If You Only Learn to Make One co*cktail, It Should Be an Old Fashioned (2024)

The Old Fashioned is arguably the most well-known whiskey co*cktail in the world. Essentially just a slug of bourbon that’s been lightly sweetened with sugar and modified with a couple dashes of bitters, it’s dead simple to make, but within this basic template is a world of opinions and flavor.

The Old Fashioned as we know it comes from an early mixed drink simply called the Whiskey co*cktail, thought to be popularized in the late 1700s when it was fashionable to add a few dashes of bitters to a glass of whiskey. The co*cktail’s creation goes hand in hand with the proliferation of both whiskey and commercial bitters, an aromatic ingredient with medicinal origins that involved steeping herbs, barks, botanicals, and other plant extracts in spirits to create a curative that could be mixed with water or other ingredients, often to aid in digestion.

Over time, several variations on the Whiskey co*cktail developed (not unlike modern bartending’s endless riffs on classic drinks), from the Improved Whiskey co*cktail’s addition of absinthe to the Fancy Whiskey co*cktail’s orange curacao. As the variations grew, those seeking the stripped-down original version took to asking for an “Old-Fashioned Whiskey co*cktail.” This order eventually evolved into a drink with ice in a rocks glass and simply became known as an Old Fashioned.

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While modern recipes often reflect the most unadorned version of this drink, bartenders as far back as Prohibition were experimenting with the serve, regularly muddling fruit such as cherries, oranges, and even pineapple into the mix. Some of these preparations persisted throughout the 20th century, and today some variations like the Wisconsin Old Fashioned still call for the addition of fruit. However, as a return to classic recipes gained popularity around the turn of the millennium, the Old Fashioned started to take on its, well, old-fashioned specs once again.

Why the Old Fashioned co*cktail Works

The three-part template of the Old Fashioned is one that’s found in countless spirit-forward and aromatic co*cktails today: spirit, sugar, and bitters. The key lies in finding the right balance between this trinity of elements, as there aren’t any other ingredients to help mask flavors or create wiggle room.

Sugar softens the whiskey, tamping down the liquor’s heat while creating a more viscous mouthfeel and allowing its subtler elements to shine through. Bitters temper the sugar’s sweetness and help add depth of flavor that keeps the drink from becoming cloying.

What creates a perfect Old Fashioned is the harmony of these three elements—each should accentuate the others’ aspects without dominating or overpowering them. That is to say, a properly made Old Fashioned shouldn’t taste sweet, nor should it taste bitter, nor should it taste overwhelmingly of straight whiskey. When you sip the drink and can’t pick out any one of these qualities over the others, you’ve got a proper Old Fashioned.

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The Best Type of Whiskey for an Old Fashioned

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Your personal preference in whiskey is more important than what’s written in old co*cktail recipe books. The Old Fashioned template is simple and broad enough that it will work with almost any style of whiskey.

With that said, bourbon is often the go-to whiskey choice for an Old Fashioned. The relatively heavy body of the mostly corn-based spirit creates structure within the co*cktail, and its natural sweetness helps counterbalance the more astringent elements of bitters. As bourbon is aged in charred new oak barrels, it tends to take on notes of vanilla and caramel, which are brought out by the addition of sugar. They also help to reduce the perceived heat of the alcohol, in turn allowing the spirit’s nuances to come through more cleanly.

Despite bourbon’s popularity, your whiskey of choice should really be tailored to the profile of the drink you desire. If you’re looking for an Old Fashioned that is spicier or with a drier finish, a rye whiskey may be the ideal choice. Fans of scotch will find that a blend or even a single malt can fit the co*cktail template well. And as shown through recipes like the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, sometimes the best whiskey for an Old Fashioned isn’t even a whiskey at all.

If You Only Learn to Make One co*cktail, It Should Be an Old Fashioned (3)


  • 1 teaspoon sugar

  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters

  • 1 teaspoon water

  • 2 ounces bourbon (or rye whiskey, if preferred)

  • Garnish: orange twist


  1. Add the sugar and bitters into a mixing glass, then add the water, and stir until the sugar is nearly dissolved.

  2. Fill the mixing glass with ice, add the bourbon, and stir until well-chilled.

  3. Strain into a rocks glass over one large ice cube.

  4. Express the oil of an orange twist over the glass, then drop into the glass to garnish.

Popular Old Fashioned Variations

Naming every derivative of the Old Fashioned could fill an encyclopedia. It could be argued that any co*cktail based on a mix of spirit, sweet, and bitter flavors—from the Negroni to the Manhattan—owes its existence to the Old Fashioned. However, if you’re looking at those that hew closely to the original recipe, here are some common Old Fashioned variations to try.

Benton’s Old Fashioned: Created by experimental co*cktail pioneer Don Lee at iconic New York City co*cktail lounge Please Don’t Tell (better known as PDT), the Benton’s Old Fashioned kick started the fat-washed spirit trend. In this case, country ham is infused into bourbon, then combined with maple syrup and bitters.

Brown Butter Old Fashioned: This New Orleans twist on the Old Fashioned uses brown sugar and a bourbon washed with brown butter to emphasize the drink’s nutty aspects and evoke the flavors of the South.

Brandy Old Fashioned (a.k.a. Wisconsin Old Fashioned): The unofficial state drink of Wisconsin, the Brandy Old Fashioned is a byproduct of Prohibition, during which muddle fruit was used to cover the off flavors of subpar spirits. The popularity of the style has endured, and remains an iconic take on the original drink.

Named for its use of Campari and Benedictine, this gin-based variation may seem to have more in common with the Negroni than a traditional Old Fashioned, but still adheres to the latter’s template in how it balances bitter, sweet, and spirited elements.

Irish Old Fashioned: From The Dead Rabbit cofounder Jack McGarry, this Irish whiskey-based Old Fashioned incorporates Benedictine as a replacement for the traditional granulated sugar.

Oaxaca Old Fashioned: The drink that helped kick off mezcal’s popularity in the U.S., the Oaxaca Old Fashioned was first created by New York bar legend Phil Ward at Death & Co, and later became a staple on the menu of his pioneering agave spirits-focused bar Mayahuel.

Rum Old Fashioned: With a base of dark rum and sweet elements of allspice dram and demerara syrup, the Rum Old Fashioned’s profile mirrors that of its whiskey-based predecessor while providing additional depth of flavor.

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If You Only Learn to Make One co*cktail, It Should Be an Old Fashioned (2024)


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