Want to get a group of whiskey cocktail enthusiasts in a fun brawl? Claim to have the perfect old fashioned recipe. You’ll never see a more lively discussion than a debate about muddling, base spirits (yes, in some states it’s made with brandy) and proper use of bitters. There might be punches thrown, but there will definitely be insults traded.
Let me give you some background, then share what I believe is the perfect old fashioned recipe. If you’re in a hurry, you can slip down to the recipe here.
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Origins of the Old Fashioned
The old fashioned is one of the oldest, if not the oldest whiskey cocktail on record. Whiskey the 1700s and 1800s was an easy way to take excess grain and turn it into a useful commodity that was cheap to store and transport. Given its origins, early whiskey was not palatable like today’s whiskey. It was likely unaged whiskey, sometimes with flavorings added for aroma, flavor, or simply to extend it. And it was often rough, unpalatable whiskey.
But grains grew better than grapes in early America – and farmers often turned to whiskies or fruit brandies to take their excess product and turn it into spirits. In that era there were no rules or regulations on what went into whiskey (or any spirit), or what could be called a whiskey. And there was no FDA making sure products sold to consumers was safe.
How did people drink those spirits, as rough and harsh as they were? Well, one thing you could do with any harsh spirit to make it more flavorful was to add a bit of sugar to it. Sugar could sweeten the spirit and adding a bit of water to it cut down the harsh bite of it. Add a little ice to cut down on the heat, add a few bitters – they were often considered the medicines of the time. and you have your earliest cocktails.
In fact, early bartenders listed the ingredients of “cocktails” as spirits, bitters, water and bit of sugar in them. Just like an old fashioned! Although whiskey was not identified as the sole spirit of choice, it was often in use in states, with rye whiskey more readily available than bourbon in early American history.
The first mention of the whiskey cocktail that became the old fashioned was in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide: How to Mix Drinks in 1862. It called for whiskey, gum syrup, bitters and ice.
Later bartenders added liqueurs like orange curacao, cherry liqueur or absinthe to cocktails. Discerning customers would request an “old fashioned” cocktail without the addition of liqueurs and fruits – simply whiskey, sugar, bitters and ice.
The history of the Old Fashioned is a glorious story, and I highly recommend Robert Simonson’s Old Fashioned book. I could go on, but I recommend you just get a copy for yourself and read it.
Fun fact: it was considered a morning cocktail, much like the mimosa today. You had your ration of whiskey, your medicinal bitters and you were ready to head out to work for the day.
When did Muddling Old Fashioneds Start?
The basic old fashioned came from that original whiskey cocktail in the 1800s, but when did the addition of fruit and muddling start? Muddling was first recorded in the 1880s – bartenders were using lumps of sugar with a bit of water instead of prepared gum syrup. They would muddle the sugar and bitters, add whiskey and ice, occasionally a lemon peel. Bartenders served it with a spoon to scoop out that tasty, whiskey-infused sugar left in the bottom of the glass.
The addition of fruit and the muddling of the fruit in with the whiskey probably occurred at during Prohibition, when drinks were sweetened and lightened so the ladies might enjoy them more.
By the late 1930s plenty of people were complaining of the state of that sweet, fruit-filled old fashioned. They were also complaining of the addition of a bit of soda water as well. Things still controversial even today. But enough people liked the taste of it that those fruity, lighter versions persist today.
Why Brandy Old Fashioneds?
Wisconsin Old Fashioneds are made with brandy. If you head north and you’re used to a whiskey old fashioned you’ll be surprised when you have the cocktail set before you. It’s generally a muddled fruit, brandy-based old fashioned with a little bit of sprite or sour soda on top.
Robert Simmonson’s book mentions that the 1893 World’s Exposition in nearby Chicago showcased Korbel’s brandy. All this love of brandy may stem back from that event. Maintaining that love of brandy old fashioneds is the Wisconsin tradition of Friday night fish-frys where brandy old fashioneds were a favorite tipple.
How to Screw Up an Old Fashioned
In a cocktail with very few elements, one piece out of place can throw off the balance and whole flavor of the cocktail. Much depends on the choice of whiskey. Whatever whiskey you choose, make sure both the bitters, the simple syrup and garnish all work well together.
The easiest and most enjoyable way to figure this out would be experimentation where you change just one element in a series of cocktails and see which one suits you and your guests’ palates the best.
I’m a purist at heart, so here are my 3 no-nos for an old fashioned:
#1: Adding Soda
Put down the soda, the seltzer, the lemon-lime soda. Just set it down and back away. The beauty of well-crafted old fashioned is not only the way that it tastes on the first sip, but the way it mellows as the large chunk of ice dilutes in it. Adding soda to the cocktail might make the first sips very palatable for some, but the cocktail quickly becomes watered down and muted in flavor.
We want to taste the whiskey in the old fashioned. It’s why we’re here, after all.
#2: Using the wrong ice
In the original descriptions of the whiskey cocktail, it often mentioned that it required one large lump of ice. Today you’re as likely to get one large cube as you are a glass full of smaller ice cubes. Even at home, making the cocktail for an evening cocktail, it’s easy to reach for refrigerator ice.
But, using large cubes in your old fashioned does a few things. It chills the cocktail without overdiluting it. By using one large cube instead of many smaller cubes, you’re reducing the amount of surface area between the whiskey and ice. This means less water will be diluting into your cocktail each minute. While some continued dilution is expected, use large ice to keep your final few sips a cocktail instead of a watered down soup.
Using one large cube, especially a clear one, also means that the ice melts more slowly. The absence of those tiny imperfections in clear ice that make ice cloudy also make it melt slower and keep it from cracking and splintering as the cocktail is added.
Did I mention I’m a purist? I’d rather not have a muddled old fashioned. Especially not one loaded with slices of oranges and cherries mashed up into the bottom of a cocktail. My problem with the muddled sugar is that the sugar will never dissolve completely, and if you take a sip through a straw, you’ll get overly sweet sips that crunch in your mouth as you taste the cocktail. Or, if you sip from the rim, it might taste less sweet than it needs to be until you get to the last few sips, crunchy and candy-like.
I prefer to use a simple syrup matched to the whiskey I’m using. For me, demerara or, for some whiskies, light brown sugar simple are the best ways to elevate whiskey in the cocktail.
Like I said, those are fighting words to some people. But in my mind, for my palate, consistency of flavor over time in a cocktail wins. Using a simple lets you achieve that consistency and turn out a beautiful drink every time.
So – the Perfect Old Fashioned
I’ll give you this recipe with a caveat. I believe that each person’s palate is different, and that what tastes best to one person is not necessarily what will taste best to another.
To me, this recipe epitomizes the old fashioned in all its glory. It’s spirit forward, celebrating the whiskey. Its notes of fruit and aromatics from the bitters build up and complement those inherent qualities of the whiskey. The simple syrup backs up the sweetness of the whiskey but doesn’t overwhelm it, especially as the ice melts and the drink dilutes slightly.
A touch of orange essential oils brightens up the cocktail at the first few sips, especially before much dilution has happened. And that large ice cube will keep your drink chilled without watering it down.
For whiskey, I’m using 100 proof Old Forester, but I also love this combination with Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond.
If you’d like to try some other, non-traditional old fashioneds, head to this category on the blog, or just click on one of these favorites I go back to time and again: Tiki Coffee Old Fashioned, Bold Old Fashioned, Breakfast Old Fashioned – the Wakey Wakey.
Perfect Old Fashioned
- 2 oz bourbon – Old Forester 100 or Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond
- ½ oz light brown sugar simple syrup
- 1 dash orange bitters (I used Woodford Reserve Orange Bitters)
- 1 dash angostura bitters
- Combine simple syrup, bitters and bourbon in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir 30 times, then strain into a rocks glass with one large ice cube. Express an orange zest over the top of the cocktail and add it to the glass.