The classic Old Fashioned cocktail recipe is simple and goes a long way back to the 19th century. It's the kind of drink that highlights your spirit merely by slightly twisting its taste.
Besides the Whiskey Sour, the Whiskey Old Fashioned probably is the most influential Whiskey cocktail in history.
The first time this cocktail got mentioned was as early as 1806. Yet, it took another 80 years before people regularly referred to it as an Old Fashioned.
The Old Fashioned is one of the cornerstone cocktails in modern mixology and is based on Whiskey. The sweetness and cocktail bitters make it smoother than many other Whiskey cocktails.
Still, the original taste of the Whiskey is not hidden but enhanced. And despite it being such a classic, there is a steadily growing number of variations and alternations of the base spirit.
History of the Old Fashioned Cocktail
The Old Fashioned was one of the first cocktails - if not the first cocktail - long before advanced bartending techniques were a thing.
As far as we know today, the first written mention of the word cocktail appeared in a US newsletter called The Farmers Cabinet.
Then, three years later, in 1806, the first written explanation of the term cocktail was given by The Balance and Columbian Repository. And they defined a cocktail as a "concoction of spirits, bitters, water, and sugar". Pretty close to an Old Fashioned, isn't it?
Yet, the name Old Fashioned didn't come up before about 60 years later. In the meantime, the initial ingredients as mentioned in The Balance and Columbian Repository were twisted, changed, and modified a lot.
At the time, a cocktail wasn't a term to use for a whole category of drinks. It was more like there was that one thing you would call a cocktail.
By the 1860s, the cocktail had changed, and additional ingredients like Curaçao, Absinthe, and other liqueurs were part of it. But slowly, as so often, people started to remember -and mix- the initial version again. And they referred to it as "Old Fashioned".
Ingredients of an Old Fashioned Cocktail
The ingredients for making an Old Fashioned are pretty much what they had been in 1806: spirit, bitters, water, and sugar. For the classic Old Fashioned cocktail, the spirit base is Whiskey.
The bitter part usually is Angostura bitters, and the water used to be still water in the old days but is now the sparkly soda water.
Which Whiskey for an Old Fashioned?
That's quite an interesting question, actually. An Old Fashioned typically contains Bourbon Whiskey, and most recipes out there also ask for Bourbon. But it works with virtually any Whiskey, too.
As the cocktail enhances the flavor of the Whiskey, make sure you like its taste. If asked to describe this classic cocktail in one sentence, I would say: an Old Fashioned preserves the typical taste of your Whiskey, but sweetness and a kind of warmth are added, making it even tastier.
Here are some Whiskey types to try:
Old Fashioned with Scotch: Using a quality Scotch is absolutely worth trying. However, balancing the aromas of Scotch and Angostura bitters can be tricky. A good to get the flavor right is to choose a warm Scotch and combine it with chocolate bitters.
Old Fashioned with smoky Whiskies: Smoky Whiskies (usually also Scotch) have a distinctive flavor and are not for everyone. But if you can handle the smokiness, they work fantastic in an Old Fashioned.
But don't go all the way in terms of smokiness. I wouldn't choose a Lagavulin 16, for example. Better opt for a Bowmore or Talisker. Same as for Scotch in general, replace Angostura with chocolate bitters for better results.
Old Fashioned with Rye Whiskey: That's a highlight! Rye pairs exceptionally well with the Bitters, and its spiciness also works as a bridge to the orange flavors.
Using a Rye instead of a Bourbon doesn't alter the intent of the original recipe too much. But it still adds an exciting flavor to this classic.
Soda water in Old Fashioned
The original Old Fashioned recipe as requires water. But with time, more recipes with soda water or without water came up. Probably because of the increased availability of ice cubes, which also work as a kind of dilution.
However, I prefer my Old Fashioned with a splash of soda water. I only recommend leaving it off when using simple syrup instead of a sugar cube.
If you do the traditional recipe based on a sugar cube, I strongly advise you always use a splash of soda. It makes the muddling and mixing way easier.
Bitters in an Old Fashioned
Traditionally, an Old Fashioned is made with Angostura bitters. However, there are plenty of bitters your can use in an Old Fashioned. Check out our hand-picked list of the best bitters for making an Old Fashioned.
Garnish for an Old Fashioned Cocktail
Garnishes weren't a part of the very first Old Fashioned. They came up around the 1920s and 1930s when cocktails and mixology became a boost due to prohibition. So here are some classy Old Fashioned garnishes.
Orange or lemon peel
While traditional recipes ask for lemon peel, I believe the best fit is an orange peel. Orange flavors work better in combination with the warm notes of the Whiskey.
Pro tip when using citrus peel: press it before adding it to your Old Fashioned to release essential oils. That will add a beautiful smell to your cocktail, enhancing the whole experience.
You can also swipe the peel around the rim after pressing it together to increase the orange aroma further.
Add a cherry to Old Fashioned?
An Old Fashioned often is served with a cherry on top. However, this is not traditional, and I don't really see a need for it. -Especially not when you take those cheap, artificially tasting cherries from the supermarket.
So if you want a cherry in your drink, go with a genuine Maraschino cherry.
But even quality Maraschino Cherries are not essential to complement this classic drink. Already the recipe with just an added orange peel is enough to make the flavors shine.
Alternative spirits to use in Old Fashioned Cocktail
The term Old Fashioned not only describes a cocktail. It also describes how to prepare the drink based on a sugar cube, spirit, and bitters. Therefore, you can use almost any other liquor to create this classic drink.
The best matches are barrel-aged spirits, though, like Rum or Cognac. But Tequila, Gin, or Mezcal are some neat possibilities, too.
Hundreds of different variations are mixed to celebrate it, and it's especially popular in bars and on social media.
How to replace Cocktail bitters
Not at all. Seriously, there's no way you can replace the cocktail bitters. If you don't have them, don't make an Old Fashioned. There are plenty of other recipes for Whiskey cocktails you can try instead.
If you want to make an authentic Old Fashioned, order some bitters online or buy them at a local store if they have them in stock.
- 2 oz Whiskey Bourbon or Rye
- 1 pcs Sugar cube
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 splash Soda water
- Place the sugar cube in an old fashioned glass and wet it with Angostura bitters.
- Add a tiny splash of soda water and crush the cube with a wooden muddler.
- Add a large, clear ice cube and gently pour the whiskey over it.
- Garnish it with an orange peel.