same theme : Rum Old-Fashioned

    orange peel
    1½ shot of medium-bodied rum
    ¼ shot sugar syrup
    2 dashes orange bitters (Regan’s or Angostura Orange)
    orange slice and maraschino cherry, for garnish

    Lightly muddle the orange peel with the rum and the syrup. Remove the peel. Add the bitters and the ice, and stir until chilled. Pour over fresh ice in an old-fashioned glass with the orange slice garnish and a cherry.

  9. Jay Jay says:

    Interesting Walter, I shall have to give that a try sometime – sounds nice.

  10. Ruby Ruby says:

    if you don’t mind a sweeter old fashioned, use gentleman jack with half a barspoon of maple syrup added is a nice variant.
    very sweet though,
    its more of a ‘lady’s old fashioned’.

  11. Jac Jac says:

    That’s funny… I’ve always found Maker’s to be too sweet for the Manhattan, and cut way back on the vermouth when I use it. I guess I like sweeter Old Fashioneds and spicier Manhattans.

    To each his own, I guess. :)

  12. How to build a basic bar + five more links - The Jolly Inebriate says:

    [...] If you don’t appreciate an Old-Fashioned you’re missing out. Jay Hepburn of Oh Gosh! tells you why. [...]

  13. John Hefner John Hefner says:

    I discovered this blog while searching for info on bitters (I’m still very much in a bitters phase), and immediately took note of this recipe. Lacking orange zest on hand, I decided to start by adding a dash of orange bitters to the empty glass, then swirled it around until they’d coated the inside. Then, instead of the regular Fee bitters, I used the aged whiskey bitters.

    Other than those, I’ve followed this recipe to the letter (well, I’ve only used Maker’s Mark thus far, and I occasionally add a cherry), and it’s since become one of my most popular drinks among friends, plus a current favorite of my own. I shall be sure to pick up Knob Creek or Woodford Reserve next time I’m stocking up to give that a go. But even with an inferior bourbon, it’s amazing. Thanks for the recipe, and keep up the good work!

  14. Jay Jay says:

    John – I’m a big fan of the orange flavours in an Old Fashioned, so I often use a dash of orange bitters and a zest twist. It works very nicely – glad you discovered that and are enjoying your Old Fashioneds!

  15. csrjl csrjl says:

    old-fashion is a wonderful drink. i use normal sugar instead of sugar syrup and desolve it with a splash of soda water. some say it takes 12 minutes to make an old-fashion. also if you like rum, you can use that instead of bourbon. a couple of drops of orange bitters is a good twist too.

  16. Mark Davis Mark Davis says:

    These days I have to order an old fashioned by asking the barman “If I asked you for an old fashioned, what would you do?”. *Sometimes* this gets the desired result of finding out how bad the drink is likely to be, and gives me an opportunity to guide the construction a bit. Other times it leads me to order a tequila.

    My bourbon of choice for old fashioned cocktails is Bulleit. I like the extra rye spice that sings along well with the bitters. Also, syrup is an important element since the sugars tend not to dissolve well in cold liquids. My recipe is here: http://whiskeybros.com/cocktails/oldfashioned


  17. Chuck Burns Chuck Burns says:

    Mark Davis, I am 100% in agreement with you on how you order an Old Fashioned. The last one I ordered at a fine hotel came out looking like a Cosmo! I asked what they did and the bartender had taken several spoonfuls of the juice from the jar of icky Maraschino cherries (you kow, red dye #5 and HFCS) and mixed it in along with the insult of topping off with soda water. To add insult to injury no bitters! I am beggining to think that bartending is becomong a lost art in the great majority of places.

    I also prefer to use simple syrup when I make an Old Fashioned. I’ve stopped muddling orange slices and cherries and simply use a slice of orange peel along with the SS and bitters. For garnish a single Luxardo cherry. Of course no soda water!

    The only place I know that I can get a decent Manhatten is at home. Nobody stocks a decent rye or decent vermouth. FWIW Sazerac 6 year, Dolin Rouge Vermouth (in 2:1 ratio) and Angostura bitters makes a great Manhatten. Wild Turkey 101 Rye makes a good stand in for the Baby Saz if needed. The Dolin Vermouths have become my favorites. As an aperitif the Blanc is outstanding and the Dry makes a great Martini and to me is the choice since NP changed their dry.

  18. Erik Nabler Erik Nabler says:

    I think that a good Old Fashioned is the best of all cocktails. I am a West Coast boy so I prefer the bourbon old fashioned as opposed to the rye. An interesting variant is that in areas of Wisconsin and Minnesota, they make the old fasioned with brand. Anyway, I like the Knob Creek best for an old fashioned. I like the twist of orange idea as opposed to muddling the fruit, but I must say that the key is the simple syrup. I try to look for a bartender who is old and crusty, been making drinks for more years than he remembers, then asking if he has simple syrup. If you get the combo of the two, odds are he can make a good old fashioned. If the bartender is young, and uses sugar, forget it. Odds are terrible that you will get a good drink. Other than that, I think angostura is the way to go but now I will have to try with the combination of bitters.

  19. Erik Nabler Erik Nabler says:

    brandy, not brand in the previous post. Too much Easter cheer.

  20. Jay Jay says:

    I rarely order Old Fashioneds when out for the reasons given above. I really do admire Robert Hess (drinkboy) for always ordering it as a first drink in a new bar, even when he knows it’s probably not going to be any good. It is a great test of a bartender though.

    Right now my favourite bitters combo is 2 dashes TBT Jerry Thomas and 1 dash Regan’s Orange, but I like to mix and match quite often – it’s fun to play around with the bitters and see how different it can make the drink.

  21. Scott Scott says:

    Jac, try your manhattan with dry vermouth instead of sweet vermouth.

    Marleigh, I’m pretty sure Bourbon is the original-recipe spirit in both the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan.

  22. Chuck Chuck says:

    Bourbon is what is called for in an Old Fashioned and Rye is the original spirit in the Manhatten.

    I will drink the Manhatten with either Bourbon or Rye but which I prefer depends on the vermouth I’m using. With Dolin Rouge I prefer Rye and with Carpano Antica I prefer Bourbon. Perhaps a Rye Manhatten with Carpano Antica would be allright if I cut way back on the Vermouth. I tyically use a 2 to 1 ratio of spirit to vermouth. The CA might be OK at 3 to 1 or 4 to 1 but I have not tried it as of yet.

    I think the Old Fashioned is a great test of a bartender – but I’m still waiting to give an A or a B. I’ve had a C or two but most are F’s.

  23. Scott Scott says:

    Back in the ’90s, when I tended bar at a country club, the ‘proper’ way to make an Old-Fashioned was to muddle bitters, a sugar cube with an orange *slice* and maraschino cherry in a splash of soda, then add ice, then fill with whiskey.

    Maple syrup seems to be the chic additive to bourbon drinks these days.

    It’s like gumbo. There are as many recipes as there are people making it.

  24. jason jason says:

    I have developed a new appreciation for the old fashioned, lately. Technically, the definition allows for the use of any base spirit, just as long as bitters and sugar are added.

    I have made old fashions with pretty much every aged spirit out there. Bourbon, rye, rum, cognac, armagnac, calvados, anejo tequila, and scotch. I find they all work, the main thing to experiment with is the choice of bitters. You usually can’t go wrong with angostura, but sometimes orange will work better. I do garnish all variations with orange peel.

    I like to try a lot of different brands of spirits out there, and unfortunately, you end up with a lot of bottles of marginal liquor as a result. The old fashioned is a great way to enjoy these “rough” bottles, as the water, sugar and bitters helps round out the rough edges.

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